Helen Fraser is a bad girl in Norwich panto
Bad Girls actress Helen Fraser is on home soil for Christmas, appearing in Sleeping Beauty at the Theatre Royal, having spent most of the year stripping off in the national tour of Calendar Girls. ANDREW CLARKE finds out why she loves playing the villain.
Helen Fraser knows that villains are always the best parts to have.
Not only has she been cast as the wicked queen in Sleeping Beauty at the Norwich Theatre Royal but for eight years she played the meanest woman on television senior prison officer Sylvia Hollamby – known to all the inmates as Bodybag in Bad Girls.
Meeting Helen in real life is a bit of a shock because she is nothing like her wicked on-screen alter-ego. She is bubbly and friendly.
She has just finished a tour of Calendar Girls and is anxious to keep her new figure. 'I'm not as fit as I was,' she confides. 'When I was doing the Bad Girls musical on stage in the West End, I think I was fittest that I have ever been. I would love to get myself back in shape again and some classes here would be a good place to make a start.'
Although Helen has always been regarded as a straight actress, gracing the stage in a West End musical was a dream come true. 'It was magical,' she said. 'I loved every minute of it. I had always wanted to be part of a West End musical and I even got my own solo number – a big fantasy number, a real showstopper which was tremendous fun to do.'
After stripping off in Calendar Girls she has returned to the stage at Norwich Theatre Royal, to get her teeth into another delicious villain Sleeping Beauty's wicked step-mother for the theatre's annual pantomime.
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'It's strange because I am a relative newcomer to the world of panto. Until about 10 years ago I was always busy filming or doing something else at Christmas. Then suddenly I was free and I was asked if I wanted to do a panto and I thought why not?
'To show you how na�ve I was. I was talking to my friend Roy Hudd, who is a real panto expert and he asked me what my turn was? I said: 'pardon?' He said: 'Your turn, your turn. Your speciality bit. You're a star; you've got to do your turn.' Apparently it was the part where they stop the show for five minutes for the star to do a bit of their act. I'm an actress, I don't have an act. My act is in the script, so Roy was very kind and came up with some business for me to do as my turn.
'He wrote me this little speech and there I was doing my stern routine shouting at the audience 'I hate all nice boys and girls,' and they absolutely loved it.'
In her latest role Helen is in the capable hands of another panto expert Richard Gauntlett, who not only plays The Dame, but he also wrote the script.
'It's a whole new approach to Sleeping Beauty. It's giving the traditional fairytale some new energy. It's set in the Victorian era and takes place partly in a girls boarding school and I play the evil Queen Bracken who masquerades as a teacher to find this beautiful princess who is right under her nose.'
She said that it's a show that blends the modern with the traditional. And, as with any panto, there's plenty of running about and bits of business to keep everyone on their toes.
'Rehearsals are exhausting but great fun,' says Helen, who is relishing the opportunity to be a villain again.
'Oh, you get all the best bits, all the best lines. It is tremendous fun being the baddy. It's an odd sensation to have everyone booing and hissing at you. They hate you but they also love you at the same time. It's like you are being given permission to be bad. Children love that.'
But she admits that you do have to be careful. 'I was playing Sleeping Beauty in Sheffield and we were doing this booing and hissing routine which actually stopped the show.
'I thought okay we've had enough of this now, we need to get the plot going again. But, there was this one child, very gobby and very forward, who wouldn't let it drop. So I turned round in my best bad fairy voice said: 'If you don't shut up I'll take your sweets away.'
'Of course, she then burst into tears and I was mortified, so you do have to be very careful.'
But, by and large, being the villain means that you have permission to enjoy being bad — very bad indeed.
Helen got more than a little of that sensation while playing Bodybag in Bad Girls, one of the few characters to go all the way through the series.
She was the cruel, exacting warder who viewers loved to hate and yet at the same time she became something of a gay icon – something Helen remains thrilled about.
'I have a gay friend who told me that I have a huge gay following – they like my stern character apparently.'
Although she has specialised in stern characters in recent years, she says that they are a joy to play because she can work out all her angst and frustrations on screen leaving her to happily breeze through the rest of her life with a sunny disposition.
Born in Oldham, Helen has had a long and distinguished career working extensively in film, television and theatre.
Recently, she has had two huge upheavals in her life. Firstly her husband, Oscar-winning sound-recordist Peter Handford died suddenly which then prompted her to leave the rural splendour of her home in the Suffolk countryside for the practical considerations of living in Ipswich.
'After Peter died, I suddenly felt very isolated. Where we lived we had to drive everywhere. I had to drive five miles just to get a paper. We've had one or two bad winters recently and I suddenly became concerned about being snowed in. Also, a lot of my friends moved away at that time, so I took the decision to move. Now I'm living in a town centre. I have the Co-op within walking distance and I have my friends close by.
'It was a huge decision but it was the snow that clinched it. I had visions of having to dig my car out and slipping and sliding my way to the shops. I thought I had to do something, it broke my heart, of course, but it was the right decision.
'It's different. It's noisier than I have been used to. I hate the traffic but it's a place I know well, so it's not like moving to an entirely new area.'
Helen moved to Suffolk in 1969 and together with husband Peter Handford converted some old farm cottages in Wickham Skeith into their home.
The pair met on the film set of Billy Liar. Peter was recording the sound for the John Schlesinger film and Helen was playing Billy's long-suffering girlfriend Barbara opposite Tom Courteney.
Location shooting in Bradford was freezing and during scenes in Undercliffe Cemetery Peter stole his way into Helen's heart by loaning her his coat to wear in-between takes.
Having moved to East Anglia, life was busy for the pair as Peter was working on Richard Attenborough's Oh What A Lovely War – dangling a microphone off Felixstowe pier to record seashore sound effects – while Helen was working on such diverse projects as playing Lulu in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and starring on television as Lampwick's daughter in The Dick Emery Show.
For her role in the Theatre Royal's panto this year she is coming up with a new persona.
'This is my fourth Sleeping Beauty. Normally I am Fairy Bodybag but she is very north country. This year my evil queen is very upper crust and talks with a cut glass accent – very posh and she teaches voice production at this school.'
She said that she is relishing rehearsals because it is offering audiences something special. 'It's so different and so clever from the previous versions I have been in. We're really having fun with it.'
She said that one of the most demanding aspects of the production is the fact that the dialogue is delivered in comic verse which means that the actors have to be really spot on with their lines and their cues.
'There's no paraphrasing or adlibs,' laughs Helen. 'The verse isn't easy for us but from an audience's point of view it's a hoot. Really great fun.'
She said that the script has been taken down from a shelf and dusted off. Richard Gauntlett writes a new script every year, so it's completely bang up-to-date which means there's plenty for both adults and children to enjoy.
'It's like no other pantomime I have seen or read. It's very original. It's a good mix of old and new. Richard is known as being a bit of an authority on panto, so he weaves in all these different elements which make the show come alive.
'I first met Richard when I was doing my Vesta Victoria show. He was doing the same circuit and was always there doing a turn. I think he was doing a Dan Leno show at the time and he was very authoritative. He knows the classic music hall and the variety world inside out.'
Helen says that it's wonderful to be back on East Anglian soil again. 'But, it's wonderful to be working close to home. Norwich is just up the road and the Theatre Royal is such a lovely venue to perform in.
'When I was on tour with Calendar Girls, it was the driving that really did me in. It was really hard to get back to pick up the post and grab a clean pair of knickers, so spending Christmas being bad in Norwich is going to be an absolute joy.'
? Sleeping Beauty runs at Norwich Theatre Royal until January 15, �19-�5, under-3s free, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk
? Limited performances tickets �17-�5. Over-60s/under-18s and group concessions.