Bad girl takes to the West End

Suffolk actress Helen Fraser has achieved a life-long ambition by appearing in a West End musical. She spoke to ANDREW CLARKE about tripping the light fantastic on the London stage.

Suffolk actress Helen Fraser has achieved a life-long ambition by appearing in a West End musical. She spoke to ANDREW CLARKE about tripping the light fantastic on the London stage.

SHE'S been the scourge of G-Wing for the past nine years in ITV's prison drama Bad Girls, but now Suffolk-based actress Helen Fraser is fulfilling a life-long ambition to star in a West End musical.

“It's taken 50 years but I am finally in a musical in London's West End. It's a wonderful experience,” she said.

The musical is a stage adaptation of Bad Girls which has been transformed into an all singing, all-dancing theatrical spectacular. Helen, who has become a household name playing senior prison officer Sylvia “Bodybags” Hollamby, is the only actress who has gone all the way through the series and now she's getting the opportunity to strut her stuff on the stage.

The play mixes fantasy and reality while not shying away the darker side of prison life. Helen said: “It's a mixture of tough reality and a celebration of the warmth, compassion and defiant humour that exists there.”

Helen has been involved in the musical since it was first mooted and performed as a workshop three years ago. She said: “I always thought it was a good idea and I enjoyed taking part in the original workshops but unfortunately when the production was staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse I couldn't take part because I was filming the last series, and I just thought: 'Oh well, that's it, it was nice while it lasted' and didn't think anything more of it.

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“We didn't think the show would get into London because there wasn't a theatre available then the Garrick became free and then they made me an offer that I couldn't refuse.”

She said that although Bodybags has a reputation for being the meanest woman on television - her transformation into a musical star isn't the great leap that you would expect because her character has become more rounded over the past few years of the television series.

Although mean spirited Sylvia is nothing like Helen in real life, she maintains she is an absolute joy to play because she can work out all her angst and frustrations on screen leaving her to happily breeze through the rest of her life with a sunny disposition. “It's long been known in the acting profession that the baddies always get the best parts and are most fun to play because they have characters you can get your teeth into. But after a while you need to explore different sides of the character or they become samey and one dimensional.

“In later series the writers have developed a warmer, more human side to Sylvia which has been interesting to play. I have been very fortunate in that they have slowly been exploring different sides of Bodybags and made her into a more complex person.

She said: “You get to understand her and see why she is like how she is She wasn't born mean spirited but life has contrived to make her that way."

The play provides Helen with a big showstopping number to sing as well as a big production dance number in the second half - this time it's ballroom dancing rather than line-dancing as it was in one the last TV episodes.

She said that although she has been working steadily in theatre, TV and film since leaving drama school in the late 1950s, being in a major West End musical is a completely different kettle of fish. “It's exhausting,” she laughed: “I have never been so fit. We did six weeks of rehearsals starting at the beginning of July, then we have done three weeks of previews to fine tune the show with an audience and now we are opening properly.

“The last couple of weeks has been exactly like being back in rep - rehearsing during the day and being on stage at night. I have lost so much a weight, it's unbelievable. It certainly keeps you in trim.”

She said that at first she felt she couldn't do the musical because she had nowhere to stay and rehearsals would start at the height of the tourist season. “It looked so problematical that I said that there was no way I could do it. But they kept coming back and kept badgering me because they so wanted someone from the original series in it, that I said let me see if I can find somewhere to live.

“I went to my old estate agent that I used when I was shooting Bad Girls and just by chance my old flat that I used when I was filming came free on June 29 and I started work on July 1. I felt that it was providential and this job was meant to be.”

She said that in addition to her realising her remaining career ambition to appear in a West End musical it was also satisfying to be the only series regular in the musical version of the show.

“There are two other cast members who were in the TV series but they are not playing the same roles. They are playing different parts. Of course we have lots of fans coming to the theatre and when I come on stage they whoop and cheer - not because it's Helen Fraser but because it's Sylvia - Bodybags - the character they recognise.”

She said that because she has been involved in the show from the very beginning, she has been able to influence to show degree the way the show has been shaped.

She said: “When I did the first workshop, we only did Act One, I had no idea what was going to happen in Act Two, they hadn't even written it but they did promise me a big number in the second half. So when we did the second workshop I got the number Jail Craft - which has grown into a wonderful, show-stopping number. It has just developed over a period of time into a very big, complicated set piece - which is lovely.

“I have always wanted to do a musical on the London stage, it's my last professional ambition and this is a wonderful way to realise it. Jail Craft isn't all boys and feathers and coming down the stairs like most musicals. Then in the second act we go into this dream sequence where Fenner dreams of the prison that he would really like and all of sudden we are into this Fred and Ginger number with dry ice, stairs come on decorated in lights, I have a beautiful dress we go into this ballroom, I end up tap-dancing, I wear a beautiful wig, it's amazing.”

She said that it's a large scale musical with plenty of up-beat razzmatazz numbers. She said that although the idea of presenting a TV show on stage as a musical because a big risk for the producers, the show had such good word-of-mouth during its time at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and such support from leading critics as Mark Lawson on Radio Four's Front Row that they felt it was worth the gamble.

She said that Bad Girls has had a remarkable life and has been described as the show that refused to die - surviving a couple of proposed cancellations on ITV before it finally came to an end last year.

She said that she felt a warm sense of nostalgia when she entered her dressing room at the Garrick to find her costume waiting for her: “There was my old uniform, my culottes, my shoes, all the old stuff I wore in the television series and as soon as I put them on I was back as Sylvia.

“I love the fact that the uniform is a bit worn because Sylvia's rather lumpy and grumpy and it fits the character, it's part of what makes her who she is, she feels comfortable in it. She's a person who doesn't like change - she's certainly not a person to spend any time worrying about clothes."

Helen is incredibly fond of her character Sylvia Hollamby: “They write so wonderfully well for her. Even in the stage show she an array of catch phrases which the audience pick up on and recognise. They have provided me with some fantastic one-liners which expand the comic side of her character without mugging it and going over the top.”

Even in the musical sequences the writers, Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus, have tapped into Sylvia's character to make sure it all makes sense. She said: “Sylvia and Bobby were supposed to have been ballroom champions in their youth which is why in the dream sequence they brought in the ballroom bit and they thought that tap-dancing was probably the most believably ridiculous thing that Sylvia would ever do.”

She laughs that she has a 40 second costume change which involves “being attacked” by four dressers and a lot of Velcro to get her ready in time.

Helen lives in north Suffolk with her husband, Oscar-winning sound recordist Peter Handford who she met in the set of the film version of Billy Liar, where she played Billy's long-suffering girlfriend Barbara opposite Tom Courtney.

Helen fell for Peter after he did the gallant thing and offered her his overcoat between takes during a chilly shoot in a cemetery.

The pair married and moved to Suffolk in 1969 when Peter was working on Richard Attenborough's Oh What A Lovely War and Helen was working on such diverse projects as playing Lulu in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and starring on television as Lampwick's daughter in The Dick Emery Show. She was also a regular at the Wolsey and Mercury Theatres.

Now with a West End musical on her CV Helen admits she's exhausted but happy: “To be honest I don't know where I go from here because now all my dreams have come true. If I die tomorrow I die a happy woman.”

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Bad Girls: The Musical is currently running at the Garrick Theatre in London. Helen Fraser is in the cast until November.

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