Susie Blake, the Queen of comedy

A scene from Handbagged with Susie Blake
A scene from Handbagged with Susie Blake
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FROM Victoria Wood’s Continuity Lady to the holier than thou Hilary in Mrs Brown’s Boys, Rovers Return barmaid Bev Unwin to a multitude of roles in Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, Susie Blake has long been a stalwart of prime-time television - she even provided the voice for panda Soo in Sooty’s Amazing Adventures.

This week at the King’s Theatre, however, the 65-year-old adopts an altogether more regal demeanour, to star as The Queen in Moira Buffini’s irreverent comedy Handbagged, a fictional account of the weekly meetings between Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher.

“Word has spread that it’s a good evening, suitable for anyone; well, not children, but everyone else, even if they weren’t alive during the 11-year period of Mrs Thatcher’s... em,” Blake pauses, before deciding on the word, “leadership.”

“By the way, before we go any further, if anyone is dubious about a play about Margaret Thatcher, they will have a good laugh. It was the same for me.

“At one point, Thatcher accosts the audience and asks if they want to listen to the man who is talking against her. Very often they yell out, ‘Yes.’

“It’s brilliantly written and very funny. Her Majesty didn’t get on with Thatcher. They had nothing in common and had to meet every week for 11 years.

“Can you image having tea with someone you don’t particularly get on with every week for 11 years?”

Despite the comedy, it remains a play that will make you think, insists the actress.

“It certainly made me think. I’m not political at all, I’m a people person, a humanitarian I suppose, that’s why I parted ways with Thatcher.

“The first week she was there I thought, ‘A woman has made it. Fantastic.’ Then she was no different. In fact, she was more like Churchill than Churchill.

“It was extraordinary, she was slightly to the right of Atila the Hun.”

The Queen, on the other hand, Blake admits to being “rather fond of her.”

“But I have a double standard when it comes to royalty. If there were about five of them, that would be great. We could cope with that,” she says.

Blake has certainly become a lot more familiar with the royals since researching her role.

“What helped me most was not watching her Christmas broadcasts, but the jolly clips of her playing with the grandchildren, cracking jokes; having her portrait painted; at the races, running to see if her horse had won; doing a Highland reel, or running into the room saying, ‘Oh look, we are all wearing blue.’

“Suddenly she became human, and on to that I could add the public face we see because she takes her work so seriously.

“That is what I can’t help admiring.”

Blake might not be a dyed in the wool monarchist, but delve into her family background and it quickly becomes clear she hails from theatrical royalty herself - the Mills Dynasty.

The granddaughter of actress Annette Mills and a grand-niece of the legendary Sir John Mills, actresses Hayley and Juliet Mills are her first cousins once-removed.

“Hayley and I are now good friends as we live in the same area of London, but I didn’t know them for a very long time and was very keen not to mention them because I didn’t want people to think I’d had a helping hand.

“My mother was incredibly close to John Mills when she was a child because they were brought up by John’s mother, my mother’s grandmother.

“Then there was a big period where we saw them once every five years, so we weren’t close.

“By the time I got into Coronation Street I thought I was established enough not to mind saying there was a connection.”

On telly, Blake has frequently managed to be in the right place at the right time.

Famously, she was the woman who fired Victor Meldrew in the first episode of One Foot In The Grave, sending him on his misanthropic adventures, and earlier this year, after the death of Anne Kirkbride, she reprised her Corrie role, informing Ken and Tracy of Deirdre’s death.

Indeed, it was a night out with Corrie and Boyzone’s Keith Duffy that won her another prized part, that of snobby mother-in-law Hilary Nicholson in Mrs Brown’s Boys.

The actress reveals, “When I was doing Coronation Street in 2003, Keith took us all to see Brendan O’Carroll as Mrs Brown. I thought he was hysterical. Afterwards everyone went back to meet him but I couldn’t as I had early call the next morning.

“So I sent him a bunch of flowers and wrote him a letter saying how I’d found it incredibly moving and very, very funny.

“He remembered that. So cut to five years ago, when my name came up to take over the role of Hilary, and he remembered me and said, ‘Yes, I’d like to work with her’.”

As for that pivotal moment in One Foot And The Grave... “Richard Wilson, Victor Meldrew himself got me that part. He’d been directing me in a play and said, ‘Oh come on, they need somebody to play this part’. So overnight I drove down to where they were filming, sacked him, and then drove home again.”

But for many, Blake will forever be Victoria Wood’s caustic Continuity Lady, a role she’s still not quite sure how she landed.

“Victoria came to see me at the King’s Head pub theatre in London where I was playing three American characters. Where she got the Continuity Announcer from that, I don’t know, but afterwards she came up to me and said she’d like me to be in her new television series and would I meet the director, so I did.

“Initially, the Continuity Lady had one or two speeches over the whole series, but when they saw how funny she was they rewrote it to make her part of the show and she was in every episode.

“People don’t easily forget you when you’re staring down the camera at them every week.”

Handbagged, The King’s, Leven Street, until Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14-£29.50, 0131-529 6000