As she returns to the West End, Amanda Holden talks to Matthew Amer about Britain’s Got Talent controversy, stepping back into the media glare and being rollered.
My goodness, Amanda Holden is perky. Disconcertingly so. When I manage to grab 20 minutes of the busy actress and presenter’s time, she has been balancing previewing the eagerly awaited Shrek The Musical with judging the TV light-entertainment behemoth Britain’s Got Talent.
With the TV show’s winner crowned, she is back on the stage, rehearsing during the day and performing at night. She should be a wreck. She should pick up the phone to me with quivering hand and whisper with a voice drained of life.
Instead the cheery greeting I get makes me think she is leaping about her dressing room with excitement and grinning from ear to ear. If the work schedule is taking its toll, she’s not letting on.
The fact that she’s “not digging roads in the freezing cold” probably has something to do with her joyful state of mind. In the past month she has combined leading the panel on the country’s favourite TV programme with playing a Princess in the West End. When you look at it like that, it doesn’t seem quite as taxing, and besides, as Holden explains, “I was always taught, when I was at drama school, do as much as you can because then you’ll get paid.”
“I was always taught do as much as you can because then you’ll get paid”
But this is not just any princess. In fact, Holden is adamant that she wouldn’t play just any princess. “It would drive me nuts playing a wimpy princess,” she says. No, this is Princess Fiona, the feminist fairytale royalty of Shrek The Musical. “She’s got balls basically. She’s a proper independent princess,” Holden enthuses.
Indeed she has. Somehow this flame-haired tower-dweller mixes wishing for a prince to come and save her with a forthright attitude to speaking her mind, taking control of her future and allowing wind to escape from her right royal behind.
The role, which sees Holden star opposite a verbose donkey, an angry green ogre and a delightfully diminutive ruler, demands an actress that does not take herself too seriously and who doesn’t mind acting the fool. I only chat to Holden for a matter of minutes, but it quickly becomes clear that she fits this mould perfectly.
She laughs at every opportunity and is a master of comic self-deprecation. She describes the swift change, which sees her ogrified, thus: “Someone comes at me with a Dulux roller and rollers green all over my face. No expense spared,” and she says of the job of getting her voice in shape: “I had to get my creaking vocals back in and really work hard to get to a place where I was sounding decent enough to go for an audition.”
That’s right. Holden, who has a touch of the forces’ sweetheart about her, was not gifted the chance to return to the West End stage – she previously led the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2003 – she had to earn her spot along with everyone else. The vulnerability of the actress who has become better known as a talent show judge is clear when she explains that she asked to be seen at the end of the day “so that I don’t have to hear everybody else doing brilliant auditions and they don’t have to hear me”.
“I wouldn’t want to be sat in that judge’s seat unless I’m prepared to be judged myself”
When critics ask what qualifies Holden to sit in judgement of others on Britain’s Got Talent, the answer is just this. As an actress she has been through it. She knows what it is like. “When I say to somebody ‘I really understand your pain’, I really do. I know how terrified they’re feeling and how vulnerable and silly you can feel when you’re standing in front of a load of people who are willing you to be good but still can’t take those nerves away from you. I wouldn’t want to be sat in that judge’s seat unless I’m prepared to be judged myself.”
That’s just as well, because if performing before London’s theatre critics wasn’t scary enough, the profile of Britain’s Got Talent almost makes Holden public property. There are those that love the show and those that loath the show. Due to the variety of acts on offer, even those who love it find parts to loath. All this means there is one question that needs to be asked: Why do the rubbish acts, the acts that defy logical explanation, the acts that make you hit yourself hard over the head with something painful in the hope that you will either wake up from the nightmare or knock yourself out, get put through?
“There have to be watercooler moments in the show that people can discuss at work the next day,” Holden explains. “You have to put stuff in to chop and change the show and make it fun and make it light and give it light and shade. You can’t just have pure excellence and pure obviousness. It would make for boring television, so you have to think outside the box sometimes.”
This is as close as Holden, who has “been doing that question for five years”, will come to admitting that some absolute dross gets praised far beyond it worth. She is more outspoken on the subject of the furore surrounding young singer Ronan Parke who, it was claimed, had been groomed to win the most recent series by Simon Cowell for the past two years.
“It’s the biggest load of b*****ks that we’ve ever encountered,” Holden fumes as the perkiness momentarily drifts away. “It was just b******t. I’ve never seen Simon so incensed as when he delivered his speech the next day. He was shaking with anger.”
“You can’t just have pure excellence and pure obviousness. It would make for boring television”
Should a child who is not even a teenager yet be exposed to such a media glare, I wonder? Would it not be more responsible to put an age limit on the show? “I always think the responsibility lies with the parents,” Holden responds, “not with our programme and our producers. I think any parent that puts their child on television, that’s where the responsibility lies and ends.”
I could be wrong, but I suspect from her response, Holden’s daughter Lexi would not be allowed to take part in the show. Holden’s career has seen her private life dragged through the tabloids, from the break up of her marriage to Les Dennis to her recent miscarriage in the run up to Shrek’s rehearsal period. Yet she has always managed to shield her daughter from the exposure.
In fact, Holden’s first public engagement after her tragedy came at this year’s Olivier Awards where, behind Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury, she probably received the largest round of applause of the night when she took to the stage to present an award. “I wanted to be there,” she explains, again a touch more subdued. “I thought, rather than be papped looking in a scruffy old state, why not attend something that I’d promised I’d be at in full hair and make up? It was a good entrance back in and it was overwhelming, the applause when I walked back on stage. It was weird, but it was warm and lovely and I thought ‘Okay, I’m doing the right thing.’”
That view may have changed over the past few days, as the nerves that come with the knowledge that critics are in the audience took hold, but Holden is adamant that she will not read the reviews and that she cannot think of anything the critics might criticise. “They’ve basically cut all the c**p out of [the show] and shortened it,” she says of the changes made since Shrek opened in the US. “So much rubbish has been cut out of it, it’s a well-oiled machine now. It’s very quick and very energetic and if you’ve got kids that’s a godsend, because they won’t keep still for much longer than that.”
“I basically judge any performance in the theatre by how quickly you can have a nice bit of entertainment and then get out and have some supper.” Shrek runs at about two hours 25 minutes. “That’s perfect for me.”
The critics, I believe, have different criteria for judging productions. But whatever the reviews – and most I have read have been positive – Holden won’t be losing any sleep. “To be absolutely honest, after the year I’ve had, I’m just having fun.” Her life may not have been a fairytale recently, but she is getting closer to living happily ever after.