EastEnder’s Legend Anita Dobson on her very unlikely new role as Elizabeth I
DAILY MAIL WEEKEND MAGAZINE
13 March 2015 by Rebecca Hardy for the Daily Mail
Anita goes from the Queen Vic to Queen Bess She will give warts-and-all portrayal of an ageing Elizabeth I Like the Tudor monarch, she reveals here why she never had children And how she plucked up the courage to go grey at 65.
Anita Dobson’s life can be chopped up into hair colours. Natural auburn when she was ‘really young’ and ditching fiancés with more speed than many of us dump the recycling. She dyed it black for those thirtysomething years as EastEnders’ brilliantly tempestuous landlady Angie Watts, a role that catapulted her to fame and into the arms of Queen guitarist Brian May when he was still married to his first wife Chrissie, with whom he had three children. Then, she slowly eased back to dark red and blondish during his divorce and Brian and Anita’s marriage in 2000. (‘I said, ‘Brian, I think I’m ready to get married.’ Two weeks later I was Mrs May.’)
Today Anita is grey – steel-grey without so much as a hint of henna. She’ll be 66 next month, and this is the first time she’s gone natural in goodness knows how long. She began growing the dye out when she appeared as Mistress Quickly in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Merry Wives Of Windsor more than two years ago. Now it falls down to her shoulders.
Anita as Elizabeth I in Armada: It took her four hours to transform into the Tudor monarch ‘
My hair had started to go this sort of white-ish grey colour at the front,’ she says. ‘I thought, ‘Oh, I wish I had the guts just to let it go.’ But it’s quite a big step, isn’t it?
‘When I was rehearsing for Mistress Quickly our lovely director Phillip Breen asked me how I saw her. I said, ‘Very power-dressed. Very nipped. Big earrings. White blonde hair piled up very high. Very Essex.’ He said, ‘I like that. Let’s go with it.’ They made me the most beautiful wig, which was not dissimilar to my hair now. So, while I was wearing the wig, I was sort of going that way underneath.’ But as Anita says, it was a very big step. ‘I suppose it’s admitting who you are and enjoying it,’ she says in a very sparkly, non-grey way.
Weirdly, Anita looks younger than she has in donkey’s years. When we last met during her spell on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing four years ago she was a reddish blonde and so wound up she seemed terrified of her own shadow. ‘I was like a rabbit in the headlights,’ she concedes. ‘I wasn’t in my comfort zone. When that music played every Saturday I was filled with abject fear. I’m an actress not a dancer. Now I don’t mind being made to look a fool. I’m embracing who I am.’
Indeed, today she’s so much easier in herself. More relaxed, which is perhaps why the stressed frown lines between her brows have fallen away along with the once-regular visits to the hairdresser. Anita doesn’t do Botox, just a twice-daily dollop of Pond’s cold cream.
‘Brian used to say, ‘You’re always in a rush – always rushing to get somewhere. Why? When you get there what are you going to do? Enjoy the ride.’ But when you’re younger you don’t stop and think, do you? You’re careering through life. There’s so much to do. As you get older if you wake up in the morning and you’re not ill and you’ve got a good job, a good marriage and a good family, then you thank the universe. I’m happy and I thank God everybody’s well.’
Just over a year ago Anita was appearing in Aylesbury Waterside’s panto Sleeping Beauty as The Wicked Fairy when, following excruciating pain in Brian’s hip joints, his doctors began a series of scans fearing he had prostate cancer. Thankfully, he was eventually given the all-clear but, when you love someone dearly, it’s the sort of harrowing experience that changes you. ‘It was insane,’ says Anita, speaking about those dreadful weeks of tests for the first time. ‘All I can remember is sitting there in the dressing room being dressed as the psychotic fairy thinking, ‘This isn’t happening.’
‘Brian rang me to say he might have prostate cancer. He said that’s what the doctors thought it was and they were going to do tests. I couldn’t really take it in. You just go into…’ she pauses. ‘I think for me I just shut down. You don’t talk about it. You go into safe mode where you just think about getting through the next bit. Being there for him. I don’t know…’ Her brows draw into a frown. ‘You never know how you’re going to react when something awful happens. All you know is it’s awful and you just have to do the best you can. So that’s what you do. You just be there. It’s about just taking care of the person in a way that’s not making them feel you’re…’ She strokes my arm in a sort of ‘There, there…’ fashion to demonstrate. ‘You just try to make their life easier so they don’t have to worry and, of course, work is a great panacea. In Brian’s case keeping his brain ticking over stopped him from thinking about it. ‘When you meet Brian he looks very vulnerable and very open – which he is – but he has a very deep inner strength. I don’t know, how does anyone deal with anything? Everybody’s different. You do the best you can. I’ve lost a couple of girlfriends, and that’s not easy. You start to realise as you get older that life is about loss. I think that now more than ever. So, whatever your faith or beliefs, whether or not there’s a hereafter or a God, life is a gift so just enjoy everything you’ve got.’
Last December Anita didn’t do panto for the first time in many years. Instead, she and Brian took his four young grandchildren to Lapland. ‘Panto often means staying away from home, which I didn’t really want to do. So I said no. I think age gives you the confidence to do that. You know more of what you don’t want and develop the ability to be able to say, ‘No thank you’ nicely. It’s a great freedom to be able to do that.’
Serendipitous too. Shortly before heading off to see Santa Claus with the grandkids she was offered the role of an ageing Queen Elizabeth I in BBC2’s three-part drama-documentary series Armada, which follows the two-week battle between the Spanish and English fleets in 1588 that turned the course of history – and the part the Queen of England played in it. It’s the sort of role for which the ‘really young’ naturally auburn Anita would have given her right arm. The resemblance between the Virgin Queen and the one-time landlady of the Queen Vic is astonishing.
‘It was such a gift of a job but the prospect of it was quite scary because her teeth were rotten, her skin was rotten and her hair was falling out. At 54 she was a mess. She looks so much older than I do, even though I’m a lot older than she was. So it was quite daunting at first. You see her in her bedroom looking the worst she can possibly look. Once I embraced it, I loved it. It took four hours to get ready because we had to get rid of all my hair and make me bald before they could put her hair on. I had false teeth made and they did this very clever thing for the skin. It’s like glycerine and the lovely make-up girl strokes it on your skin, passes the hairdryer across your face and, lo and behold, you have even more wrinkles than you had before.’
But it’s not just the look. Anita brings the Queen alive with a blend of majesty and vulnerability that only experience of life allows. ‘She was an amazing woman who made a decision that if she was going to be called the Virgin Queen there was no way she was going to have any hanky-panky because, if that ever came out, how would her people trust her? So she made sure she stayed a virgin and married herself to her people. She gave her life to her country and she ruled for nearly half a century.’
Which is almost as long as Anita has devoted to her career. She never had children. ‘You don’t get everything in life,’ she says. ‘You make decisions and have to live by them. If you make the right decisions at the time you have no regrets. I didn’t have children because I was passionate about having my career. All through my life in relationships [she was engaged four times before Brian] I’d think, ‘Is this what I want?’ Then there’d always be a job and I’d think, ‘No, I want to do this.’
‘It took so long to get from Stepney Green [in East London, where she was born] to Anywheresville I didn’t want to give it up. I didn’t meet Brian until I was 36 or 37, so quite late to think about having a family. He was a global rock star and I’d just gone through the roof in EastEnders. He had to get divorced, and all of that was messy. You can’t bring children into that kind of atmosphere. It’s not fair. I don’t think I could have handled it – plus there’s always the job. Every time I’d think, ‘Shall I stop and think about having a baby?’, something would come along and I’d think, ‘No, I must do this.’
Anita fought hard to act. Growing up in a council flat with her younger sister Jill and little money but plenty of love from her father Alf, a dress-cutter, and her beautiful, tempestuous mother Ann, it was the sort of neighbourhood where girls got married and had kids, not careers. But Anita was a spirited soul who, at almost 20, secured a grant to London’s Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Various roles at the Oxford Playhouse and in musicals followed. ‘By the time I walked through the door to audition for Angie Watts I was a formed person. I’d found a look and I’d made the decision come hell or high water, married or not married, children or no children, this is what I wanted to do.’
EastEnders changed everything. She was only in the soap from its beginning in 1985 for just over three years but, as she says, ‘it took off like a rocket ship’ and Anita became the second-most photographed woman on the planet next to Princess Diana.
When she quit in 1988 it was reported on the BBC’s Six O’Clock News. She never returned but, when the soap celebrated its 30th anniversary last month, the episode when Dirty Den, played by Leslie Grantham, served Angie with divorce papers on Christmas Day in 1986 in front of 30.15m viewers remained the viewers’ favourite.
She still keeps in touch with Letitia Dean (Sharon Mitchell) and Gillian Taylforth (Kathy Beale) but doesn’t watch it anymore.
‘I was a girl rather than a woman emotionally when I played Angie, and so was she. Back then I had a paranoia that because I didn’t go to university, people would think I wasn’t educated, and another that because of where I come from, the East End, I wasn’t as good as anybody else.’ Brian, of course, is a doctor of astrophysics, having completed his PhD at Imperial College, London. ‘I’d say to Brian, ‘I may not have a university education but I’m not stupid.’ He’d say, ‘I know you’re not. You’re as clever as the next person.’ Brian has a formidable brain. Things like the bills don’t really enter his world. He’s too busy splitting the atom, but we give each other something. I love to chit-chat and used to be the first to arrive at a party and the last to leave. He stopped me spiralling out of control. ‘
Then you change gradually. I’m happy now. You can’t stop getting older, you just have to keep going and laugh a lot.’ And she does just that, before tripping out of the room, nimble as a slip of a girl, to have her fabulous grey hair styled for our photoshoot.
Armada will be shown later this spring on BBC2