Brookside, Corrie and directing: Sue Jenkins talks to Northern Soul
TV soaps have produced many iconic female characters, effortlessly coping with philandering partners, blackmailing bosses and notorious neighbours. Brookside Close resident Jackie Corkhill had her share of heartbreak but for Sue Jenkins, the actress who played her for 11 years, it was a dream role.
Jenkins has since played a wide range of parts on stage, TV and radio and has also turned her talents to directing. That’s the role she’s taken on for new play Peg & Bessie at this summer’s Greater Manchester Fringe Festival. A funny, sentimental story about the lives, loves and losses of two sisters in the autumn of their lives, it’s a piece I have a personal interest in, but more of that later.
For Jenkins, it was never a conscious plan to move into directing.
“I was in The Wizard Of Oz at The Lowry [in Salford] at the end of 2004 when the tsunami hit in Thailand. At the end of the show I did a speech asking the audience to donate money but I wanted to do more fundraising so I thought I’d put on a big show. It was just me and my mobile phone so it was stressful and I’d wake up in the middle of the night buzzing with ideas, but I loved doing it. I wrote the show and used the very best clips from favourite musicals. I also got a huge orchestra and my talented, celebrity friends on board. The result was Gala Night Of Stars at The Palace Theatre [in Manchester]. Just from this germ of an idea, we filled the 2,000 seat venue and raised thousands of pounds that helped build an orphanage in Thailand.”
Jenkins continued her fundraising efforts with a second gala show, this time for Thailand and children’s charities in the North West. In 2008 she was voted Woman of the Year for her charity work. Along the way she also discovered a whole new set of skills.
“I suddenly realised that I was good at being in control of projects and doing more than just concentrating on acting a part. It’s weird because people ask ‘you’re still acting aren’t you?’ and I am, but I enjoy directing so much now that I’m really careful about what I do as an actor. Sometimes I get offered projects I’d prefer to direct. I’ve always suggested things as an actor and I think that’s what you should do. I also love working with and directing actors. That’s what really makes it for me. I like to give actors free reign and being one myself means I can empathise with what they need.
“I’ve worked with some great directors so I carry those experiences with me. You hear stories from actors who felt their confidence knocked down by some directors. If you cast things well, your job is to make them feel a million dollars and that there’s no way you would have wanted anyone else. The number one job of a director is to make the actor feel totally and utterly prepared. I love to intellectualise about a piece, rip apart the characters and find out everything about them, but ultimately actors must feel ready to go on that stage. It’s wonderful when you work with really great talent and on scripts you find enjoyable.”
Jenkins’ current project is directing Peg & Bessie for this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. It’s by a writer I know extremely well. Yes, that would be me. Loosely based on my two aunties, it shines a light on that strong generation of women who, after decades of marriage, somehow adapted to new lives as widows. Husbands who outlived their wives didn’t tend to cope well and often didn’t survive much longer. So I thought this difference in the sexes was an interesting area to examine. What makes women more resilient? More importantly, what made Jenkins get on board?
“I read it and just loved it. I love the two characters and it really struck a chord. There’s such a lot in it people can relate to whatever age they are. We all have empathy for and an interest in parents, relationships, sibling rivalry and that family bond that nobody can break. We rely on close friends but there’s still nothing like a blood tie. Brothers and sisters can absolutely loathe each other but ultimately, even if they dont get on, when they need one another, I believe they’ll usually be there. Blood is much thicker than water and certainly for me, family is everything. Peg & Bessie covers all of those things in a funny but very emotional way. It captured my imagination and was a script I wanted to run with.”
As the writer, I want to elicit some laughs and possibly a little tear in the space of 50 minutes via characters that the audience will enjoy spending time with. Playing the title characters, Jenny Gregson and Kerry Willison-Parry switch from humour to pathos in a heartbeat and if people come out of the show with the urge to give a loved one a call or a big hug then it’s worked. If there’s a ‘message’, it’s appreciate someone while you can.
Jenkins agrees. “It doesn’t matter what relationships you have with people, ultimately it’s about making the most of them while they’re still there. You rarely know the moment when someone close to you will no longer be around. People can have the most acute lonliness when everybody else in their life has gone. We’ve talked a lot in rehearsals about how people can squabble at times and be like chalk and cheese but still live for each others company. I think audiences will really get it and love it.”
Jenkins has her own family acting dynasty. Her husband David Fleeshman has been a favourite on TV and in theatre for years and the couple’s three children, Rosie, Emily and Richard, are also enjoying success in the industry.
“It was never a case of pushing them on the stage, they just wanted to do it,” Jenkins says. “I think if your parents are doctors or teachers, it’s quite normal to go into the same profession. This business has been very kind to my husband and I. It’s how we met and we’ve had a really nice time doing it. The kids have witnessed our successes but they’ve also seen the disappointments when you don’t get a part. I think it’s been a healthy, realistic preparation for them. I’ve worked with all my kids at some point. Emily played my daughter on TV, Richard and I have done a BBC radio series together and I direct Rosie in her one woman show Narcissist In The Mirror which is heading to the Edinburgh Fringe. We’d never want to all do a big project together though. I think that would be a nightmare.”
Prior to playing Jackie Corkhill in Brookside, Jenkins did a stint behind the Rovers Return bar in Coronation Street as Gloria Todd and has also appeared in Emmerdale. Success in the soaps can be a blessing or a curse in terms of subsequent work offers but it’s clear that, in Jenkins’ case at least, her TV CV has been positive.
“I had a ball, especially playing Jackie and I only look back with affection. I was raising my three kids while earning good money in a TV series. The job meant I didn’t have to go on tour so I was able to be at home and see my children’s sports days and nativity plays and that was really important to me. If people mainly remember me for Jackie that’s a huge compliment – I played her for 11 years so if people didn’t talk about her I’d feel like I hadn’t made any impression at all. Maybe some casting directors pigeon-hole me because of that character and might not cast me in something like Poldark but, long before doing the soaps, I was playing more classical stuff. I absolutely adored doing that but, of course, once you get involved in something like a soap, people do tend to compartmentalise you a bit.”
Brookside broke many soap taboos with its hard-hitting storylines and gritty realism. A campaign is underway to bring the show back to our screens. Jenkins is unsure whether a reboot would ever be possible.
“People still talk fondly of it and come up and tell me how much they loved the show. However, I think it’s doubtful that Phil Redmond would consider revisiting it again any time soon. It’s not so much that it was of its time. It was ahead of its time. I think the soaps are of a great standard but I’ve noticed that some have been doing things recently that we were doing years ago.”
In Peg & Bessie, the two characters reminisce about their lives. Are there any unfulfilled acting ambitions on Jenkins’ wishlist?
“There are some roles I would have loved to have done along the way. I never got to play Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire which would have been amazing. One role I’d love to do is Violet, the matriarch in August: Osage County. That’s a great piece for women. I’m so enjoying directing though that I don’t think in terms of unfulfilled things. Only last week, as well as directing rehearsals, I did two radio series for the BBC and narrated a novel. I’ve also been approached to take some shows out to Dubai which would be interesting, so the diversity of work is wonderful.”
Peg & Bessie is at 53two in Manchester, 18-21 July. 7pm. Tickets £8
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