Whatever happened to Brigit Forsyth?
Diane Parkes speaks to a star of stage and screen.
When actress Brigit Forsyth was a girl growing up in Edinburgh she used to queue for autographs so it came as quite a surprise to her when people starting asking her to scribble her name on pieces of paper.
In the 1970s Brigit was one of the best known faces on television, recognised the country over as Thelma in the much-loved programme Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?
The show was so popular that 27 million people watched it – half of the country at the time. So it is no surprise that Brigit suddenly became famous.
“I didn’t realise how big a thing telly could be,” says Brigit, who comes to Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the comedy Noises Off next week. “I was a theatre girl and the telly thing was a real surprise. I thought I would soon be back in theatre and the show would be a flash in the pan.
“And it came as a real shock to me when people started recognising me. I would be out and people would stare at me and I would be thinking ‘do I have a black mark on my face?’ Then they would come over and say they had seen me on the show.”
A theatre fan from the age of eight when she saw her first pantomimes at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, Brigit suddenly experienced a reversal of roles.
“I used to love the theatre and I would wait around afterwards for autographs. People were always so nice. I remember queuing to get the autograph of Yehudi Menuhin and it was like meeting a god.So it was such a surprise when people were coming up to me.”
Although it is well chronicled that Brigit’s co-stars Rodney Bewes and James Bolan fell out and have not spoken in three decades, Brigit says in her case it was more a case of drifting apart over the years.
“There aren’t enough hours in the day to keep in touch with everyone you work with as you work with different people on all the shows,” she says.
“I did go to the Donmar to see Jimmy when he was in Glengarry Glen Ross. We had a drink afterwards but I haven’t seen Rodney in years.”
Since those days Brigit has been hard at work appearing in a host of other television shows including Playing The Field, The Practice and Tom, Dick and Harriet. She has also appeared in countless long-running hits such as Doctors, The Bill, Casualty, Coronation Street and Emmerdale.
“A lot of people recognised me after Emmerdale as well,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe how many people watch that.”
But Brigit’s heart has always remained in theatre and she has appeared in classics such as Hamlet, The Comedy of Errors, The Glass Menagerie and The Importance of Being Earnest as well as the recent West End hit Calendar Girls. But despite all of her experience she says she has always battled with nerves.
“I used to be really bad but I have got better over the years,” she says. “I didn’t get some jobs because I would be so petrified at auditions. I remember going for one audition for a TV show and they were so nice but I was so nervous I was just sitting there and my upper lip got stuck. I could feel it just sticking there and when I had to speak I had to unstick it before I could say anything.”
At 69 Brigit knows full well the backstage goings-on in theatres – which forms the plot of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.
“The show is a play within a play,” she says. “It is so cleverly constructed and you see the chaos which is going on backstage. There is a gradual disintegration which is very funny.
“Honestly I have never experienced anything quite like Noises Off when I have been working on a play but there are little scenes or comments between people that are so like what happens. It is so easy for something to be said or misunderstood and then you realise that you have it all wrong.”
Indeed the backstage dynamic of any production is part of the attraction for Brigit, who is appearing alongside Ian Lindsay and Brian Protheroe in this Birmingham Rep production directed by Ian Talbot.
“There may be some people that you know because you have worked with them beforehand but then there are also the new people you meet,” she says. “You might know who they are because you might have watched them in something but you don’t actually know them.
“It is quite a strange job though as people do get assumptions about you. It is strange when someone says you aren’t at all like they thought you would be.
“A director said that to me once and I asked him what he thought I would be like and he said he thought I would be ‘hard as nails and quite difficult’. I was a bit surprised!”
In Noises Off Brigit plays Dotty Otley who is having a fling with the lead actor Garry Lejeune, played by Andrew Harvill. She says that while some of the backstage antics may be part of her past, an affair with a co-star has never been part of it.
“That I have never done,” laughs Brigit. “He is a lot younger than her and I have never really considered a toy boy. I don’t think that is my thing.”
* Noises Off is at the Birmingham Rep from May 14-June 5. Tickets: 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk