NOT long before she was helping to switch on Sheffield’s Christmas lights this year, loveable Liverpool actress Margi Clarke was wondering whether she could afford to switch on her own table lamp.
The Wicked Queen in the Lyceum’s festive family offering Sleeping Beauty, which opens next week, smiles when she reveals the call to step in for poorly former Coronation Street pal Beverley Callard in the panto came at just the right time.
“I felt like I’d had a visit from a good fairy,” says Margi, once described by Malcolm McLaren as the Queen Of Liverpool.
“I hadn’t been in work in a while. I was really low on funds and I was beginning to get a bit desperate. The next thing, I got that phone call. Showbusiness is like that where it can all change overnight. All it takes is that one phone call.
“And I’ve never been asked to turn Christmas lights on before, anywhere. It was really emotional, up on the Town Hall balcony with the Mayoress, looking out.
“The irony wasn’t lost on me because I’ve been on a ‘leccy card’. It means you’re fuel poor. There was me, I can’t even turn the lights on in my house and I was turning the lights on here for the city.
“And this changes it now. I’m so grateful to be back in work and I’ve got a few bob for a change. I can get rid of the leccy card.”
Margi, who made her name in the cult low-budget film Letter To Brezhnev before appearing in numerous one-off dramas as well as Brookside, Benidorm, Waterloo Road, and Coronation Street as Tyrone’s manipulative mother Jackie Dobbs, admits her appointment brought mixed feelings.
“I was sad on one level as it was to replace Beverley, because she’s not feeling too good.
“I did a couple of big scenes with her in Corrie. I really liked her straight away. She’s a girl a bit like myself, from a working class background.
“She’s clever, dead intelligent, but what I liked was the way she worked with other people.
“There was a director who had never directed before on the set and it was his very first day. She made sure everyone gave their best.
“I love to see things like that; she was a service to other people and I really hope she gets well soon.”
Although not entirely new to panto or a wicked role, it is Margi’s first time in Sheffield and she arrives with a dual purpose.
“I’d never had the opportunity to be here and I had that old fashioned idea of Sheffield. I still thought it was industrial, grimy.
“I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a handsome city, with handsome people. In fact, I’m on a man mission and I love broad-shouldered fellas who used to work in the steel mills.”
Fellow panto cast members were revealed in the summer, including Cbeebies regular Sid Sloane as the Jester and returning star Damian ‘The Dame’ Williams as Nurse Nellie, so Margi’s had some catching up to do.
“I’ve had to really dive into the witch’s cackle. It’s a great part to play.
“Anyone who wants to act is drawn towards the baddie because that’s where all the drama is – the passion.
“I’m quite a spiritual person, I’m nearly 58 and that side to you gets developed, but here I am now saying ‘I love being evil’.
“When I tell everyone I’m in Sleeping Beauty my family and friends are: ‘Playing the Wicked Witch? No acting required, eh Marg?’.
“It suits my type of acting. Some directors call me Margi Jambon, as in a bit of a ham.
“Although you can let rip it’s still closely directed. There’s little things the director’s passed to me I didn’t have a clue about. How to play a joke up. How to direct it at the audience.
“There’s tons to cover and the rehearsal period is really intense. He’s a slave driver, the director, but he’s doing us a favour because working us hard now stretches our stamina for when we come to play, so you’re not in shock how much it is going to take out of you.”
Sleeping Beauty opens a week tomorrow and runs until January 8.
PERCHED outside having a sneaky cigarette, it is hard to figure why Margi Clarke didn’t get the job of festive bad girl sooner.
She’s quick-witted, keeps your attention with those Scouse dulcets and cherishes the panto tradition.
“I’ve earned my spurs,” she says as we discuss her past roles.
“I’ve been in the game a long time, over 34 years. The only thing I haven’t done is read the news.
“Panto, it’s a great thing about British culture, panto is the real deal. It’s not machine culture. It really belongs to us.
“We got taken to the pantomime when we were children. My mam had 10 kids and me dad was a docker and in them days the dockers weren’t paid very well.
“I remember a charity for working class kids and we got taken by them. Jimmy Jewel was in it.”
In Sheffield Margi’s been taking inspiration from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty cartoon: “You can’t get scarier than that. How creepy is that witch? How sinister is that part?”
And tips from Damian Williams, a key part of the Lyceum’s panto success story. “I’m knocked out by Damian. The rest of the country is going to get to know about him. He’s so funny.
“I’m watching him because he knows how to work with an audience and that’s the skill with panto. I’m used to working with cameras. But to interact with a load of people and that energy you get from them – he’s been showing me little tricks.
“The audience are part of it. They’re the other member of the cast, but it really is hard work. There’s so much involved. I’m gonna be singing a song, you’ve got a dance routine to do, besides learning your part.”
So how bad is Margi’s Wicked Queen going to be on a scale of one to 10?
“I’m going to be past 10, past the meter,” she says, breaking into a laugh fit for stage. “I play it quite scary because I am an intense player, but I can get away with it in this. If you do things in front of camera and you play it that big you’d be marched out of the building.
“If you want to raise the roof on camera you just raise an eyebrow, but in panto I really can blow the roof off. Every director puts me under restraint because I go over the top. I can’t help that; that’s just where my energy wants to go. A good director realises that and can husband me, show me how to stay in control.
“And the tales are dead important, what you’re imparting to the young kids: that evil doesn’t win in the end. Good and the light always wins through.
“And those kids watching pantomime then grow up with you. If they see you on other things they go ‘There’s that wicked witch back on Corrie... a scary wicked witch’.”