You know that a show is youthful when only one member of the 35-strong cast has a child. Such is the case with Daddy Cool, where former Eastenders star and queen of television drama Michelle Collins is the sole parent. While the others party the night away once the performance is through, Collins is straight off home to bed to get some much needed sleep before rising early to drop her daughter at school. Matthew Amer managed to find some time in her ridiculously packed schedule to chat about her new project.
Collins is the consummate Mum. When we meet she comes complete with overflowing shopping bags and a pack of baby wipes at the ready for any spill-mopping eventuality. She’s managed to fit the interview in between a trip to the supermarket, collecting her daughter from school and heading off to rehearsals. When she’s finished there she has another interview booked before taking to the Shaftesbury stage for a preview performance of Daddy Cool. Yet she’s never less than enthusiastic.
"It’s very contemporary, it’s very upbeat, it’s very London, very urban"
“We’re practically full every show,” she says of the Daddy Cool previews, her husky, cracking voice, instantly recognisable, “which is great. I’m not sure if that’s just because they’re cheap tickets or not!” The fact that audience members are returning night after night would suggest the latter.
Collins’s initial reaction to the idea of Daddy Cool – a musical bringing together the greatest hits of Boney M and other Frank Farian artists – was less disco frivolity, more downbeat dirge: “When they first said Boney M, I laughed and thought ‘Are you serious?’ Then you look at the catalogue of songs.” Rivers Of Babylon, Brown Girl In The Ring, Daddy Cool, Mary’s Boy Child; the list of Boney M’s hits goes on, and the show’s story, says Collins, grew out of them.
The plot is based on Romeo And Juliet, shifted to contemporary London, where members of two rival gangs fall in love. According to Collins, the star of the show is not her, nor pop stars Harvey or Javine, but the music itself, some of which has been given a more modern flavour. “We’re not doing some heavy Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams; we’re doing a musical, a feel good musical which is primarily about the music. It’s a very different type of musical theatre; it’s very contemporary, it’s very upbeat, it’s very London, very urban,” Collins says.
She is all too aware that some people within the theatre world might not welcome such a project. Talking about the show’s possible reception brings out her jaded side: “I’ve been around too long, I’m too old,” she half sighs in contemplation. “The West End is still for middle class audiences and that really annoys me; the West End does still have that slightly elitist feel to it. What’s good about this is that I think it will attract an audience that wouldn’t normally go to the theatre.”
"I’d better be careful with the make up so I don’t get a bit too drag queen"
If this slight shift towards downheartedness suggests a dislike of London’s Theatreland, it is not to be taken that way as in her next breath Collins is extolling the virtues of spending time there: “You just open your window onto Shaftesbury Avenue, and the noise and the hustle, it’s fantastic. You really feel that you’re living right in the hubbub of everything. There’s something about it at night; you open the window and life is still going on.”
Collins started in show business as a backing singer with Mari Wilson and the Wilsations, but this is the first time she has brought her musical talents to the stage. She’s nervous about this new style of performance, but has never been one to shirk challenges; her last West End outing was in two-hander Rattle Of A Simple Man, where she shared the stage with Stephen Tomkinson for two and a half hours.
She has been taking singing lessons to retune her vocal talents for Daddy Cool, in which she plays nightclub owner Ma Baker. As all good nightclub owners should, Ma Baker has some astounding outfits, fit to grace any dance floor. “I have fantastic costumes,” Collins says excitedly. “They’re slightly camp actually, a bit gay iconish I’ve been told. So I’d better be careful with the old make up so that I don’t get a bit too drag queen!” In addition to the eye-catching threads, Ma Baker has another club owning prerequisite; she has a pronounced mean streak. In Collins’s own words: “It makes Cindy look like Pollyanna.”
The Cindy she refers to is, of course, Cindy Beale, notorious wife of Eastenders’ Ian Beale, the role that brought Collins to the nation’s attention for a decade. Though she left the soap nine years ago, when Collins talks about the character she noticeably slips between referring to her as both Cindy and I. Though Collins attributes the character’s longevity – she is still discussed in Walford to this day – to the writing it would be a miser who took all of the credit away from the actress who portrayed her for 10 years, the same actress who has fared better than most on leaving a long term role in a soap opera.
Since departing the perennially miserable Albert Square, Collins has starred in a host of television series – including 2,000 Acres Of Sky, Ella And The Mothers and Daylight Robbery – a number of films, and made herself a force in the theatre. “A lot of this business is luck,” she says modestly when questioned about why she has had the success that has eluded other soap graduates, “and I think it’s working hard. Once you’ve got the job you don’t relax, you actually have to work at it and then you have to get the next job. Also, never become too big for your boots, because nobody likes that.”
"I’m sick of reality after reality. It’s killing TV. It’s killing drama"
Having a thick skin also helps, as Collins’s niece, who is trying to follow in her aunt’s performing footsteps, is currently finding out. “You have to accept rejection being an actor; as long as you can accept rejection you’re fine. If you can’t, forget about it and go and do something else.” Even now that Collins is a household name, the same motto applies, as she found out when one of her series did not go as well as it should. “Not everything you do is a huge success, you just have to ride that and carry on,” she says philosophically.
Though she doesn’t give a name to the series that struggled, Single, penned by Peter Bowker, which she counts among her most enjoyable projects, came in for a bashing when it was scheduled on a Saturday evening. It followed a woman in her 40s trying to meet men. “You don’t put it on after Pop Idol on a Saturday night!” Collins exclaims, clearly still upset by the treatment it got. “If you’re dating [the demographic it was aimed at] you don’t sit in and watch television on a Saturday night, do you?”
The talk of television reignites another of Collins’s passions and she confides that following Daddy Cool she would love to film a really strong series again. However, a quick perusal of the TV listings makes it starkly clear to most that good drama is declining and the behemoth of reality television is taking over. “I’m sick of reality after reality. It’s killing TV. It’s killing drama,” Collins says. “I just found out that they’re closing down Granada Kids which did The Illustrated Mum [the Jacqueline Wilson-penned drama in which Collins starred]. That got an international Emmy and three BAFTAS. They’re closing it down and they’re not making any more children’s dramas; they’re just showing reruns and buying stuff in, which is really sad. Yet they’ll make reality show after reality show. But people like it because it’s easy watching.”
When she’s not acting on stage, filming a television series, going shopping, looking after her daughter or offering baby wipes to journalists, Collins spends a lot of time supporting charities that are important to her. Justice For Women, Barnardos, Breakthrough Breast Cancer and Oxfam have all received support from the actress, Oxfam for nearly a decade. “Charity is a bit of a dirty word, or was,” she explains. “People have an aversion to it, but if you can put the point across in a way that isn’t so depressing, show people what their money is going to, go and visit the project, and go on TV and show it in a positive way, then it does work.” Cynics, and Collins counts herself among them on this particular point, are quick to cite some celebrities who see charity work as a way to increase their profile. It’s a ploy that Collins despises. At the heart of her reason for taking time out from work to help charity is the motherly trait of simply letting someone know you care. “When I go to Kenya, people don’t know who I am for God’s sake; it’s just nice for them to know that people are interested in what’s going on there.”
And so Collins has to dash off, school is kicking out – it’s the first day back so who knows what might have happened – and then she has to get up to the West End for rehearsals and a preview. Her daughter is coming with her – “she knows everybody and everybody’s lovely to her” – before being picked up by a grandparent. But she’s used to the lifestyle by now. “When I was doing panto when she was four months old, she was at the stage door and the man at stage door was rocking her to sleep in her car seat,” Collins reminisces. But at nearly 10 she’s old enough to appreciate more what her mum does, and is taking some friends to see Daddy Cool for her birthday. “I think she’s quite proud,” Collins says. I think Mum might be quite proud too.