Arts: Looks worth yards of dialogue: Show people 48: Cheryl Campbell

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the saving graces of The Merry Wives of Windsor at Stratford, which has earned some miserable reviews, is the buoyant sexiness of Cheryl Campbell as Mistress Ford: legs apart on the buckbasket, playing the situation rather than milking every passing gag, and with her pert, husky voice, sending each word spinning to the back of the auditorium.

Campbell's next role at Stratford is a juicier affair. In the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling she is Beatrice-Joanna, the governor's daughter fatally attracted to the man she hires to murder her fiance. It previews from Wednesday week, the same night that millions more will be watching her as Winnie Verloc, wife of The Secret Agent, in the first episode of BBC2's three-part adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel. Meanwhile, on Saturday evenings, BBC2 is re-running Testament of Youth, the classic serial for which she won the Bafta award for Best Actress in 1979. Cheryl Campbell is back.

We met for lunch in the hushed, pink- napkinned Arden Hotel. She is small and swathed in layers of wool. As she takes off her mac and scarf, she whispers something, groans and falls silent. A mass of auburn hair tumbles round her ski-slope nose. For a second I think she is going to burst into tears. Then she starts talking very, very quietly. (No exaggeration: on the tape two old men at the other end of the restaurant come out more clearly.)

She is a bit agitated at the moment. Rehearsals are difficult. She has a sore throat. It's going round the company. Someone said their sore throat had lasted two weeks. Well, would she like a drink? Yes, she would. A whisky mac. She makes a big effort to cheer up: shrugs her shoulders, widens her eyes, grins and gives a winsome little squeak. It's all very alluring. But does she have to talk so quietly?

'I've always whispered,' she says, 'since I was a child. I'm teaching myself to speak louder. I feel like a bore.' In Merry Wives, I say, every word was clear. 'I have a huge voice,' she says, very quietly, 'I have a three-and-a-half octave range. A huge range.' But her pre-Raphaelite looks and peculiar sensitivity have largely prevented her from letting this range loose on brazen loudmouths. 'In this business, if you do anything halfway decent,' she murmurs, darkly, 'people think that's all you can do.'

A career that includes Swet Actress of the Year for Nora in A Doll's House, and a second Bafta nomination for Eileen (the one Bob Hoskins had an affair with) in Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven, has also had its disappointments. Sometimes she contemplated going to art school and doing sculpture. 'I thought of myself as a character actress,' she says. 'Nobody else did.' When she played the young girl in John Gabriel Borkman at the National she remembers saying to Peter Hall in a teeny-weeny voice: 'Oh Peter, I've got a very deep voice.' He looked at her and said 'Yeah.'

The daughter of an airline pilot, Cheryl Campbell was born in 1949 and grew up in St Albans. Her first job after grammar school and A-levels was acting assistant stage manager at the nearby Palace Theatre, Watford. The theatre's then director, Giles Havergal, remembers the 'laser-like' concentration of the 18-year-old Campbell who was 'absolutely single-minded in her commitment to detail.' This, he suggests, has been the key to her television work. 'The nuance of feeling is so carefully worked out. You get yards of dialogue just from a look.'

Originally she didn't want to go to drama school. She had a 'crazy notion' that things should be done the hard way and that she ought to work her way up through stage management ('or in my case stage damagement'). She did go to Lamda, though, the same year as Patricia Hodge and Susie Blake (the girl who reads the news for Victoria Wood). 'Most of the others have given up.'

She is hard on herself, even when she is doing embroidery. 'People say: 'It's relaxing, isn't it?' And I say: 'No, not for me.' ' Given her 'over-conscientious' attitude, how does she approach a part? 'I don't have an approach.' Freshness is all. 'I just go . . . ' - she flings her arms out wide - 'whaaaAAAGH]' And then she goes back to her toad-in-the-hole.

David Drury, director of The Secret Agent, says her approach was 'very spontaneous, though she arrived very much having done her homework'. For the first two episodes Campbell hovers in the background - washing dishes, sewing, running clothes through the mangle - like a Dutch housewife in a Vermeer. She is the blotting paper soaking up the action. In the third she explodes. The scene where she eavesdrops on the news of her brother's death is a breathtaking combination of homework and spontaneity. Yards of dialogue flit across her face as she goes, well, whaaaAAAGH]

'The Changeling' previews from Wed, opens 3 Nov (0789 295623). 'The Secret Agent', 28 Oct, 9.25-10.25pm, BBC2.

(Photograph omitted)