Interview: Helen Russell, actress and author of Keep Calm and Carry On

I CATCH up with Helen Russell in the run-up to the launch of her new wartime drama Keep Calm and Carry On – and life sounds hectic.

Actress Helen Russell, 86, from South Shields
Actress Helen Russell, 86, from South Shields

I CATCH up with Helen Russell in the run-up to the launch of her new wartime drama Keep Calm and Carry On – and life sounds hectic.

Busy preparing for tonight’s opening, the actress and author is looking forward to having her family around her at The Customs House to enjoy the result of three years’ effort in getting the play, her second, to the stage.

“I’m not grumbling!” she insists. “With all the cuts in the arts programme, to get something put on is a real bonus.”

She has reason to be grateful to the South Shields theatre and says her play simply wouldn’t have happened it wasn’t for its executive director, Ray Spencer.

Russell, best known to local audiences for her long-running role in Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood’s comedy success Dirty Dusting, staged her first play, comedy Off The Shelf, there in 2007.

This time she’s written a heartwarming drama set during the London Blitz, about a girl, Mary Robson, who dreams of going on stage and entertaining the troops but whose parents are against the idea.

It’s proved something of an emotional journey for Russell, a grandmother-of-five, as it echoes much of her own early life as a stage-struck Londoner, though she’s quick to point out it’s not based on her experiences.

“It’s not my story. My parents were very supportive – but you’ve got to have conflict in drama haven’t you?” she laughs.

“In those days, you were considered a naughty girl if you wanted to go on stage.”

But for a youngster who would queue at stage doors for autographs from actors such as Sir Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Mills, who was out performing from the age of eight, and who turned professional at the age of 14, nothing else would do.

At the time of the Blitz, Russell was already touring with ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) in Scotland and Ireland.

It must, I suggest, have been an exciting time?

“You don’t compare your life to other people’s. You do what you do,” answers Russell. “We didn’t consider it exciting.”

But she now wishes she’d kept a diary of those years before she married and settled with her husband and daughter in Shields.

“Nowadays, people take photographs all the time, but we didn’t then. It was such a different world.”

Actress Helen Russell in her youth
Actress Helen Russell in her youth

She adds: “I was doing what I wanted to do and I’ve never wanted to do anything else since.”

Bright, breezy and chatty, Russell is an entertaining interviewee who stops herself to check she’s not boring me and to ask what my interests are. At 87, she seems a bundle of energy.

She plays guitar, sings, writes saucy poems – and tries out a very funny new one on me – and has had a novel, set in a club, on the go for some time. She has a “damn good ending” in mind when she gets round to it but is hindered by the fact it sounds too much like a play.

But then descriptive passages bore her, she says. She prefers writing dialogue and action.

Writing – which she does on a computer she taught herself to use – still seems a relatively new occupation for her: “I’ve only been writing 35 years.”

She laughs when she realises she said “only” but, coming from someone who’s clocked up 70-plus years in the entertainment business, it’s understandable.

During that time “I’ve never stopped”, she says.

She still acts, having recently had a role in Tracy Beaker, and she’s now planning a tour with Open Clasp theatre company’s Swags & Tails.

“They asked if I’d do the tour which starts in February.

“I’m getting on a bit, you know! But I said ‘oh, yes, of course’.”

She’s always so comfortable on stage but admits to some nerves in the off-stage role of author.

She has local playwright Ed Waugh to thank for suggesting her play’s title, which captures the mood of the time and the current craze which sees the wartime slogan emblazoned on everything from a poster to a coffee mug.

Alongside Ray Spencer and the director’s partner Trish, Waugh – whose Dirty Dusting romp saw Russell and her two co-stars of a certain age have a whale of time playing office cleaners who set up a phone sex line – has her gratitude.

Other support has come from actor Bill Pertwee, with whom she once worked on Tyne Tees, and Dame Vera Lyn, no less, who has penned a foreword to the programme.

Russell has received three letters from the Forces’ Sweetheart, plus a phone call from her daughter, supporting the play and wishing her luck.

With its songs and authentic background peppered with Russell’s memories of dried eggs, the black market, even seeing barbed wire on the beaches of the Isle of Wight, it’s set to strike a chord with older members of the audience and to make history a little more vivid for younger ones.

Rachel Teate stars as Mary in the coming-of-age story, with James Hedley playing love interest Colin. The cast also includes Rosalind Bailey as Mary’s gran, while Jackie Fielding directs.

With family members travelling from Middlesbrough, Bournemouth and Edinburgh – and her grandson’s girlfriend making a trip from Latvia to meet her for the first time – this is a special week for Russell.

But she’d be happier, she says, up there on stage, speaking somebody else’s lines.

“If it’s not a success, it’s all down to me!”

Keep Calm and Carry On runs at The Customs House in South Shields at 7.30pm nightly from today until Saturday, with a 2.30pm matinee tomorrow. Visit the website at www.customshouse.co.uk or call 0191 454 1234.

 

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