Claire King on quitting Coronation Street and starring in Belfast pantomime
Ahead of her role in panto at Belfast’s Grand Opera House actress Claire King talks about life in Coronation Street, why she will never do reality television again, her marriage break-up and new love, writes Una Brankin
That husky voice, that smoky laugh - to millions of soap viewers, Claire King will always be remembered for playing the manipulative Kim Tate in Emmerdale, a role that won her the Best Bitch in Soap award. That was back in 1989-1999. Over the last two and a half years, she has played Erica Holroyd, Liz McDonald's man-eating friend from Spain, on Coronation Street. But it seems that blondes who have starred on rival soaps do not fare so well on the cobbles.
When Michelle Collins arrived on the Street in 2011 to take over the Rovers, it was a case of: what's Cindy from EastEnders doing in Corrie?
At least Michelle had a fully-developed character to play and dramatic storylines to portray. Poor Claire King was criminally under-used as Erica, who was only centre-stage too briefly during her passing romances with Steve McDonald and Dev Alahan, and her dalliance with Kevin Webster.
Fed up with her character going nowhere, the actress left Weatherfield recently to pursue other roles, including adding sparkle to this year's pantomime, Peter Pan, at Belfast's Grand Opera House.
"I felt the writing wasn't working for me," she says, from her publicist's office in England. "It was always difficult as I came in as a lone wolf, Liz's friend from Spain, with no family. I was like a pinball bouncing around these different situations.
"It's a pity; I'd imagined three or four of us sitting round a table chewing the cud - me, Sue Cleaver (Eileen), Beverly Callard (Liz), Patti Clare (Mary) - like the real Coronation Street of old. That's what I always loved about it."
Since Erica arrived in Weatherfield in the spring of 2014, the cast has increased to 65, many of them younger characters, and the episodes have risen from three to six a week. Storylines are becoming more issue-led; the police station and the hospital are being kept extremely busy with Street residents.
Claire agrees it's all going a bit EastEnders, remarking that she found the more frantic filming schedule hard work, but happy that it included some comedic interactions with the kooky spinster, Mary.
"I had to graft it out - they'd film an episode a day," she says. "It was a different kettle of fish to Emmerdale. But I was so excited to join Corrie and I loved working with Patti. She's brilliant - she created Mary.
"Patti's pretty bonkers too," she laughs. "But she's absolutely lovely, the sweetest lady you'll ever meet. I thought we brought out a bit of the old humour Coronation Street is known for."
Although she moved on from Emmerdale 18 years ago, the actress never left the Dales. Originally from Bradford, she and her brother, Piers, help care for her elderly parents, John, 77, who has multiple sclerosis and mother Angela, also 77, who has rheumatoid arthritis.
She shares her home, near scenic Harrogate in West Yorkshire, with a local businessman who prefers to keep out of the limelight.
"Yes, I'm glad he's not in show business," she says with a huge guffaw. "It works better; he keeps my feet on the ground. We've been together 10 years.
"I do miss him when I'm away working but I go where the work is. I'm always travelling, on tour or filming. He can always visit."
On Channel 5's compelling In Therapy programme recently, Claire disclosed she turned to drink and suffered depression after her ex-husband of 10 years, Peter Amory, cheated on her with their Emmerdale co-star, Samantha Giles, and left her in serious debt in 2004 due to his then-gambling habit. She was only £9,000 short of paying off her mortgage when he gambled away the house and savings.
However, it was only when she discovered that Peter had been cheating on her with Samantha, who played Bernice Blackstock, that she decided the marriage was over.
She found out about the affair when she received a letter from his new lover's husband and admits "going off the rails" for a while thereafter.
Since then, she has forgiven both - even conceding candidly, on Loose Women, that "it could have been me" in the other woman's shoes.
Part of her healing process, she admits, involved a little rejuvenation.
"It wasn't a face-lift, as the papers said," she protests. "It was a one stitch thread lift thing, on either side. I wasn't cut open. It's only a temporary thing; it doesn't last.
"It did the job for me at the time and gave me a little boost, but it's not something I'd become hooked on.
"I'm very anti-Botox; I'd rather stay natural. I can't have it anyway because my immune system's so low."
Her low immunity is due to arthritis, a condition she has endured for 25 years.
Although it was the reason behind her exit, on Day 16, from Celebrity Big Brother in 2014, she has learned to pole dance for a role and came sixth in Strictly Come Dancing in 2006.
"I believe it's hereditary; Mum has it," she explains. "It hasn't held me back at all. My medication keeps it under control. It's just the cold damp days that can get to me. I eat healthily (as certain foods inflame the joints). I have a Mediterranean diet with lots of fish and vegetables and salad, and I drink lots of water. But I'll have your Ulster Fry for a special treat when I'm over for Peter Pan."
The healthy lifestyle has paid off. From her horse-riding hobby and swimming in Spain, where she has a holiday home, she is fit and trim. Fortunately for Claire, her glamorous good looks have never attracted the sex pests prevalent in her industry.
"I haven't been sexually harassed but it's gone on for a century and probably will continue," she says. "I'm sure it's the tip of the iceberg and it will turn into a witch hunt.
"I don't think any form of harassment should be tolerated at all. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, then it's wrong."
She turns 55 in May. The prospect doesn't seem to bother her.
"I've had it all out so I've by-passed the menopause," she says, matter-of-factly. "It was a medical issue, seven years ago. I just ended up with very large lumps so I got rid of them and they removed everything.
"I don't know if it's accelerated anything, I just carry on as normal. Turning 40 was worse than turning 50. For actors, it's frustrating as you become somewhat invisible, as women do, generally in life. It doesn't work the other way around for men."
The hysterectomy brought an end to any notion of motherhood - "I just never got round to it" - but a step-son from Claire's previous marriage, and her partner's children "have filled the hole".
After Emmerdale, from 1999 to 2004, Claire took the part of G-Wing Governor Karen Betts in the prison drama Bad Girls, for which she won Best Actress at the TV Quick Awards for two years in succession.
She has also appeared in many other popular TV drama series including Hollyoaks, Doctors, Holby City, The Royal, Dalziel & Pascoe and Casualty, and has lent that sultry voice to a number of TV and radio programmes, as well as advertisements and listening books.
On stage, she has starred in The Naked Truth and the Vagina Monologues, alongside Jerry Hall and Only Fools And Horses actress, Sue Holderness, and on the big screen, she has starred in A Reason to Leave released in December 2016, and Milk And Honey, released this autumn.
Apart from Strictly, reality television is an experience she would never repeat.
"Celebrity Big Brother nearly killed me," she chuckles. "Reality isn't really my cup of tea. I'm A Celebrity? I wouldn't mind the creepy crawlies, it's the other people that would be the problem!"
For her ideal role, she plumps for for The Wicked Lady, a part made famous originally in black and white by Margaret Lockwood, and later by Faye Dunaway in a glossy re-make.
The part would show off Claire's horse-riding skills - she has held an amateur jockey's licence, owned two racehorses and used to ride out for a few trainers as well as taking part in a number of charity races.
She has also presented a documentary for This Morning on the plight of the horses in Lesotho in aid of World Horse Welfare.
"I've never worked in Belfast before but I've been to the Down Royal races - I've friends there and it's a cracking day out," she enthuses. "I'll miss it this Boxing Day though, with the panto. And I've no idea where I'll be having my Christmas dinner."
In the Grand Opera House panto, Claire will star as The Magical Mermaid, the underwater enchantress on hand to help high-flying Peter Pan out-wit villainous Captain Hook.
"I have a fish-tail so I won't be doing anything too strenuous, no dancing or singing - I'm somewhat limited in my movements," she laughs.
"I did manage to do Strictly; this is a little easier. I'm an old hand, at this stage. I really don't get much free time.
"I'm just struggling on with my career, full-time, but I'll go on holiday after the Panto. I've been working non-stop this year and I'd love to go to see the Komodo Dragons in Bali, or something like that."
Another dragon she'll have to face, first, is her co-star May McFettridge.
"I might be wearing some of her terrible blue eyeshadow," she hoots. "She has dodgy joints too? Ha, we'll be a right pair!"
Panto cast will have you hooked
For Peter Pan, Claire King will be joining joining the Queen of Panto May McFettridge (John Linehan), who will be Mrs Smee in her 28th consecutive Grand Opera House pantomime; old favourite Paddy Jenkins as Starkey; Britain’s Got Talent finalist funny man Paul Burling as Smee, and double Olivier Award-winning actor David Bedella as Captain Hook, the pirate captain of the infamous Jolly Rodger intent on defeating Peter Pan and ruling Neverland.
For his break-out role as Satan and the Warm Up Man in the controversial musical Jerry Springer — The Opera in 2004, Bedella won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
In 2016, David again picked up the coveted award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical, for his portrayal of Kevin Rosario in the Tony Award-winning In The Heights.
David has also performed in leading roles in a number of West End smash-hits including The Rocky Horror Show, Sweeney Todd and Chicago. He last performed on the Grand Opera House stage in 2015 as Roger De Bris in Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
Sponsored by Dale Farm, a record breaking 55,000 panto seats have been already sold, a month ahead of opening night on Saturday, December 2.
For tickets and more details go to goh.co.uk.