After she quit Britain’s best-loved soap last year, Coronation Street producer Phil Cole paid Stephanie Cole the ultimate tribute, calling her “one of this country’s finest actors”.
It’s a view shared by many of those who have worked with the veteran star of stage and screen, who has appeared in theatre productions including Noises Off and Blithe Spirit in the West End, and boasts roles in TV series including Waiting For God and Tenko.
Cole, known to millions for her role as Roy Cropper’s battleaxe mum Sylvia Goodwin in Corrie, loved her time on the hallowed cobbles of the country’s favourite street – but reveals that we’ve seen the last of her character.
“I’d been asked once, many years ago, and I couldn’t take the role because I was busy,” says the 72-year-old, who trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the late Fifties and went on to hone her acting skills in repertory theatres around the UK. “It was a pity, because it’s the one soap I do enjoy. But I was asked again, and this time I could do it.
“I took two six-month stints and absolutely loved it.
“I had the most wonderful time on Coronation Street. The people there who work on the ground – the other actors and the technicians and whatnot – they are absolutely wonderful, they really are.
“They have huge pressure, but they cope so well. It’s very long days and it’s hard work. But it’s very good fun and the cast and crew are terrific.”
Laughing, she adds, “Oh, and of course Robert Vaughn was my love interest – so that wasn’t bad. And I also got to play the ukelele, which was something else again.
“I made some great friends there, and I adored my time on Corrie – but no, I won’t be going back. We’ve seen the last of Sylvia.”
Cole says she doesn’t like playing the same character for too long.
“Like [hit ITV series] Doc Martin [she played the beloved character of Aunt Joan] I just did the four series and actually all the series that I’ve fronted in years past I’ve done no more than four series.
“I don’t like to stay with anything for too long. I like to mix and match. There’s always something else around the corner, and I don’t want to get bored.
“With TV, after four series I always say, ‘Thank you, that’s the end of it!’ That’s why I left Doc Martin, and that’s why I left Coronation Street – there are other mountains to climb, other rivers to swim.
“I absolutely respect people who spend a long time doing one thing, but I’m not made like that.”
So does she have a preference for stage or screen?
“I don’t, actually,” she says “I love doing them both, for different reasons. And for the obvious reasons.
“I love theatre because of the audience response, and I love television and film because you get to do the scenes until you get it right.”
Tonight, Cole is back treading the boards at the Traverse Theatre in This May Hurt A Bit, Stella Feehily’s unapologetic agitprop on behalf of a beleaguered NHS.
The actress plays the role of Iris, a witty and feisty supporter of the NHS who finds herself unexpectedly in its care.
“I think it’s a terrific script,” enthuses Cole, who is joined in the production by Brian Protheroe, Frances Ashman, Natalie Klamar and siblings Jane and Tristram Wymark.
“It’s set in and around a family who have reason to use the NHS, so there are a lot of laughs and it’s also very moving. You actually learn about how near we are to losing our NHS.
“It’s very quick – two halves of 50 minutes – so you’re out in two hours, and it’s very informative without you kind of thinking ‘Oh my god, now I’m being informed’, you know?
“It sort of slips in the odd bit of information.”
Reviews from around the country have been glowing, with The Observer describing This May Hurt A Bit as ‘every bit as theatrically entertaining as it is politically committed’.
“Yes, we have had the most extraordinary response,” smiles Cole. “Not everybody works for the NHS, but we all make use of the NHS – so it is actually appealing across the political board, which is very interesting.
“Of course, successive governments of whatever power have connived at the move towards making the NHS privatised, which of course would be a disaster for most people in this country.”
Cole, whose most recognised role was perhaps that of Dr Beatrice Mason in the classic Eighties BBC prison drama Tenko, says that Iris has been one of the most enjoyable characters she has played.
“Iris is the matriarch of the family, and she is one of the people who has to use the NHS,” she explains. “She’s 90, and she comes originally from Wales – from Pembrokeshire, in fact – and she’s been a socialist all her life.
“She’s always been a great defender and user of the NHS all her life – so she is very pro. She has a daughter who is married to an American surgeon, and you know, they don’t have the system we have – so the conflict comes, as it were, to find the family.
“Iris is very feisty and it’s a great part to play. I’m really loving it.”
Throughout her career, Cole has played characters considerably older than she is – but she has no clue why.
“I’ve spent my life playing older characters,” she laughs. “I have no idea why that is. Everybody always asks and I really, truly have no idea. I just don’t know.
I was never what would have been called a ‘juvenile’, even though I started in the business when I was very young. I was attractive, but I wasn’t a ‘dolly bird’, so it may have something to do with it.”
This May Hurt A Bit, Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, tonight until Saturday, 7.30pm, £12.50-£15.50 (£8 unemployed, disabled), 0131-228 1404