BEYOND both shows being based in a Yorkshire village, it seems there are few similarities between Deena Payne’s most famous role and that of piano-playing Cora in Calendar Girls.
“She’s totally different,” she says ahead of a two-week Lyceum run. “Viv Hope was Essex girl moved up north and a little bit bigoted and blinkered, gossipy. She had a heart of gold sometimes, but it was easier to shout louder rather than saying something specific.
“In the good old days it was quite funny and her quips were barbed and I really enjoyed playing her. In the last two or three years it went a bit neutral and there wasn’t much for me to get my teeth into.
“Cora, meanwhile, is the church organist. I don’t play so the notes you hear I’ve had to work really hard to accomplish. Les Dawson does make an appearance every now and again but I have mastered most of the chords.”
Jeans-wearing single mum Cora remains slightly outspoken, however, in the treasured true story of Knapely Women’s Institute who create a charity nude calendar in memory of a member’s husband killed by cancer.
“Obviously she’s done all the wrong things as far as her father, a vicar, is concerned. She lashes out a bit and she’s more of a rock chick. It’s great to play somebody different, somebody cool.”
While the piano has been a challenge, tackling musical theatre hasn’t. Prior to Emmerdale Deena appeared in numerous stage productions including the original West End cast of They’re Playing Our Song. She performed in, choreographed and co-directed Grease, and appeared in shows Only In America, Beehive and Who’s A Lucky Boy.
She toured with ex-Animals’ keyboard player Alan Price and with Joe Brown for One Careful Owner, was part of novelty girl band Cats UK and a dancer in Rock Follies ’77.
“My first musical was in 1969, but Emmerdale closed down most other avenues,” says Deena, who has also appeared in TV shows such as The Bill and films Valentino and The Music Machine.
“Being in a soap draws on everything, all the time, and you don’t have a life. I’ve pretty well done everything in this business, jack of all trades and master of none, perhaps, and enjoyed most.
“I’ve come to the part of my life now that if I don’t want to do anything I won’t do it. Not to say I can afford to do that but I don’t want to be in a position where I’m not enjoying something or it’s taking its toll on my nerves.
“I want to do things that mean something to me.”
Landing a part in the enduring Calendar Girls was arguably destiny, not least as she watched the real-life story unfold during her Emmerdale days and attended the opening of the hit film in Leeds.
The real Calendar Girls have checked out the latest production, given a different feel under new director Jack Ryder.
“He’s helped us shape it up a bit differently to ones before and we seem to have broken box office records,” says Deena, who believes the attraction is simple.
“The story is true. It’s very endearing. It’s brilliantly written, presses all the right buttons. It’s very sad, very emotional, very funny. People laugh until they cry.
“And when you’ve got people who have been on television for a long time it draws an audience that perhaps wouldn’t usually go to the theatre. It’s very canny to do this.”
Among those telling the story this time are Birds Of A Feather actress Lesley Joseph, former EastEnder Kacey Ainsworth, Only Fools And Horses’ Sue Holderness, Helen Fraser and Ruth Madoc.
“We’ve had some great responses. The cast get on really well and we seem to put that over. Sometimes with casts, especially all women, it’s not necessarily so. But we just bonded as soon as we met at rehearsals. It just shines through in the show. We’re really enjoying the tour.”
And that includes the nude aspect of the show. Deena admits she is “nearer 60 than I am near 50” but has kept her dance figure with pilates and yoga, body balance, salsa aerobics and cycling.
“I was very apprehensive. Everybody is. It’s still like going to the top board of the swimming pool and jumping every night. But it is done in such a fun way and the audience are carried along because the women on stage are protective of one another.
“It’s only a quick flash, you never actually see anything. It’s done so cleverly and everybody off stage is cleared if they’re male. We’re suitably plastered up in the right places, which helps with confidence.
“It’s been fantastic to get back on stage and with such a fantastic play, wonderful people, all experienced women. I don’t think there’s any of us haven’t 40 years tucked under our belts in the business.”
Just like old times for me
IN spite of living just 15 minutes from the Emmerdale set, in the grounds of Harewood House, actress Deena is stoical about her old life.
“One of the best things that happened to me was I got Emmerdale. The second best thing that happened was I left,” she reflects.
“With all that experience, my name in people’s front rooms, I can now go back to theatre. It’s like putting on an old pair of slippers. It’s really comfortable, but on a different level, back to all the things that I know.”
And besides giving her the profile to return to her first love, as a mum Deena is grateful for the soap giving her a decent living while raising son Will, now 19 and studying in York.
“He was six months old when I started Emmerdale and I really feel somehow Emmerdale was presented to me to look after my son.
“I really enjoyed the experience, most of them, with Emmerdale, the people I’ve worked with. It’s also been my son’s entire life but it just seems like a chapter now.
“He’s completely independent and that releases me from the role of bringing him up ‘hands on’ and now I’m back to kind of where I was.
“Doing the tour has been fantastic because I’ve been able to visit places I used to live in or visited and I’ve been able to pick up with mates I haven’t seen for 20 years.”