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Why Streetwise Diana is back on the boards

By This is Exeter  |  Posted: June 09, 2009

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SOAP star Diana Davies says her tear ducts landed her a long career in showbiz.

The 72-year-old is most famous for her roles in Emmerdale Farm and Coronation Street.

But 11 years after retiring from the small screen, she can be seen treading the boards for TOADS and Bijou Theatre Company after moving to Torquay with her sister, illustrator Jill Barton, five years ago.

And a visit to the Little Theatre made her pine for the smell of the greasepaint.

"I realised that I missed it.

"Not the pressure but the buzz. I started front of house and working with the props and as a prompt."

But members of the company were not star struck.

"Many of them did not remember me at all. In fact it is the audience who say I look familiar."

Diana is appearing as Lady Angkatell in Bijou Theatre Company's production of Christie's The Hollow at the Palace Theatre, Paignton.

"I have played so many maids in my career that I am quite pleased to be elevated to a Lady.

"I am working with a group of really nice people and we are having so much fun.

"And the standard is excellent, many are just as good if not better than some professional actors I have encountered."

Diana was given her big break on the 1970s series Family At War after 10 years as an extra for Granada studios in Manchester.

"Back in 1960 you would get £5 a day as an extra, £14 for a character who brought a plate to a table or something, and then 38 guineas for a speaking part. I had a few little lines in things and then Family At War came along. That changed my life."

She impressed the director by turning on the water works playing a mum waving off her evacuee son.

It landed her the role of Freda Ashton's friend Doris which led to the part of Norma Ford on Coronation Street.

But not before a few smaller parts on the hit show.

"My first role was as a waitress and I had to say to a character shaking the salt 'Is it all gummed up chuck?'. Brilliant."

In 1984, Diana took the role of Caroline Bates, mum to Kathy and Nick, in Emmerdale Farm.

She had a romance with farming boss Alan Turner and was last on screen in the soap at the non-wedding of Kathy and Biff.

It holds fond memories for the actress and one that has won the hearts of the public.

Diana said: "People say 'I know your face — did you used to work in the Dog and Duck?'

"Because I played a nice part people feel that they like me already. They say 'are you a teacher or a nurse?'"

Diane admits that the TV soaps brought her fame and fortune: "You can't have worked in the soaps like I have and not put a few pennies away, that would be silly."

But despite all that, she says it is her theatre work that provides a career highlight.

She worked with Glenda Jackson in West End play Rose (1980).

Diane recalls: "She was absolutely delightful and down to earth.

"I was also her understudy and thank God I never had to go on stage. Imagine the audience reaction. They would all have said 'Where's Glenda?'

"Because she had done Hollywood films, we used to ask her 'Who's in tonight, Glenda?'. There would be people like Rock Hudson or Dustin Hoffman or stars like Vanessa Redgrave.

"One night Douglas Fairbanks Jr was in.

"Glenda brought him up to see us and he was so charming to everybody. I nearly fainted.

"Most of us were at a certain age and were a bit flustered.

"Then a friend quipped 'I have never seen so much fuss over a geriatric in a good suit.'"

Diana returned to the West End, starring in Girls Night Out, just before she retired to Devon.

She divorced in 1979 and has a 45-year old son, Stephen.

The actress and her sister first moved to Moretonhampstead before settling in Torquay.

Devon was always a favoured spot.

Her brother James Hulme once had a hot-dog stand at Labrador Bay car park.

Diana said: "We loved Moretonhampstead but if we wanted to go out to the theatre it meant having to drive for miles.

"The idea of just being able to pop out to the cinema or for a Chinese meal really appealed."

Diana was born in Manchester into a showbiz family.

Her father was a big band saxophonist and did not encourage his daughter into the entertainment business.

"Travelling around on tour, he had seen the seedy side of the business — girls who were poorly paid going out with anyone just to get a meal."

Diana started out modelling, then joined an acting company working with the likes of Pat Phoenix.

"I was married and had just had a miscarriage. I was very down and did not know what to do.

"I got into extras work and it all went from there."

When A Family At War ended, production bosses were waiting to cast her in Coronation Street.

"When it first started I was on set when they recorded the first episode, and we all thought it would only run for 26 episodes.

"It was so exciting to be on set for the first episode. All our northern friends were in it. It was incredible."

Decades on, the show is still going strong, most recently attracting top talent like Ian McKellen.

But Diana says it was always popular with 'stars'.

Diana says: "Olivier always wanted to be in Corrie.

"I remember once in the canteen at Granada, all these famous people, including Olivier, were sitting at a table. Suddenly Annie Walker came in carrying a tray and they all stopped to look. It was a priceless moment that all these high-brow actors were star struck by her."

Now, Diana prefers a quieter life.

"But working with TOADS and Bijou means I have not finished yet. I am enjoying every minute."

To book tickets for The Hollow, which runs until September, call Palace Theatre box office on 01803 665800.

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