Big Interview - Helen Fraser

TV's Bad Girls actress Helen Fraser got her first big break playing Barbara in the film of Billy Liar. It brought her fame and love – she met husband Peter on the set. Now, after his death in 2007, she is returning as Billy's mother and she told Judith Dornan how the play keeps her husband close

There is a moment in the stage play of Billy Liar where actress Helen Fraser feels wonderfully close to her late departed husband of more than 30 years, Peter.

They met and fell in love more than 40 years ago on the set of the film where he was a sound man and she was starring in her breakthrough role as Billy's love interest, Barbara.

He died in late 2007 after 33 happy years of marriage. But now, as she returns to play Billy's mother in the stage play, Peter is still a part of the story.

She explains: "He specialised in recording steam railway and of course that's very evocative of that period so we've got two of his steam train recordings in the play.

"I sit in the wings and I hear that chuff chuff chuff and I think, he's there, he's with me which is lovely. And he'd be thrilled, of course, which is part of it as well."

Billy Liar was a huge influence on the young Helen Fraser's life.

Among her first roles on leaving RADA, the Oldham born actress starred alongside Tom Courtenay, a friend from drama school, and many other people who would figure largely in her life.

But none more so than Oscar-winning sound recordist Peter Handford, who was, even then, a master of his art.

Helen recalls: "The first scenes we filmed were with Barbara and Billy in the graveyard when he's courting her and she's eating her oranges. And we were in Pudsey near Bradford, freezing cold, in this Victorian cemetery full of mausoleums and gravestones and I was very cold.

"And this nice man came up to me and said, 'You look awfully cold, would you like to borrow my coat?' That old chestnut!

"And, 'Come and sit in the van.' It was a terrible old cranky old sound van with all the equipment in it but I was very grateful because I was so cold. That was the start.

"We were together for 40 years and we were married for 33, so it was a love affair that lasted a long time. He was a lovely lovely man. Irreplaceable really."

It was a while before they married because Peter, who was 20 years her senior, had first to obtain a divorce. Helen says: "We had to go through all that agony.

"And I was very, very young, I mean, there were 20 years between us so there was a lot to be decided and parents approval and that sort of thing.

"It was meant, obviously – although my mother said, 'I'll give it two weeks!' But it was a lifetime. It was meant, it was just meant to be.

"I just knew he was very special but I was 19, 20, I suppose and I was very successful. I've been so lucky because I'm on my second way around of fame if you want to call it that.

"Because in those days, I was really quite well known. There was so much television work and I went from one job to another. I'd done A Kind of Loving before Billy Liar and then immediately after Billy Liar, I did Repulsion with Polanski and I was quite a celebrity in my own right then. I look back and think, my goodness, where did I fit it all in? Because I was so young, I think I needed somebody older to steady me and guide me – and he was there."

Returning to Billy Liar after so long is an evocative experience but one she now treasures – although, still grieving, she almost refused the offer.

She recalls: "You withdraw from everything and suddenly this play came up and I said to my agent, 'Oh, I can't go on tour, I can't do it.'

"And she said, 'Why not? There's nothing to stop you and, Helen, if you do it, you'll have come full circle.' And I suddenly realised, yes, I would.

"The first time we had the read-through for the play, I did feel very odd because, I mean, it's 45 years ago but I still could remember the lines.

"And, poor little girl, Lauren Drummond was very nervous of meeting me because I was the original Barbara but she's great. She's done a wonderful job and she's made it her own which is nice."

She has very happy memories of the film. "It was a lovely time. It was full of the most wonderful wonderful actors – a lot of them have gone now.

"Finlay Currie, of course, who everyone remembers as the criminal in Great Expectations, that wonderful opening shot to that, he was a lovely man. And Leonard Rossiter, I did Rising Damp with him afterwards.

"Rodney Bewes, I played his girlfriend in the Likely Lads. And it was just connections, connections really. And it was up in the North where I come from so I just felt at home. And the wonderful John Schlesinger who was just the king of film directors."

Although she has starred in so many classics, her favourite role was prison warder Sylvia 'Bodybag' Hollamby in ITV's Bad Girls. She explains: "It started in a small way, they didn't know quite where to go with Sylvia Hollamby but you put your own input into it and gradually they built her up and gave her a home life and made her a ballroom dancer and all sorts of extra things and it was a wonderful wonderful part."

"I made her my own in that I wore the same uniform for eight years, I refused to change and I wore the same shoes, in fact, I wore them out walking up and down the wing, they had to be resoled, my lace-ups."

When the series ended, it was a wrench, although plans for Bad Girls the Musical were already afoot. She says: "The producer rang me and said, 'We haven't been recommissioned and I thought, well, I don't have to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning any more.

"And then I said, 'What's going to happen to the set? And he said, 'We demolish it next week.' And that's when I really felt a pang because it was the most wonderful set, it was the biggest set in Europe and it was so lifelike.

"But I got what I wanted out of it and I loved doing the musical as well, I mean, the chance to sing and dance again. It came to a natural end."

She kept nothing but Sylvia's badge and says she sees no point in hanging on to memorabilia. Indeed, she held a huge charity auction after Peter died to clear out their Suffolk home.

The house, where she still lives, was where Peter finally succumbed to old age. She recalls sadly: "He was ready to go and I was so glad because he was such a proud man, he would have hated to have gone in a home and lost his dignity and all that.

"He was just frail and he just slipped down one day. And he was with me and he was in his own home. It was perfect, if anything can be perfect."

Her first acting job after Peter's death was playing the part of Craig Cash's mother in The Royle Family 2008 Christmas special. Poignantly, she found herself filming the scenes on the anniversary of Peter's death.

But wonderfully, she was working alongside an old friend – Tom Courtenay. She says: "We just clicked, we sat on that sofa and it was as if it was just yesterday.

"It did just feel like yesterday and you just think where have all those years gone. Because you look in the mirror and you think, well, I don't look any different, don't feel any different but of course many years have gone by."

Helen Fraser stars in Billy Liar at the Charter Theatre from Friday February 27 to Sunday March 1. Tickets are available from the box office on 01772 203456 or online from www.prestonguildhall.com

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