Interview with Deborah McAndrew

The new chancellor of Leeds Trinity University talks about playing a student on Coronation Street, coping with grief and why regional accents are still frowned upon by directors of Shakespeare

May 31, 2018
Source: Simon Dewhurst

Deborah McAndrew is a playwright and actor, best known for playing Angie Freeman in Coronation Street. She has won acclaim for her original plays and adaptations for the Northern Broadsides theatre company in Halifax, and is also the co-founder and creative director of the Stoke-on-Trent-based Claybody Theatre Company. She was named chancellor of Leeds Trinity University in April.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Huddersfield [in 1967] but when I was very young we moved to Ossett – a small town near Wakefield.

How has this shaped who you are?
When I was almost nine we moved to Leeds, which was a big change and one that made me an outsider. Looking back, I can see what an upheaval that was and I don’t think I felt really settled until I went to high school, by which time I was naturally sticking out for being interested in theatre and drama.

Other things shaped me far more: my Catholic upbringing and faith and the influence of my Methodist mother. My grandparents had a huge influence on my burgeoning imagination. When my creativity is really firing, it tends to occupy their era – before, during and just after the Second World War.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I did drama at the University of Manchester and worked hard enough to get a good 2:1 but didn’t really break a sweat. A bit lazy, I guess. I also had a steady boyfriend from home all through my years in Manchester and that grounded me, so I was never going to go wild. I’m a bit intense and serious for that.

At 22, you joined the cast of Coronation Street as Angie Freeman. How did your drama degree prepare you for life as a soap regular?
Absolutely nothing prepared me for life on Corrie. It was a complete culture shock and eye-opener. After my degree, I’d decided I didn’t have the personality for showbiz and went and did a PGCE in drama and special education, so all my studies and performance experience had been around theatre and music. I knew nothing of television. I never expected to stay in Corrie that long. I was contracted for three months initially and thought that would be it. Then my contracts kept getting renewed until, at the end of my first full year, I was offered a two-year contract. At the end of that contract I left because I wanted to get back to my first love, theatre, and do other parts.

Students on TV are often caricatures. Having played a student on Coronation Street, what do you think could be done to improve their representation?
All I can say is that, when I was cast as Angie Freeman, I had just been a full-time student for four years, so I was the thing they were looking for. Perhaps that gave the character an authenticity that might be quite difficult to find – not many people go straight from postgraduate teacher training into prime-time telly. TV can be quite self-referencing, so a tendency to caricature any group could be contagious.

Northern Broadsides was founded in 1992, in part so that more drama was produced in northern accents. Having been involved as an actor and writer there since 1995, do you feel regional accents are now more accepted on stage than they were?
I hope so, but it depends what you mean by accepted. I prefer to talk about regional voices rather than accents. Received Pronunciation is, after all, just another accent – and one that most people in the UK don’t use. I think we’ve probably got quite a long way to go before ideas of class – and thereby, education and status – are not inextricably linked to how you pronounce the word “bath”. I may be wrong, but I doubt you’ll hear a noticeably Yorkshire Prospero, or a Lancastrian Lear, or a Scouse Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre any time soon.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Stop worrying about what everyone else thinks.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Nope. I have found that persistence and diligence produce lots of small epiphanies that open up the way forward.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
The birth of my daughter, in 2001 – the best day of my life. The death of my mother, in 2012 – the worst day of my life. On both of these days I discovered rooms inside my mind that I didn’t know existed. With motherhood, there came fathomless depths of love and fear in equal measure. With bereavement, a fiery crucible in which I felt I was being melted down, followed by the darkest, loneliest place in which my molten soul cooled and reformed into a new person, defined by grief.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I don’t really have idols. All the people I admire are regular people that I’ve met, so-called ordinary people. What inspires me to write are the people I meet and the stories that I hear from them.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That acting is the same as showing off. Whisper it, but a lot of actors don’t know the difference either.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Jonathan Weber has been appointed dean of Imperial College London’s Faculty of Medicine. The HIV expert, who has been acting dean since October 2017, will also continue to lead the Imperial College Academic Health Science Centre in addition to his new role. Professor Weber, who has recently been working on HIV vaccine development in a Wellcome Trust-funded collaboration with the UK HIV Vaccine Consortium, is now leading the first European HIV vaccine efficacy trial in Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. James Stirling, Imperial’s provost, said that Professor Weber had “a huge amount of leadership experience both at Imperial and with our NHS trust partners”.

A leading public policy expert has been chosen to lead the Policy Institute at King’s College London. Bobby Duffy joins the institute from Ipsos Mori, where he is managing director of its Social Research Institute, leading a team of 230 researchers. While at Ipsos Mori he has spent time on secondment at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and has been a fellow at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics. “The Policy Institute has achieved so much already, and I look forward to building on that great success,” said Mr Duffy, who will take up his role in September.

Antonio Loprieno is to be the new president of Allea, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities. The former rector of the University of Basel, who is currently president of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, will lead the organisation until 2021.

David Burn is the new chair-elect of the Northern Health Science Alliance, a coalition of universities, hospitals and science networks in the north of England. He is pro vice-chancellor of Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences.

Alec Ryrie is the new professor of divinity at Gresham College, London. He is currently professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University.

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