“I’ve never been one to make obvious choices”
She dated Prince Charles, found film fame playing a rape victim, and now the seventies icon is on the wrong side of the law in Albert Square. After 40 years in acting, she’s still out to shock

Welcome to the polite, coy world of the seventies, when actresses were jolly good sports and could have a discreet relationship with the Prince of Wales without selling the details, where sweetness and good manners reigned and one looked after mummy and daddy, a gentle “luvydom” before the dread word was invented. Oh, she may have had an affair at 21 with a thrice-married American singer of 33, but nothing so rancid as the vulgar shenanigans of Albert Square’s stricken inhabitants where she now finds herself ensconced for ten weeks as a con woman, Margaret, who moves in with landlord Terry Raymond.

She sits prettily in a chair, eager to please, repeats sentences for actressy emphasis, hugs her legs, is touchy-feely, a man’s woman who responds to one question by saying, “I love your tie.” She has many other interests – a stud farm of 20 Arab horses in Northamptonshire which she runs with her actor husband Simon MacCorkindale; a production company, Amy International, named after the rape victim she played in Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman 30 years ago; and a collection of teddy bears, one of which, Merrick (given to her by actor Simon Merrick with whom she starred in The Country Girl by Clifford Odets in 1985, her last appearance on the London stage), travels everywhere with her. “I send one with Simon when he’s away from me, too,” she says happily.

So let’s start with a whiff of brutal sanctimony. Is she doing EastEnders for the money? “No,” she smiles, “although this is an affluent industry and I’ve learnt over the years to adore a lot of creature comforts so I have to keep the ball rolling in order to pay for them. I can’t afford to give up acting. You’d do something else if you want to be rich. Over the years I’ve turned down a lot, and I knew that to return to TV it would have to be a potent and magical part that really hit me between the eyes. There’s a lot of humour and pathos in my storyline, and I feel I play a truth.”

Popular as it is, “truth” is less associated with EastEnders than violence and depressing plots.”

Argumentative’ is the word I’d use. I watch and wonder, ‘Why are they so nasty to one another?’ People don’t always go around being antagonistic. It makes me feel good because real life is so much better.” Some actors of her ilk would not be seen dead in a soap. “The world has seriously evolved where that’s concerned. There are so many good soaps. It’s an education, something every actor should do once. I was an admirer of this cast before I came into the show, and I’m an admirer tenfold now. You can’t be lame. You have to make bold, decisive choices, which is what I love because I’m an instinctive actress and I’ve always felt pretty confident about what I do.” She should do. She’s been acting for 46 years, since she starred in a Horlicks commercial, aged four, encouraged by her mother and grandmother, who both had thespian leanings. “Darling mummy – I lost her last year [she was 88] – always wanted a career doing exactly what I do, so she pointed me in the right direction. Dad worried about me because he thought I was too softhearted for this business, and at times I think I was. You need blinkered vision and a lot of drive to make sure nothing gets in your way You learn to take care of yourself because there’s no one else, although Mummy lived through me vicariously and was the greatest, really fantastic.” Tears come. to her eyes. Her parents ran a hotel in Berkshire -“a bit like show business. You always have to be ‘up’ and bubbly. They were extraordinarily sunny individuals, but as a child I remember the pressures were enormous. They could never have dreamt of putting me through stage school, so I did it myself. I was fortunate to be an average-ly pretty child and got quite a few jobs.”

At 12, she began 15 months in The Sound of Music on the West End stage. “Loved it. Doesn’t any actor love the smell of the grease paint? I adored bright lights, music and singing. I’d love to have been able to make a musical. It taught me some wonderful things, precocious as we all were – you had to audition knowing you’ve got to be so much better than your friend in order to land the role. There was huge competitiveness, but we were all mates and I don’t remember any bitchiness. We worked alternate nights on stage and then behind the scenes making tea, which taught me at an early age you can be a star one minute and sweeping floors the next.”

At 15, she’d acted in 11 TV plays and at 16, she’d earned enough to buy her parents a house. “I had a huge sense of family. It was everything to me. Now I’ve lost all my blood relatives-my sister, Pamela, died the year before last. She was a chronic asthmatic, much less fortunate than me, but without a speck of jealousy. A fantastic person and I loved her to pieces. She was 12 years older – different daddy, same mummy – but we never talked about that because we both wanted to be sisters. The hardest thing in life is getting older, knowing your parents will be taken away and there’s nothing you can do about it, but I thought my sister and I would share our memories for years, and it was cut short. I was utterly shocked.”

She has started an autobiography and may finish it one day. “Simon urges me on, mostly because he knows how much laughter there’s been in my life, which is fabulous, but I’m afraid in this world of very public demeanour I’m a private individual, so I might find it difficult sharing even the funny parts.”

Her first engagement, at 19, to US singer, Benny Thomas [“I adored him. It was a young relationship, fruitful, exciting – you know, sometimes tempestuous”] was broken off and she was subsequently linked with a number of men, including Prince Charles after he invited her to his 30th birthday party, George Best, Andy Gibb and Jimmy Connors. “I had a lot of friendships, and some a little more than that,” she smiles, tapping my arm. “I enjoyed life. The relationships were all superlative and if you don’t have some heartache you’re not a fulfilled human being.”

At 21 she met singer Jack Jones who was 33 and three times married. “We loved each other desperately. It was special and so all-encompassing it made us insular. That’s what happens when you love someone passionately. You deal with it differently when you’re older, which doesn’t mean you feel any less. Initially I left him [after five years together], but then we got back together and the situation reversed. It wasn’t meant to be for life. I never thought of marrying him. Everyone has a few proposals before making that decision, but I wanted Yes’ to be for ever. I believe in God and the institution of marriage as an eternal commitment. It was important to get it right and not let anyone down, least of all myself.”

She met MacCorkindale in her early thirties and it wasn’t the usual coup de foudre. “We became best friends before we started to go out, which is totally different for me. We believed in one another wholeheartedly the second we met and are very respectful of each other as human beings.” They married when she was 34, and she’d liked to have had children. “I made other choices. I believe everything is for a reason. Life is about purpose. You achieve some things because you didn’t have others. I took the path that was offered. Perhaps the biologically right time for me may not have been the best career-wise, so it didn’t enter the equation. I don’t think about regret. You can’t have everything.” Succumbing to the mood of the time she performed her nude scenes. “I haven’t a clue how many times. I was never happy about having to take off my clothes, but it was my job and had to be done if it was necessary to the film.”

She moved to Hollywood for 12 years soon after finding worldwide success in 1971 with Straw Dogs. “To experience one Straw Dogs in a lifetime is something for which I am eternally grateful. It’s very powerful, and there’s a violent part in it- where a gun goes off- that I still can’t watch. I loved Hollywood. Loved it. It granted me freedom, belief, and loads of opportunities.” Fifteen years ago, however, she felt she was becoming stale. “I was offered repetition – not bimbo parts, just a lot of victims. There was a lack of dangerous choices, and I wasn’t being allowed to mature, so I went into production. The obvious thing would have been to base it in Hollywood, but I’ve never been one to make obvious choices. Simon and I wanted to break new ground, and create at home in England.”

They’ve made five films and she won a composer of the year award for her song in That Summer of White Roses in which she starred with Tom Conti  and Rod Steiger. “Talent should be diversified. I’ve written songs for ages, but 2 5 years ago you were put into little boxes and I couldn’t have a career in music alongside a creative career as an actress because I’d be considered lightweight. Barbra Streisand broke that mould and now it’s accepted you can be multi-talented, which is superb.” She is about to record an album of her songs and her production company recently signed a deal to make two TV films a year from Dick Francis novels. “It’s been a slow growth. We’d probably have been better to stay in LA, but you must never ask what might have been because you can never tell.

“I’ve always wanted to do other things. I bred and showed Irish setters, and knew horses would play a great part in my life. I’m now considered a realistic breeder. My eye tells me what stallion and mare will go together. Am I being terribly technical?” No, but I wonder in my sub-Freudian way, whether it’s a child substitute. “It doesn’t bear a resemblance,” she replies, without rancour. “If I can improve a breed I feel I’ve done something good in life.” She smiles, throws back her hair. “I’ve had loads of love, laughter, heartache, and learnt from it all. I’d do everything again tomorrow, just the same way.”

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