WENDI Peters will forever be known to millions as Cilla Battersby-Brown, a character Coronation Street viewers loved to hate.
However, at the Festival Theatre this festive season, there’s a chance to discover her softer side, as Peters returns to her first love, musical theatre.
The actress plays Martha Watson in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, a role she first played last year.
The musical, based on the 1954 film starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney, tells the story of how two buddies put on a show in a magical Vermont inn, and find their perfect mates in the process.
With a 30-strong cast and 17 piece orchestra, White Christmas co-stars Graham Cole (The Bill’s PC Tony Stamp) and Steven Houghton (London’s Burning), and features evergreen numbers such as Blue Skies, How Deep is the Ocean?, Happy Holidays, Sisters and the titular White Christmas.
“Recently, I was here at the Festival Theatre with Grumpy Old Women, but that was only for one night, so it’s lovely to come back and do a long stint,” says Peters, as she looks forward to spending Christmas and New Year in the Capital.
“I’ve rented an apartment and for Christmas and New Year, my husband will come up with my daughter.”
Laughing, she adds, “I’ve also packed two big cases of woolly pulleys - hopefully we might get some snow.”
If we don’t, there will be plenty on the stage of the Festival Theatre.
“I had such a ball doing White Christmas last year,” says the actress, when asked what tempted her to reprise her role.
“This show is everything that I wanted to do when I was a little girl; I wanted to sing, dance and act in those glamorous 50s-style musicals.
“I spent most of my childhood watching those every weekend... Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Anne Miller. I was just desperate to do that.”
Hardly surprising, then, that long before she became a household name on telly, it was in musical theatre that Peters had carved herself a niche.
“When I first saw White Christmas I just fell in love with it as a show. I was expecting a provincial touring production, but it was complete glamour. Just stunning.”
If the role marks a return to her roots, it’s one Peters is pleased about, despite going out of her way to leave musical theatre behind at one point.
“After ten years of doing musicals I wanted to do different things, so I stopped accepting them. You actually have to put yourself out of work to get something else.
“It’s hard putting yourself out of work - I was a relief postman, a decorator, a waitress, a bar person, just to earn some money.
“Eventually bits of TV came along and luckily I got Bad Girls and then my break in Corrie. ”
In the ITV series Bad Girls, set in a women’s prison, Peters played Pam Jolly, but it was her role in Coronation Street that changed her life.
“Bad Girls was great fun. I only did a few episodes, but in the months I was there it was great.
“Corrie, however, changed my life. I wouldn’t say hugely, but there is no way it can’t. From that moment I appeared on screen, things did change; you do get stopped in the street, people do recognise you, and it’s wonderful. It’s lovely to be appreciated.”
Cilla quickly established herself in the Street’s hall of fame as a bit of a battle axe.
“She was a bit panto really, the one people loved to hate, but she was a joy to play,” laughs Peters.
“I always seem to get those big character type parts, which is lovely because those are the parts I always saw myself doing.”
One thing it’s unlikely Peters ever imagined doing was ‘that’ famous scene, which saw Cilla, her husband Les, and dog Schmeichel plummeted through the roof of their living room... in a bath.
“That was a really tricky scene. There was one shot where we couldn’t get the dog to jump into the bath; one, it was a big bath of water; two, the dog hated me anyway, because all I did was shout at him. So at the end of the day we had to get the trainer in the bath too, in costume, to get the dog to jump in.
“They built a special hydraulic bathroom set for that - it did actually drop like a ride, yet that one scene sequence took about two and a half days to film.
“It’s six years since I left, but that’s the one that everyone remembers. It even made the ITV Christmas card that year - there’s me and Les and the dog saying, ‘Happy Christmas’.”
Just what Peters will be wishing Capital theatre goers for the next few weeks, albeit a happy white one.
White Christmas, Festival Theatre, Friday-4 January, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £16-£46.50, 0131-529 6000