Anita Dobson: 'There are more roles for women than there used to be'

The actress on her role in NST City’s brand new theatre and why leaving ”EastEnders” wasn’t a difficult decision

Anita Dobson
Anita Dobson
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Legendary actress Anita Dobson cut her teeth on TV in the early 80s and broke out into the national consciousness as the alcoholic pub landlady Angie Watts in EastEnders in 1985. Since leaving Albert Square in 1988, she has appeared on stage, TV and film as well as releasing a hit single which got to number four in the UK singles chart.

On stage her work includes the National Theatre’s production of Frozen, for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actress, Mama Morton in Chicago, and Gertrude in Hamlet. Dobson joined the tenth anniversary cast of Wicked in 2016, playing Madame Morrible. She’s currently starring in brand new play The Shadow Factory, written by Howard Brenton for the new NST City Theatre in Southampton. Here she explains what draws her to a role.

My parents fought in World War Two, so I knew lots of war stories. My mum was a WAAF and my father was in the army, but I didn’t know about the Spitfire factory in Southampton, which is what Shadow Factory is about. It’s set in Southampton and follows what happens when a Spitfire factory there is bombed and the government then requisitions businesses in order to use premises to make different parts of the Spitfires. Parts were made in laundries, garages, manor houses and shops all over the city and then put together on Eastleigh Airfield.

The show has had one of the longest technical run I’ve ever been part of. We’re opening the first show in the brand new NST City space, and it’s quite an unusual layout. There is a brand new lighting rig which has never been used before in small theatre spaces. It’s been a very unusual journey, but to do a new play in these circumstances has been amazing to be part of.

If you haven’t got good bricks and mortar, you can’t make a good house. It’s the same with a text: it doesn’t matter how good the actors or directors are, if the text isn’t any good it’s not going to be as successful as you wish. When I was younger I thrived on new work, working with new writers and for me to find a new role, is so exciting. The script is what attracts me to a role.

It wasn’t a hard decision to leave EastEnders. I wasn’t young when I came to Angie and I always knew there was a point I would have to leave. It was a role of a lifetime, I connected with her because I come from where she came from and I know women like her. But I wanted to take the role and see if it would help me into a better place in my career. I had also played so many different forms of being drunk that I thought I would have to start playing them again and I didn’t want to do that.

There are roles for women out there, because I think it’s changing. Women are much more potent in the workplace and are being taken more seriously. They should get the same salaries as men and be treated equally. I think there are lots more women writers, directors, so the roles are starting to creep back, which is healthy.

I’d have been very sad had I not played in Hello, Dolly!. It was such a joyous part of my career. I had never really considered doing it, but as soon as they offered it I thought: 'Oh my god yes'. It was the same with Wicked. When I first saw the show I thought I would love to play Madame Morrible so when they asked me to play in the tenth anniversary run there was no contest, I obviously wanted to do it.

The Shadow Factory runs at the NST City, Southampton until 2 March.