Anita Dobson is best known to television viewers at Angie Watts from EastEnders, a part she played from 1985 to 1988. Since hitting the big time, she has enjoyed many small screen roles, including parts in The Bill, New Tricks, Casualty, Urban Gothic, Hearts and Bones, Sunburn, Doctors, Holby City, The Last Detective and The Stretch. She was also the subject of This Is Your Life.
On the big screen, Dobson has appeared in movies Dangerous Obsession, The Titchbourne Claimant, The Revengers’ Comedy, Beyond Bedlam, Seaview Knights, Need, The Euphoric Scale and Charlie.
But Dobson says her first love is the stage. She received an Olivier Award nomination for Frozen at the National Theatre, in which she played a mother whose ten-year-old daughter was murdered, and also received acclaim for her role in The Island of Slaves at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Her other London play credits have included Three Sisters at the Royal Court, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme at the National, Kvetch at the Garrick, My Lovely...Shayna Maidel at the Ambassadors, Charley's Aunt at the Aldwych and The Vagina Monologues at the Arts.
Dobson has also starred in musicals including The Pajama Game at the Victoria Palace (also at Birmingham Rep and Princess Of Wales, Toronto), Chicago (in which she played Mama Morton) at the Adelphi, and Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Shaftesbury, for which she won a Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Award for Best Takeover in a Role.
The actress is now turning her attention back to the classics with English Touring Theatre’s new production of Hamlet. She plays Gertrude, the Queen of Denmark and mother of the protagonist, played by Ed Stoppard (son of playwright, Sir Tom.)
Date & place of birth
Born 29 April 1949 in Stepney, London.
Webber Douglas Academy.
Lives now in
First big break
EastEnders was the biggest and the one that was the most life-changing because it took me from being a jobbing actress to being on the front page of every newspaper over night, which was huge. I don’t think big breaks are quite so noticeable in the theatre. There have been some wonderful plays on stage that barely even get recognised. It’s more of a slow growth, getting to the top in theatre. It doesn’t change things over night, you gradually become better known. Doing a play like Frozen was a bit of a change for me, but it was great to be doing the stuff I started out doing when I left drama school. With Hamlet, I feel I’ve come home because I’ve always loved Shakespeare. I really love all the emotional, heavy stuff, so this is a really happy place to be for me - even though there is nothing happy about the play.
Career highlights to date
I can’t remember them all, there have been lots of highlights. I’m very lucky because I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve done, from Thoroughly Modern Millie to Frozen and Chicago - lots and lots of things!
What do awards mean to you?
With awards it’s like being given a sweetie really - it’s not important, but it’s just a very nice thing to happen. It’s someone saying “well done, we’re proud of you”, and it’s very lovely to be told that. I loved getting my Whatsonstage.com Award because I had never done a take-over in a role before and to be acknowledged in that way was wonderful.
What made you first decide to become an actor?
I think it was always there. When I was little, my parents took me at about age four to see a pantomime. I performed the whole thing along with the actors, in the aisle - which I’m sure thrilled them! My grandfather said I had the sawdust in my blood from then. I think my parents always thought I’d do it. I looked into lots of other things first but always came back to acting as that is what I love - so parents are always right.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I took four years out to explore lots of different things, but I think the one I would have stuck with, apart from acting, is therapy. I wanted to be a therapist to help people. People fascinate me, I love getting into their heads - that’s probably why I like acting. I’d like to help people to understand themselves better. I think that’s what you’re doing as an actor - you put life on to the stage and help people by telling stories. Often drama is used in therapy to help people re-enact painful moments to overcome them. I might also have been a teacher because I get on well with children. I have got three stepchildren.
Given your success on screen, why do you like to regularly return to the stage?
I think it’s good for an actor to return to the stage. I love TV, I adore it. But if you do it for too long, you don’t improve because you’re only playing to a camera. In theatre, the audience tells you if your timing is on or off, and it’s so good to get out in front of a live audience.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Festen. I thought it was absolutely riveting. It was so shattering to me I wanted to ring up the Danish School of Film and ask if I could work with them straight away! It was a brilliantly conceived piece, and what a story! Fantastic. I also liked Don Carlos, that was very good. But Festen was everything theatre should be.
I don’t have a favourite, I just love people. I think that’s unreal in a way, the concept of a favourite, because you don’t have one best person - everyone in your life contributes something different.
I could name some but then I'd think “oh no I’ve missed someone out”. Most of my jobs have been with wonderful directors. I’ve been blessed because they all really lifted my game.
Again, I love loads - Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde, Shakespeare - I’d have to list them all! I love this business, I love every aspect of it because it is constantly fascinating and constantly changing. Whichever playwright I’m keenest on at a particular time reflects that.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I don’t really have any particular ambitions, it totally depends on what comes up. I decide whether to do plays or not when they come along based on whether they are wonderful stories. In some cases, like with Frozen, I know immediately I want to do it.
What advice would you give to the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Can we stop having all this reality TV and have more drama? They say it’s what people want, but it isn’t – it’s what they’re given so they have to put up with it. I don’t want to watch people sleeping; I want stories, things that will lift us out of ourselves and give us hope for the future, to make us feel good and think about things. Drama should challenge people. It shouldn’t be something you just sit gormlessly in your armchair looking at. It should make you say “God, I saw this play and it was amazing!” We need more funding for the arts and less cheap TV. Let’s do less better rather than washing everything down with lots of rubbish.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I don’t particularly want to swap places with anybody really. That’s a fascinating question, but I like my life and don’t know who else I’d like to be. I don’t think I spend time looking at ifs and buts and maybes. I always just try to enjoy what’s happening in my life now.
I don’t read as much as I would like to, there’s not time for everything nowadays. As I read plays a lot, in my spare time I like things that don’t require too much concentration – fantasy, romance and bodice-rippers really. I’m very easy to please. I like champagne and roses and bodice-rippers - typical woman!
Favourite holiday destinations
Somewhere sunny and beautiful with blue skies and seas and nice friendly people.
Why did you want to accept the role of Gertrude in this production of Hamlet?
I wanted to do Shakespeare and I think Gertrude’s a fascinating character. She’s in an impossible situation. She loves Hamlet too much and she’s really torn. This production is brilliant because it’s simple and true to the play. We’ve trimmed away some of the stuff that’s not readily understandable and made it very accessible, which I think people will like because it is all about the story, and that’s the main thing. The production is also very traditional with the original text and in traditional practice.
Why do you think Shakespeare is still relevant to modern audiences?
Shakespeare is so relevant because his plays are just brilliant stories. He says everything you could ever feel about everything - jealousy, love, hatred, betrayal - and he says it all so eloquently you wonder if there’s any need to ever say it any other way.
What’s your favourite line from Hamlet?
I don’t really have a favourite line from this play at the moment, but one of my all-time favourite Shakespeare quotes, which is actually from Twelfth Night, is: “She never told her love / But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud / Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought / And with a green and yellow melancholy / She sat like patience on a monument / Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?”
What do you like/dislike most about being on tour?
I dislike being away from home. I toured a lot more when I was younger so now I don’t want to be away from home. But this tour is great because it’s commutable for half of it. Touring does force you to get very close to the company and that’s always a good thing for a show.
What are your future plans?
After this, I’ll be going from the sublime to the ridiculous as I’m in Santa Clause - The Musical at Southampton for Christmas - so that’s going from really deep drama to highly entertaining. I’m looking forward to it.
- Anita Dobson was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Hamlet opened on 23 September 2005 at Oxford Playhouse, and continues to Guildford, Richmond, Cornwall, York and Brighton, where it concludes on 26 November 2005.