The Not So Hard Knock Life
Natalie Anglesey chats with Annie the Musical’s latest villain, Anita Dobson about her career and the fabulously colourful character, Miss Hannigan.
Manchester still gets it first! The new national tour of Annie The Musical opens this month at the Opera House for a two-week stay starring popular Anita Dobson. The last time I spoke to her was when she starred in the glamorous title role in Hello Dolly at The Lowry. Now, like me, her fans will be curious to know why she wants to play the unglamorous, horrid Miss Hannigan, the head of the orphanage. Although the story of little orphan Annie, and her struggle to find happiness, is a firm favourite with theatre audiences, why did she want to play such a baddie?
“Being a baddie is fun!” Anita tells me during a break in rehearsals. “Although I always try to explore what made the character I play the person they’ve become. Just like Dolly Levi, who is often played as a brash manipulator, although she was actually Irish and really loved her dead, Jewish husband, I played her much softer than most actors. Now Miss Hannigan has her own problems and ends up doing a job she hates so she resorts to the demon drink. By the way, playing drunk on stage is easier said than done - although I had years of practice when I played Angie Watts in EastEnders. The trick is not to overthink it and relax.”
I wondered if Anita had any regrets about leaving the popular soap at the height of her popularity? “The public loved to watch the love/hate relationship between Angie and her screen husband, Dirty Den, played by Leslie Grantham. The thirty million viewing figures were tremendous, particularly when we had a fight and most people thought I was mad to leave. But do you know that was such a long time ago and I’d already played Angie for three and a half years. I just couldn’t see where else her character would go and I really did think it was time to move on. However, it was flattering that they did ask me to go back several times, but I don’t believe in looking back, only forwards. I’m a great believer in searching for a new challenge.”
Although a friend warned Anita it would be at least five years before she’d get a decent role on television without people saying look there’s Angie, she has no regrets. “He was absolutely right. But I’d trained at the Webber Douglas Drama School, so I didn’t sit on my bottom. I went straight back into my first love - the theatre - and I’m delighted to say, I haven’t looked back since. I think many people had forgotten that I could also sing and dance. But I’ve always considered myself just an actress who can sing and knows how to move about a bit, “she modestly claims.
Since then, on stage, Anita has played everything from pantomime to Queen Gertrude in Hamlet.” Now that role was truly exhausting. Not learning the lines or playing the role, you understand, but sobbing on stage every night. Physically exhausting!”
Amongst the many musicals Anita’s appeared in since there’s been Madam Morrible in Wicked, Mama Morton in Chicago, Mrs Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie and she played Chris in Calendar Girls and Joan Crawford in Bette and Joan on stage.
“I’m a huge fan of all those wonderful old Hollywood films so was delighted to be asked. However, at first, they asked me to play Bette Davis. Although I loved the play and admired her work, I said no because I just could not relate to her. But when they offered me the role of Joan Crawford I said yes straight away because we were both from poor backgrounds and achieved success through adversity - so I could relate to her both as an actress and a woman.”
Anita is far too modest to mention she’s been nominated for several prestigious awards for her work on stage and has since been seen on television series like The Bill, Holby City, The Last Detective and Hotel Babylon. Sensibly she has allowed herself time for a private life with Queen guitarist, vocalist and composer, Brian May CBE, although, unwittingly, I played gooseberry on their first date!
“Yes, it was the UK film premiere of the American comedy Down and Out in Beverley Hills, “Anita recalls. I reminded her I’d come straight from the studios at LBC where I was broadcasting, had no time to change into my glittering outfit, and was about to turn back from the red carpet when Anita and Brian hooked their arms under both of mine and marched me down to the banks of film and television cameras. It was only later at dinner I discovered it was their first date. But Anita adds, “ We’ve now known each other for thirty years and been happily married for over eighteen!”
Curious about the duration of their successful marriage, when so many showbiz marriages founder, Anita laughs. “Well, you have to remember I am married to a Rock God who never ceases to amaze me. Music and Queen is still a major part of our lives and keeps Brian busy.”
Of course, she’s referring to the new movie about Freddie Mercury called Bohemian Rhapsody and preparations for Queen’s big American tour later in the year. There’s also
the return to Manchester of Queen’s popular musical We Will Rock You, which has sometimes seen Brian surprising audiences at the finale by joining the cast on stage to play one of his masterly guitar riffs.
“We actually made a record together called Talking of Love which didn’t set the world on fire but reached about forty in the charts,” Anita laughs. “Nowhere near the success of Anyone Can Fall In Love, which I recorded to the theme tune of EastEnders and which reached number four in the charts. But that was all just a bit of fun.”
Born in London, in 1949, Anita has been singing on stage from the age of four but claims she never had any ambition to be a pop star. But it’s not long before she’s back talking about her favourite subject.
“Not only is Brian one of the kindest people I know he is also one of the most intelligent. He is an active speaker and campaigner on behalf of animal rights and you probably already know that he’s a qualified astrophysicist and is often up late at night studying the stars through his telescope. Indeed he spent a year as a visiting professor at Liverpool University and they very kindly made me a Companion of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. “
The theatre is in Anita’s blood although she’ll only be doing three months of the tour as she doesn’t like to be away from Brian too long. Although it’s set in 1930’s New York, it’s a timeless rags to riches story of the American Dream. It’s about the haves and have nots and those that want more than their lot. But what is she hoping audiences will take away from this show?
”Well for a start it’s such an uplifting story about an orphan, who gets a second chance in life, that it’s a pleasure to be part of it. I saw Sheila Hancock play Miss Hannigan and of course, as you know, Craig Revel Horwood, who directed the show lots of times, also put on a frock to play Miss Hannigan - so I’m following some terrific actors. Talking about which we have a great cast and the children, particularly those who play Annie, are incredible. This stunning new production has some unforgettable songs like It’s The Hard Knock Life, Easy Street, I Don’t Need Anything But You and of course the big hit song Tomorrow!
“The thing that keeps me feeling alive is the variety of roles I have been fortunate to play, on stage, on the radio and on television. I know I’ve been very lucky and I’m grateful. I just hope that audiences will enjoy this musical and I bet you anything they’ll come out singing the songs!”
Annie The Musical Opera House Manchester, 3 Quay Street, Manchester, M3 3HP : 2-16 February 2019
w: atgtickets.com/manchester t: 0844 871 3018