“We still have a long way to go.” Actress, presenter and mental health advocate Denise Welsh talks to Northern Soul
She is an accomplished stage and TV actress, a ‘loose’ woman, a mental health advocate and, most recently, a patron of Manchester’s award-winning Hope Mill Theatre.
Denise Welch is also renowned for speaking her mind, even if it flies in the face of popular opinion. From the moment we start chatting, it’s a relief to discover that she’s as funny and forthright as I’d anticipated.
“I’ve been a fan and supporter of Hope Mill for three years now,” she says. “I was a latecomer to the place but I just fell in love with it. I started my career at Live Theatre Company in Newcastle’s Quayside alongside Robson Green, Kevin Whately, Alun Armstrong and my ex-husband, Tim Healy [who played Dennis in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet], who was a co-founder. It grew into this amazing creative hub and the energy of Hope Mill reminds me of that exciting time.
“I love the versatility in the [Hope Mill] space. It’s unbelievable how one minute they manage to do a simple two-hander and the next, an incredible full-scale musical like Mame. I love that type of flexible, diverse theatre and, if I didn’t have to pay my mortgage, I would do it all the time.”
Hope Mill has moved from private ownership to a registered charity. William Whelton and Joseph Houston continue in the roles of executive director and artistic director while a board of trustees supports and guides the charity as it moves forward. Welch joins Russell T Davies and Tracie Bennett as patron. But would she like to tread the boards here at some point?
“I would be thrilled to. My youngest son, Louis, is also an actor and I’d love to do something with him. There’s also a possibility of a project with some of friends of mine, so we’re going to look at sorting that out.”
Welch has already appeared with Louis in the short film Black Eyed Susan, a harrowing, brutally honest portrayal of a woman (Welch) suffering an episode of severe depression. Her son played the blackness in human form. Considering Welch’s own, well-documented, mental health condition, was this mother/son casting a potential Freudian nightmare?
“It was a bit for both of us as Louis was only about 15 when we made the film. I used to protect him a lot from my illness but, as he got older, he became more aware and in tune with it, so he was the perfect person to play it on film.”
Welsh has lived with the illness for 30 years. Terminologies come and go with mental health issues often described as being a ‘battle’. It’s clear that this description troubles Welch.
“I struggle with the word battle because it indicates this is something you can win. It isn’t. I’m currently co-writing a book based on my 30 years of surviving this illness. It will either be called The Uninvited Guest or The Unwelcome Visitor as I describe my depression like it is a separate entity. I began talking about it three decades ago when nobody else was. Everybody tried to shut me down thinking they were protecting me from damaging my career and that no one would ever employ me again. My thinking has always been if somebody doesn’t employ me because I have a mental illness, which I manage, then I don’t want to work for them anyway. I’ll continue to try to do my bit as a mental health advocate, but we still have a long way to go.”
Although it has become more common for people in the public eye to talk frankly about mental illness, it still carries a sense of responsibility. Does Welch feel that she and Ruby Wax have become the poster girls for mental health awareness?
“Not overly so because we have totally different audiences. Ruby comes at it from a far more intellectual point of view. She’s really made it a science and that’s great. I’m much more like Betty from Bolton who wouldn’t go and buy a book on depression, but would listen to what someone might say about it. I don’t tell people how to get well because I don’t know how. You also have to be very careful when it comes to offering advice. My book will encompass the good and bad times in my life and is basically saying ‘I share your problem’. When I do that on social media, it seems to give people support though I can’t engage directly with individuals because I have to protect my own health.”
Having any type of serious illness is something many people prefer to keep private. However, taking ownership of a condition and being open about it can often bring a sense of strength and empowerment. Welch has never shied away from talking about her illness, but recently took this to new levels when she filmed herself during a particularly black episode and posted the clips on Twitter. The move created such a stir that it even made the national news, much to Welch’s surprise.
“I was astonished because it was almost like I’d never talked about it before,” she reflects. “Two weeks earlier, when I was well, there seemed to be a flurry of people struggling with their own ‘unwelcome visitor’, so I posted a video telling people to look after themselves because the visitor will always leave. People really need to hear that. Then I got ill and decided that if I’m going to be a mental health advocate, I have to show people what it’s like to be poorly. It was an impulsive thing and I know that people worried about me and how vulnerable I was, but I was overwhelmed by the response to it. It wasn’t a self-help thing, although I was aware there’d be a backlash from people who thought I shouldn’t have done it, but I didn’t do it for those people.”
She continues: “We live in a world of compare and despair where young people are comparing their lives to the fictitious lives others are pretending they’re having online. I celebrate my good times with my Twitter followers, so it’s only fair to show the difficult times, too. Enjoy things for me, but don’t envy my life because I also have this other side.”
Being a straight-talker makes Welch the perfect panellist for ITV’s Loose Women. In 2018, after five years away, she returned to the show. Watching the programme now, it seems obvious that she’s enjoying being back.
“Very much so. It felt like the right time to leave in 2013. I’d come out of a really bad place; I was getting sober and had a new man in my life after a very public divorce. I chose to chart the breakdown of my marriage on television but realised that I needed to privately restructure my life. I never leave a job thinking I can always go back, so I was thrilled to be asked to return. It was unexpected and neither side knew if it was going to work but it has. It is perfect because I get to have a voice and have a laugh with the other girls. I also do less shows than I did and so if I want to not work one month then I can. It’s a win-win.”
Welch recently completed a stage tour of Calendar Girls and over the years has appeared in TV series such as Waterloo Road, Coronation Street and Down To Earth. As a regular TV panellist and former contestant on shows such as Dancing on Ice and Celebrity Big Brother, could the UK obsession with categorising performers have caused people to forget that Welch is an acclaimed actress?
“To be honest, yes and it’s a shame. In America, Jamie Foxx has a stellar movie career, a sit-com and hosts a massive game show. Over here, you’re much more pigeon-holed. I know that doing Loose Women has meant I work less as a TV actress. Acting is what I love and I have a couple of nice irons in the fire, but I’m also a good presenter and enjoy it. If people can’t accept both, so be it. I also love my time off, though. My oldest son Matthew works abroad all the time so I enjoy visiting him.”
Matthew is Matt Healy who fronts the award-winning band The 1975. Welch is also no stranger to the pop charts and she hit no 23 in 1993 covering the Dusty Springfield classic You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me after performing the number on Soldier Soldier. Could there be a mother/son musical collaboration any time soon?
“Not quite,” she jokes. “As Matthew will happily tell you, he’s managed to forge a successful music career despite his mother’s one hit, not because of it. He’s only recently started following me on Twitter. The single was released in November when the episode aired so it got lost in all the Christmas releases. The record company said if it had come out in March it could have been a number one, so that’s what I hold dear.
“One day Matthew will be glad when I bring out a rap version of You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, though.”
Main image courtesy of Hope Mill Theatre.
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