Arts: French without tears

He's the soap star who won't talk to the tabloids but, as he returns to the stage, Michael French speaks exclusively to David Benedict
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EastEnders has always been good at exits. Tear-stained episodes are built around the farewells of well-loved characters who are granted one last lingering pan round beloved Albert Square and a taxi in which to drive up west and away. As the car drives off they stare out of the back window, the cast waves and a nation mourns.

But the departure of handsome, dangerous David Wicks a couple of years ago was something else. Less lump-in-the-throat, this was heart-in-the- mouth stuff. In plot terms, push had come to shove, and then some. In the breathless run-up to his exit, he and Carol Jackson (Lindsay Coulson) had a succession of scenes of snatched intimacy and spiralling desperation that glued millions to their screens and made huge demands of the two actors. This may have been a soap but it was seriously good acting, rivalling the now legendary "High Noon" at the Queen Vic between Angie and Dirty Den.

Cut forward two years. Tomorrow night, Michael French will prove that, contrary to popular belief, there's life beyond Albert Square when he opens in Sacred Heart, a new play by Mick Mahoney at London's tiny Royal Court Upstairs. Number-crunching TV executives must be puzzled. I mean, why would anyone exchange an audience of approximately a third of the nation for the 100 or so people a night who will see him on stage?

The chances of anyone finding out the answer to that are reckoned to be beyond slim. As any BBC publicist will tell you, Michael French doesn't give interviews. Hardly surprising when you know that three years ago he woke up to find himself "outed". The tabloid version of what he rightfully considered to be his private life was splashed across the Sunday papers. Many actors continue to dedicate themselves tirelessly to avoiding anonymity, but understandably this one has politely, but assiduously, shunned the media circus.

So, having agreed to make an exception to his own rule, he's more than a little wary. And it's not just the business of privacy. He is clearly daunted by interviews. "I read them afterwards and always think `Why didn't I say it like that?'" he explains, his wide, open face clouded with worry.

Yet the fact that he's willing to give up an hour between rehearsals indicates a change of heart. He puts it down to two reasons. Working with the director Edward Hall and fellow actors Doon Mckichan, Cecilia Noble and Ewan Stewart has engendered a growing feeling of self-confidence. Even more important, he's excited by the play.

Sacred Heart is a slice-of-lives drama about four former friends who meet up after 18 years in the soon-to-be-torn-down Sacred Heart hall of their youth. Formerly hidden feelings return to trouble a seemingly serene present, and jealousies resurface from beneath the waves of the past.

"There's a lot I identify with in the role," French says, warmly. His character, Jerry, is a working-class, knockabout adolescent made good, a success story with wide-boy tendencies, who sports smart suits and is used to manipulating situations for his own ends. Although the surface of the character strikes home - "I am of that age and sort of that class", he observes - there's a deeper chord in the line where Jerry is referred to as "the shadow".

"Being in the shadows means you stand back and watch things. I think I've always been one of those people. I don't go to pubs very often with friends. When I do, I'll let my hair down and have fun, but really I'm happier sitting back as an observer."

So, hardly the smooth-talking bit of rough we've come to know and love. That this should come as a surprise is, of course, absurd, but audiences all too readily blur the distinction between actors and roles. This reached an alarming apogee when Michael Greco - the actor who plays Tiffany's would-be boyfriend Beppe in EastEnders - was hospitalised after being beaten up by thugs who felt he (or, rather, his character) shouldn't have been messing with Grant Mitchell's missus. French's screen persona is undoubtedly cocksure, toying with Cindy Beale or any of the other Walford women, or playing the driven, sex-on-legs surgeon in the successful Casualty spin-off Holby City, but it is acting.

It's an achievement of which French is justifiably proud. "I didn't go to college to train and I don't come from an acting family. I sang a lot when I was younger and loved communicating through song and dance." He searches for the thought. "I think I knew I expressed myself better through a character. And it became a job."

The flip side of soap-stardom is that it produces collective memory loss. Nobody imagines these actors have ever worked before. So before anyone gets carried away into thinking that French is gracing the stage with his theatrical debut, let's set the record straight. Far from frequenting the dole office before being whisked off to Walford, French was singing his heart out.

His first job was in Godspell. He graduated to playing the lead in the last London revival of West Side Story and was 10 months into his contract as Javert, one of the leads in Les Miserables, when the call came from the BBC in 1993.

"I was diabolical when I started," he laughs, "but doing it week in, week out, you can't fail to improve." As his character grew more intense, so did the pressure. "I was in every episode - they call them trios - every week for what seemed like an eternity. But the busier I was, the happier I was. I couldn't get enough of it."

Shooting 80 minutes of television every week means that rehearsals are pared down to a minimum. "The rehearsal calls are really just a few minutes to give the cameraman the opportunity to line up the shot and for the director to say `Walk to that mark, stand there and do that'.

"Now, if you want to be treated like that then that's fine. I never did. I did all my rehearsals at home. I made sure I knew my lines and exactly what I wanted to do and if things didn't suit me I said it.

"Sometimes I was right, sometimes not, but after a couple of years people knew to expect a little bit of confrontation."

Upon leaving, he was genuinely shocked at how much work he was offered. "Overwhelming, really. And I obviously wasn't ready for it," he adds, soberly. But out of that confusion came Holby City. He's a little crestfallen when I say I caught only the first episode. "I got much better towards the end and I don't care if you put that."

Ironically, he has put off returning to theatre because of his potential box-office power. Although he's been keen to flex his theatre muscles, there were problems in being so recognisable. "It brings with it a certain amount of paranoia. You think, `Why do they want me in a show? Is it for the right reason?' Here, I feel they picked me because I'm the right man for the job."

Tabloid editors no doubt justified their front-page splash on the grounds that part of that job is allowing the public to see the man behind the image. Surely the unwelcome exposure was upsetting? He sighs. "I laughed about it. I put it in the bin and I've never thought about it since. Honestly. People made such a fuss about it but have I ever publicly responded to it? No. If I wish to have a relationship with someone, that's private and it always will be. They can write what they like. My job is to act, to entertain, that's it. I had good reviews, I knew I was valued, end of story."

Fair enough, but I don't know whether I'm convinced by this bullish self-assurance. It doesn't quite marry with the struggle for self-confidence that underpins so much of his story. He's certainly apprehensive about the opening night after a relatively swift rehearsal period, but he remains refreshingly down-to-earth about it.

"You can sometimes have too much time. Actors will always bollocks on about things. I think the best thing to do is get on with it: do it and go home." As the man said, it's just a job.

`Sacred Heart' is at the Royal Court Upstairs at the Ambassadors (0171- 565 5000)

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