Vicki Michelle: "This issue isn't going to beat me"
In a twist of fate, actress Vicki Michelle, whose catchphrase was 'listen very carefully' in the comedy 'Allo 'Allo, now suffers from tinnitus. She tells Gabrielle Fagan about the impact it's had on her life and how acting has helped
She found fame as sexy waitress Yvette in Eighties comedy 'Allo 'Allo, but today Vicki Michelle's passion for performing is even more intense because it provides the only respite from a distressing condition.
The glamorous 65-year-old actress - known for a host of appearances on TV, including Emmerdale, Celebrity MasterChef and in 2014 toughing it out in the jungle in I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! - reveals for the first time the distress she's suffering because of tinnitus.
It's often described as 'ringing in the ears', although the sounds people hear vary and include whistling, humming, grinding or hissing.
"I continually hear an incessant, loud 'white noise' sound in my ears - a bit like the buzzing noise a television or radio makes when there's interference or its badly tuned. Depressingly, it seems to be getting louder as time goes on," explains Essex-born Michelle, who's had the problem for nine months.
"Every couple of days I also experience a sudden, high-pitched howling noise, which lasts around a minute and is loud enough to wake me when I'm asleep. I then struggle to drop off again. The problem is debilitating and torture at times because it's so distracting. In desperation, I sometimes put my hands over my ears and say, 'please God, stop!' Although I've always been known for being full of energy, months of disturbed nights have really sapped me."
Michelle, who's currently touring in comedy play The Naked Truth with her actress daughter Louise (27), says: "The only time I seem able to literally 'tune out' and get away from it is when I'm performing. It's such a huge relief to be able to do that and I think my actor's instincts - the show must go on attitude - just overrides the problem."
Tinnitus is common, with most people experiencing an occasional episode after a loud concert or disco, while one in 10 people have it mildly. However, one in 100 people endure severe persistent tinnitus, which adversely affects the quality of their life.
In many cases, the cause of the symptom, which affects the nerve pathway between the ear and the brain, is unknown, but it can develop after experiencing excessive noise levels over a period, following a head or ear injury, as a result of taking certain medications, or accompanying age-related hearing loss.
"I can definitely say it's affected my life and it's reduced me to tears on occasions in private. I'm a hugely positive, optimistic person, though, and I'm 100% determined that this isn't going to beat me. I'm just hoping one day I'll wake up and it will have disappeared - although that's looking increasingly unlikely - or someone will invent a successful treatment," says this warm, vivacious woman.
Fans still approach her and ask her to reprise Yvette Carte-Blanche's famous catchphrase from 'Allo 'Allo: "Listen very carefully ... I shall say this only once" and "oooh Rene". The wartime sitcom about the French resistance ran from 1982 to 1992.
"It's lovely that people remember the show so fondly, it was a worldwide success, so I feel it's a terrific compliment and never mind obliging. I'd been struggling and about to quit showbusiness and get a 'proper job' and then that role came along. It was my big break, so how could I not feel affection for it?," she says with a smile.
"I've enjoyed a wonderful life and career - I've been married over 40 years and never been out of work - so I try all the time to keep this tinnitus in perspective. I'm only too aware people have far worse things to bear in life, but sometimes it's hard not to feel it's unfair it's happened to me. I've always looked after my hearing and never exposed myself to loud noise or listened to music on headphones. As a performer, I knew how important it was to preserve my hearing," says Michelle, who was awarded an MBE in 2010 for her services to charity.
"Unfortunately the problem isn't confined to the constant buzzing. I've also become much more sensitive to loud noise and have problems with the way I perceive the location of an outside noise. I may think it's coming from the left of me and it will turn out to be the right, which is disorientating. It makes me a bit nervous sometimes when I'm out and especially when crossing roads."
Michelle's certainly not someone to complain lightly. Only two weeks after surgery on a cyst on her ovary, defying medical guidance, she took part in the physically punishing reality challenge of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!
"I feared I had cancer when it was discovered and it was a huge relief to learn it wasn't. I'd suffered stomach pain for a while and ignored it - and the cyst turned out to be the size of a small rugby ball. After keyhole surgery to remove it, you're supposed to recover for up to six weeks, but that would have meant missing out on I'm A Celebrity. So I lied to the doctors on the programme when they asked me if I'd had any recent health problems," she admits with a smile.
"I knew they'd never have let me take part if they'd known. It was a risk, but nothing's ever stopped me performing. It's all the tonic I need. You just learn to get up and get going and I didn't have any problems."
Michelle also recently starred as Marilyn Monroe in a play, Hello Norma Jeane.
"It's a wonderful role based on the premise that Marilyn faked her own death and has revealed herself after 40 years.
"I've done lots of comedy, working with brilliant comedians like Dick Emery, Ken Dodd and Les Dawson in the past, but this dramatic role was something special for me," she says.
"It's lovely that I played sexy Yvette and, all these years on, I can still take on the role of a sex symbol, and an iconic one at that. But why not? I never think about my own age. My attitude is that if you don't acknowledge ageing, it won't happen. I've decided I feel 35 inside and so the outside is irrelevant.
"If I get any odd aches and pains, I just say to myself, 'don't be stupid, you're too young to be bothered by anything like that'. It seems to work!"
For more information or to book a free hearing test visit specsavers.co.uk/hearing. The Specsavers Hearing Check App is free to download on the App and Play store on iOS or Android devices and advises whether a full check in store is recommended