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Photo credit: BBC/ Dan Goldsmith
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Charlie Brooks as Janine in EastEnders
Photo credit: BBC/ Jack Barnes
Charlie Brooks, famous for playing Janine in EastEnders, tells Emily Davis about her involvement in a new local stage school
It’s not every day that your teacher turns out to be one of Soapland’s biggest names. But, if you are a budding Shirley Temple and looking to board the Good Ship Lollipop, opportunity knocks.
Charlie Brooks, EastEnders star and 2013 I’m A Celebrity winner, has joined forces with award-winning stage school director Mark Jermin, who has several performing arts schools for children and young adults in Wales, as well as one in London. Last month, the Esher Mark Jermin Stage School (MJSS) opened on Saturdays at Imber Court; and Charlie, who lives nearby, is among the patrons.
If you’re out of the EastEnders loop, I’ll fill you in. Last year, the only thing that Santa brought Charlie’s character – the deliciously dislikeable Janine Butcher – was a life sentence, as the Christmas Day episode saw her chucked behind bars for murdering her husband, Michael Moon.
Charlie, who decided last year to leave the show – that notionally festive episode was her last regular appearance – says that the career move has freed up time for her to focus on a new passion: teaching and mentoring budding actors.
“Mark's been a best friend of mine for a long time,” explains Charlie, who was herself directed by Jermin when, as a teenager, she appeared in the stage adaptation of Sue Townsend’s first Adrian Mole novel.
“He and I have run workshops in Wales and we work really well together. I’ve been longing to find somewhere for my daughter, Kiki, that provides good quality acting tuition for children with a passion for theatre and TV.
“The school seemed like a perfect excuse to hang out with her and teach loads of kids in the area. I want to give children the opportunities that I had.
“Without sounding bitchy,” she continues – uh-oh, I think, here comes Janine – “I didn’t think there were many places around that offered the quality of acting school you would kind of expect. We’re keen to blow people's socks off with the shows that we put on.”
While the residential address on her character’s EastEnders page may simply read ‘prison’, the actress behind the calculating killer resides in sleepy Thames Ditton. And it’s here, at the comfortable home she shares with nine-year-old Kiki, that we are talking.
“Kiki’s dad was from Thames Ditton,” explains Charlie, who grew up in Barmouth, North Wales. “So, when I was pregnant, we moved here. I love the sense of community. I love how small it is; it's villagey but close to London. And because it's so small, you get to know other mums and dads. It's just a really nice environment for kids to be brought up in.
“Kiki loves it here. There are some good climbing walls around, so we've got into that, which is fun. And I love the library, the local pubs, the river, the nice walks and woods, which are all just a stone's throw away.
“Living somewhere like Thames Ditton, I don’t feel so much in the public eye. I don’t even wear make-up when I go out – I go out looking like a tramp. I don’t get mobbed. You can go reasonably unnoticed quite a lot of the time by keeping your head down, having a little hat on and just getting on with what you need to get on with. I think we're blessed to be here.”
The star herself couldn’t be more different to her soap alter ego, whose plot lines involve prostitution, drug dealing and bullying – a toxic brew that has earned Charlie eight counts of Best Soap Bitch at various awards ceremonies over the years, including the Inside Soap Awards and TV Times Awards. Located at the other end of the psychological spectrum, Charlie’s own easy-going, friendly demeanour is more conducive to massive likeability. This led the public to vote her to victory as 2013’s jungle queen on I’m a Celebrity, the nation’s favourite survival reality TV show.
“I really didn’t expect to stay for so long, let alone win!” she laughs. “I went in with my head pretty much screwed on and, with me, what you see is what you get. But winning – I don’t know how it happened really!”
Watching old clips of Charlie on the show, I notice that she’s never nasty to anyone. Indeed, she seems to be the only campmate who doesn’t slag everyone off as soon as they head for the dunny. Does the fact that Janine’s moral compass points firmly in the opposite direction make it more of a challenge for Charlie to become the bad girl of Albert Square? And what of notorious serial killer Beverley Allitt, convicted of murdering four children and attempting to murder three others, whom Charlie memorably portrayed in the 2005 docudrama Angel of Death?
“Playing Allitt was horrifying,” she admits. “I'd just had Kiki, and to hear what this woman had done to newborn babies was tragic and awful and made me cry. Lots of people talk to me about it, but I've never actually watched Angel of Death.
“With Janine, I was so young when I started playing her that I didn’t really know how to create a character,” she muses. “I mean, I'd had quite a bit of training, but the real thing was all new to me. So it was a slow process, but I kind of built her and she just became what she is. I guess I understand how she thinks now, but that comes from playing somebody for a length of time.”
It was in 1999, at the age of just 18, that Charlie was cast as Janine and gave up her studies to pursue a full-time acting career, although she had actually been performing since the tender age of six, popping up in local pantomimes in Barmouth.
I wonder whether it can be damaging to be in the spotlight from such a young age. If so, does Charlie take this into account in her new teaching role?
“I think, certainly, if children don't have the right parents and support, fame can be incredibly damaging,” she says. “We don't want to see children growing up before their time; you want kids to remain kids. But we’re just having fun on a Saturday. And hey – if we're talking about doing a commercial, or just being an extra, kids love that. I don't see how that could be damaging at all.”
As for her own daughter being in the limelight, Charlie’s feelings are mixed.
“Kiki came out with jazz hands; she's very theatrical. She's done voice-overs for cartoons and things like that, which is absolutely fine. She’s quite bossy, so I think she would make a good director or producer. But there is a certain point at which I’ve sort of held her back. I had no control over the whole incident with the yellow door…”
Her voice trails away as she recalls a stunt on I’m a Celebrity, when the producers involved her daughter in a live bushtucker trial without asking Charlie’s permission.
“I didn’t know what was happening, and I was quite shocked that they decided to do that,” she reveals. “Recently, a friend tried to put Kiki up for auditions and I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with that, because I want her to be a kid. Then Kiki said: ‘Mummy, you're getting in the way of my dreams.’ And I thought: ‘You know what, if you want to do something, I'm here to support you.’ I remember how I felt at that age.”
Indeed. At 13, Charlie’s parents tried to put her off drama school, so she wrote a passionate 16-page letter explaining why she had to be an actress. After that they were her “biggest supporters”.
In February, Charlie made a brief reappearance in EastEnders when Janine received a prison visit, and the very fact that her character has not been killed off gives her many fans hope that, one day, the bitch will be back on Albert Square. When I ask Charlie about the future, however, her voice takes on a dreamy note.
“I'm not thinking about that at the moment: I’m thinking more about taking a bit of time out. I feel very free on stage, so I’m looking forward to doing some theatre over the next year or so. I do have a connection with Janine though, and I care what happens to her, one hundred per cent. So never say never.”
For info about Esher MJSS: markjermin.co.uk
Follow Charlie on twitter @CharlieBrooks0
Follow EastEnders on twitter @bbceastenders