‘When I first got the script, I gasped’
EX EASTENDER Anita Dobson plays Queen Elizabeth I in BBC2’s Armada: 12 Days To Save England
21 March 2015 by James Rampton
Anita Dobson plays Queen Elizabeth I in BBC2’s Armada: 12 Days To Save England Anita Dobson landed her latest role in unusual circumstances.
The actress, most famous for playing Queen Vic landlady Angie Watts in EastEnders, reveals, “I’d just played a frail, weak, old lady in Holby City and the casting agent from that said to me, ‘I have a feeling you’d be right for a part in the documentary I’m casting next.’
The role turned out to be Elizabeth I. You’re not going to turn that down, are you?’” she smiles.
But despite being offered the role in BBC2’s new three-part documentary Armada – 12 Days To Save England, Anita admits she initially had reservations about playing this warts-and-all character, complete with pockmarked skin from a bad dose of smallpox, falling-out hair and rotting teeth.
Elizabeth has to be one of the greatest women in history. It’s a privilege to play her. Anita Dobson
“When I first got the script, I did gasp,” acknowledges the 65 year old, who is married to Queen guitarist Brian May.
“I said to my agent, ‘I’m not sure I can do this.’ But my agent simply replied, ‘Rubbish, darling – you’re an actress!’ And my husband said, ‘You’re playing a wonder woman – that’s what you do.
Once you’ve embraced the part, you’ll enjoy it.’ So I thought, ‘I’ll just go for it!’”
And Anita hasn’t regretted the decision. “This part is just amazing,” beams the actress, who has also starred in New Tricks, Casualty and Hotel Babylon.
“It’s one of the most memorable journeys I’ve been on, even though it took four hours of make-up every morning. Elizabeth has to be one of the greatest women in history. It’s a privilege to play her.”
In Armada, historian Dan Snow draws on dramatic reconstructions, recently unearthed documents, the testimony of the world’s leading experts and CGI to show how the ageing English queen faced down the threat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
It’s regarded as one of our finest military victories and sealed Elizabeth’s reputation as perhaps our mightiest monarch.
“For a woman at that time to be on the throne on her own for almost 50 years and to help the nation to thrive is an incredible achievement,” Anita says. “She valued her responsibility to the nation above all else.”
The actress did a great deal of research into the role. “The more you read about her, the more you admire her,” she says.
“Her decision not to marry was important. She knew that if she had a husband, she would lose a lot of control. For a woman in those times not to be married and have children was a big decision.”
There have been many famous depictions of Elizabeth in the past by such acclaimed actresses as Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Glenda Jackson and Helen Mirren, but Anita maintains that her version is different. “This isn’t a glamorous portrayal.
In Armada, Elizabeth is portrayed at her darkest hour. She was at her most vulnerable and dealing with getting old. She was 54, but looked much older than that.
Back in 2011, Anita made a splash of a very different kind on Strictly Come Dancing. “I loved it,” she beams. “I had a go for the old girls. I left just before the semi-finals. That was probably the right place to leave, because after that you had to learn two dances a week and I couldn’t have done that.”
But for all her Strictly success, the role for which Anita will always be most fondly remembered is the invincible Angie from 1985 to 1988. EastEnders’ 1986 Christmas Day episode, in which her husband Den served divorce papers with the festive turkey, is still the most-watched British TV programme of all time, netting a whopping 30.15 million viewers.
Unlike some stars, Anita doesn’t mind in the least that she is still so strongly identified with one role.
“The way I look at it, if you do one thing in your career that is held up as fantastic, you’re very lucky indeed.
“A lot of people imagine I think, ‘Come on, move on. It’s 30 years ago now.’
But I find it very flattering that people still love Angie and her memory lingers on.”
Before we part, Anita returns one last time to Armada and reflects on what viewers might take away from watching her performance.
“I hope people get more insight into Elizabeth. Yes, she had an indomitable spirit, but she also had fears and vulnerabilities. She was a woman facing huge problems in a world run by men,” she says.
“I hope that by the end, audiences feel they know her better and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’ All these centuries later, we’re still talking about her.
Elizabeth shows how wonderful women can be at their very best.”