When her acting career started more than half a century ago, Helen Fraser could never have imagined what lay ahead.
From parts in plays and musicals to popular soap operas, TV series and films, Helen is the first to admit she really has ‘done it all’.
“I just think I was born to do it,” she says.
Her roles have afforded her unusual nicknames and transformed her into a gay icon, with Mr Gay UK having welcomed her as a judge.
“Rigor Mortis and Bodybag will go with me to the grave, I think,” she says of the names given to her in comedy series Doctor in the House and Bad Girls, the award-winning drama series in which she played prison warden Sylvia Hollamby.
Unusually, the latter also led to a request for her to open a new wing at Doncaster jail.
“All the prisoners came and shook my hand. They were absolutely thrilled to see me,” she said.
Pushed into acting by her mother’s determination for her to escape a mundane life in Lancashire mill town Oldham, Helen was sent to stage school at just nine years old.
“She was determined I was going to get out of that and I’m so grateful. She had such confidence in me. She was sure I was going to be a star,” said Helen who, despite being homesick, embraced a life of dance and drama.
“Stage school, in those days, was a child’s paradise because we only did classes half the day,” she said, adding that serious tap and ballet required being ‘weighed and measured’ and, after becoming ‘a little podgy’, she was told to concentrate on drama.
“With acting, I suddenly found I could make people laugh,” she said. “I’ve always done comedy – I’ve always played the comedy maid or the light entertainment.”
After working 40 weeks, at 15 Helen acquired her Equity card, the universally recognised symbol of an actor’s professional status.
Her next move was getting accepted to The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada).
“My dad (a dental surgeon) said ‘the first thing you do is go to a proper drama school’, and I only wanted to go to one – The Royal Academy,” she said.
Two years later, she began working at ‘Manchester Rep’, a monthly repertory theatre.
“I learned a lot there in two years – how to do character make-up, how to make an entrance, how to play an audience. You can’t just cut it with a play,” she said.
It was there she was spotted for a part in the 1962 film A Kind of Loving, directed by John Schlesinger, who went on to cast her as Barbara in the 1963 film Billy Liar.
Afterwards, ‘the work just poured in’.
“Because ITV was just starting, there was so much work,” said Helen, whose TV credits include Rising Damp, The Dick Emery Show, One Foot in the Grave, Casualty and Coronation Street.
It was on the set of Billy Liar that she met her late husband, sound recordist Peter Handford, who won an Oscar and a Bafta for his work on Out of Africa.
“That was one of the best moments of my life. I was so proud,” said Helen, who used the time in Africa to devise her first one-woman show.
Home for the most part was a village close to Eye, in Suffolk – Peter’s idea.
“I thought he said Sussex because I hadn’t heard of Suffolk. It was in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t speak the language for one,” jokes Helen, “and I thought ‘how can I stay here?’ I said I’d stay for a week and stayed 43 years.”
The vibrant 70-year-old, who now lives in Eye, is bringing her latest one-woman show, An Evening with Helen Fraser, to the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, on January 30.
Of the theatre, at which she has performed on four other occasions, she said: “I love it. I’ve seen its changes, it’s changed a lot, and it’s wonderful that a town has its own theatre. I hope people support it because there’s nothing like live theatre – there’s something magical about it.”
Her show aims to ‘give people a laugh’ while taking them on a journey through her life, which has seen her work with the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Judy Dench and appear on game shows Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and Pointless.
“I’ve done 55 years and I have never had a year out. People begin to get curious – what was he like and how did you get that – and that’s really what prompted me to do my show, because people kept asking so many questions,” she said.
Music, too, will play a big part.
“Just to hear the spoken word all the time is very tiring for the audience so I thought I’d link it to some of my favourite musical songs from my other shows.
“It’s a real slice of the business,” she added. “I’ve been in it for so long and met so many people. You can’t give secrets away but you can tell a bit of the truth. I also break down a few of the barriers of the business, show that we are human. People think you’re the characters you play but this is a chance to be myself.”
For tickets, visit www.theatreroyal.org or call 01284 769505.