Emery, who is now in her 80s, took a break from the show to play Mother Dear in Betty Blue Eyes, for which she has just been nominated in the Whatsonstage.com Awards for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical (the award she won in 2006 for Billy Elliot).
Her other theatre credits include Hard Times at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Martin Guerre at the Prince Edward Theatre and Cats at the New London Theatre. On television her credits include Rentaghost, Julia Jekyll and Harriet Hyde and Radio Roo all for the BBC. She also made guest appearances in her late brother’s hit comedy series The Dick Emery Show.
So, you’re back…
Yes. My contract ended last November and then I did Betty Blue Eyes, which we all expected would run and run but finished after six months. And then my agent said they would like me to come back and play Grandma, and would I consider it? My immediate reaction was that I’d love to.
Was it bittersweet for you to leave Betty?
Yes it was. I worked my socks off with that tongue-twister of a song. It was a bugger to learn. But we had an awful lot of fun - it was a wonderful cast, a beautifully done show and a perfect theatre, rather like the Victoria Palace.
When you first opened in Billy Elliot, did you think it would run for years?
I don’t know if I had that sort of mentality at the time, I was just so happy to be doing it and to have been chosen, because the girl who was originally supposed to play Grandma left. Her letter saying how sorry she was at leaving was on the stage door when I came in to start rehearsing. After six months of research and rehearsals, going down the mines and all that sort of thing, she walked away.
Is it fair to call your career a bit of a slow burn?
A slow burn in a way, yes. I started as a dancer. I went to Buddy Bradley’s dance school, and because I couldn’t afford the classes I used to teach for him. And then we formed a dance group so I travelled around the world with that for years. I was very busy, mostly because I was very good at laundry! Then I fell in love with somebody and he said you can’t dance all your life, so I started singing and then acting, which was terrifying at first, doing repertory where you learn one play while you’re performing another.
What are your career highlights?
I had a great time doing a summer season in Great Yarmouth with the On the Buses cast. I've done a lot of that sort of thing, doing a lot of not very important work, but it was great fun. And the children’s television, that was good fun as well, with Jeremy Swan. I heard they were doing Rentaghost in America so I asked my agent about it and he said, "I’m sure they’ll find a cameo for you darling". But I’m far too old to play Ethel now.
Was it always expected that you’d go into show business?
Well Dick did entertainments in the army and got into it that way. Our father was very funny, an absolute riot. My mother was a dancer and Dick’s mother was a singer, so we both had strong performing influences. There was quite an age gap between us but we stayed pretty close and I did actually work with him on the TV show. We both followed our own paths but I suppose there must be something in the genes.
Have any younger members of the family followed the entertainment path?
My niece has got two children, a boy and a girl, and the boy is doing stand-up, DJ-ing and teaching as well. So yes, it appears it has gone down to another generation.
How long are you contracted in Billy Elliot for?
I’ve signed for a year. We’ll see if they want to keep me, and indeed if I can carry on. I would love to do it forever, quite honestly.
Billy Elliot is currently booking at the Victoria Palace Theatre to 15 December 2012.