Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Northern Ireland actress Jayne Wisener on her dreams of returning home and how she coped after losing grandad to Alzheimer's

Coleraine actress Jayne Wisener is getting ready for panto season in her adopted home county of Kent. She tells Una Brankin why she'd love to move back to Northern Ireland and how she has coped after losing her beloved grandfather to Alzheimer's disease earlier this year

Jayne Wisener reached two personal milestones in life this year. On May 19, the Coleraine-born actress, who still gets asked to show her ID when buying wine, became 30 years old. Two months later, she marked the fifth anniversary of her marriage to Wayne Austin, a banker from Bromley - a union which would give her a stand-out stage name on her actor's equity card, if she chose to change it.

But she's sticking to Wisener, which comes from her father John's German ancestors, although she's Jayne Austin (nice ring to that) on the driving licence she's required to show in the off-licence.

When we met at the Grand Opera House last December, she admitted that she was dreading turning 30.

"Yeah, thanks for reminding me," she deadpans, down the line from Dartford, her panto venue this year. "I don't feel any different but I did have a real fear of going into my thirties, thinking I didn't achieve enough in my twenties.

"I assumed I'd be settled and have kids by now, but it hasn't felt 100 per cent right yet, because of work. It has to feel right. My sister Gillian's baby makes me so broody. I could eat him. I'd still like to come home and have kids."

To celebrate her birthday, Wayne whisked Jayne off to Lake Como in Italy.

"Everybody asks me did I see George Clooney," she laughs. "He didn't reach out to me - mustn't have known I was coming.

"Lake Como is beautiful and it was romantic, although we're not overly romantic ourselves - that makes me a little uncomfortable. We're best friends. We get on with each other and have a laugh, and we want the same things.

"I'm on Property Pal every day, dreaming about buying a house back home, then someone else buys it. But it will happen in the next couple of years. Wayne loves Northern Ireland, too. He thinks we have a great quality of life.

"In London, it's a whole different culture. It's hard to catch up with friends. People are stressed and living in their bubble."

Based in Kent, the couple didn't get to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in July, due to tragic circumstances. Jayne's 76-year-old grandfather, Noel, died in Coleraine on July 1. A father of five, Mr Wisener had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2010, at 70.

"It's only been for the last four years that he's had to go into care," says Jayne. "He's been in different homes and in and out of hospital. It's a very sad illness.

"In the end, he didn't look like himself, like he was in the pictures from our wedding five years ago. He didn't recognise me when I went to see him. He thought I was just a nice wee girl who had come to visit him. He'd flirt and wink at me and tell me I looked well.

"He didn't lose that part of his personality but he lost a lot of himself."

The voice on the line falters, the grief still weighing as she recalls that her grandfather was unable to attend her brother John's wedding last year. His funeral took place at St Patrick's Church in Coleraine, where Jayne was married in July 2012 with the Belfast Gospel Choir providing the wedding music.

"He would have been 77 on December 5, that's not old," she emphasises. "But it was a release for him. He was such a lovely man.

"His partner, Edith, is a really strong woman. She got her driving licence when she was 70, when grandad couldn't drive any more. She's coping." In an attempt to help spread awareness of Alzheimer's disease, Jayne attended the launch in March of the Alzheimer's Association offices in Coleraine, her father John's hometown. Her mother Margaret, nee Twadell, a former psychiatric nurse, is now working as a classroom assistant, while her dad is a retired civil servant.

A self-confessed homebird, Jayne admits she'll miss spending Christmas at home this year. She's starring as Cinderella, opposite Michelle Collins, Louis Spence and Paul Nicholls, in the Dartford panto, reprising her role from Belfast's Grand Opera House this time last year.

"We don't live that far away so I get to spend Christmas with my husband and Dougie, our cat, in Kent for a change, but I don't cook and I've never made a Christmas dinner in my life," she giggles. "We're going over to his sister's house this year. I've generally been going to mum and dad's and have got spoiled rotten.

"I've been lucky to have been working in Belfast at Christmas in the past and I'll miss it this year. I love the Grand Opera House; even the dancers all love going back there.

"I miss John Linehan (May McFettridge) every day! He's just the best."

Jayne landed her first major film role at 18, as Johanna in Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, alongside Hollywood superstar Johnny Depp who she described as "absolutely beautiful and very, very lovely to me". She went on to star in the Channel 4 comedy The Inbetweeners, and in the BBC Northern Ireland drama 6 Degrees.

Nowhere along the line has she encountered the sexual harassment now being reported with alarming regularity by actors and actresses, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey scandals.

"I knew it went on; fortunately, I've never been in put in a situation where I've felt uncomfortable. No-one ever disrespected me. I heard rumours about all sorts of actresses.

"If it happened to me, I'd come right out and say it. But I don't think people should be bashed for not speaking out. I'd be terrified, too."

Still hoping to work in Hollywood some day, she auditions for the US pilot season by video link. In the meantime, she'll be back home to appear in the Thru'penny Opera at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, which opens on February.

"I'm flying back on New Year's Day for rehearsals and gate-crashing with John and his wife and their new Labrador in Belfast," she says.

"Wayne will come over to see the show but he has to mind Dougie back home in Kent.

"He enjoys having me out of the house, anyway.

"I like my space, too. We FaceTime every day though. It's nice to see his face but we don't have very meaningful conversations …"

She admits she fancied her Cinderella co-star, Paul Nicholls, back in his EastEnders days. And she's enjoying working with Michelle Collins, another former EastEnder.

As she says: "I met Michelle before in Casualty - she played my mum. She's nice. Very friendly and fun. Louis Spence? He's crazy. He's mostly in scenes with the prince, though. It's weird: it's the same role, same songs as last year in Belfast, but with a different cast in a different location. The script's the same but the jokes are tailored to the locality - I don't get them."

At last year's Grand Opera House panto, Cinderella was unmistakably Coleraine, with an authentic north-western twang. For the Dartford version, Jayne is suitably English in her delivery. "Over here they think my accent is the best thing ever; they love it, whereas back home I'm a culchie. It's not the most beautiful of sounds," she concludes.

"I can do an English accent that's not too clipped or fake. I want to make it real. I can do RP (received pronunciation) quite easily but I'd rather not. The thing is, the kids at the panto will freak out if they come to meet us afterwards and I slip into my culchie Coleraine.

"They think my character is real, so I'll have to keep the English accent going. But don't worry, it won't stick!"

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