Preview: Permanently sunshine

Playing thin-lipped Cindy in EastEnders gave Michelle Collins her big break, but she left to play a range of roles. Now she even gets to smile...
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Everyone had an opinion on Cindy from EastEnders. Princess Diana and James Hewitt discussed the character's love life on the notorious "Squidgy Tapes", while the Spice Girls hailed her as "one of the first with real Girl Power". Cindy's fame even spread to Cyprus, where Michelle Collins, the actress who played her for 10 years, was filming her new BBC1 series, Sunburn. "People there were saying, `look, it's Cindy'," Collins remembers. "One person even fell in a swimming-pool because she was so excited about seeing me."

These anecdotes all go to show how difficult it is to break out of the soap stereotype. The industry wisdom certainly used to be "once in a soap, always in a soap". A soap actor, it was felt, would carry the role around with them like a brand on the forehead. If they did receive other job offers, they would merely be carbon copies of the part with which they would forever be associated. But Collins claims that rigid pigeonholing is now changing. "In the past, it used to be hard for people who had been in soaps to get other work. But now look at Nick Berry, Amanda Burton or Sue Johnston."

Indeed, it's almost gone the other way, as the BBC1 winter schedule is bubbling over with former soap stars. Berry heads the cast of Harbour Lights, a sort of Heartbeat By the Sea about a harbour master. Meanwhile, Michael French, who played "Dirty" David Wicks, Cindy's old sparring partner from EastEnders, is joined on Holby City, the Casualty spin-off, by Angela Griffin from Coronation Street and Lisa Faulkner and, Nicola Stephenson from Brookside.

Collins is vociferous in her defence of actors who come to new series covered in soap-suds. "There was once a snobbery attached to soaps; but we're just actors who happen to have been in soaps. If you take someone from a successful show and put them in something new, people will watch at first. But you have to be good. If you're crap, they won't carry on watching. The snobbery annoyed me at first - that's why I wanted to prove myself in other things. I'm never going to be Miranda Richardson or Juliet Stevenson, but I want respect among my peers. I didn't want people thinking I could only do Cindy - otherwise, I'd never work again. As Cindy, I never smiled in 10 years."

Mal Young, head of BBC drama series, is in equally combative mood. "I've been trying to break the stigma about soap actors," he contends. "Drama is drama. It may range from Our Mutual Friend to EastEnders, but they're all actors. The good ones can move on from the soaps. It's been a very old excuse for soap actors who aren't very good to say `I've been typecast'."

But isn't there still a danger that viewers may see this overflowing of ex-soapies as a cheap, ratings-grabbing ruse? "I'm working on lots of shows at any one time, and I don't just sit there saying, `I've got to get someone from the soaps'," Young argues. "I just get the most suitable actor for the part."

Collins has certainly escaped from Cindy "bitch from hell" overtones in Sunburn by playing Nicki, the sweet head rep at a Cyprus resort. "I needed a nice, normal character," she says. "You get fed-up playing hard- nosed women." However, Sunburn runs other risks - the Eldorado Syndrome, for instance.

Young is well aware of the dangers. "At the very beginning of this production, I remember saying, `we'll have the Eldorado factor thrown at us'. You're not the first to do it, and you won't be the last. But Eldorado failed not just because it was set abroad. Our audiences don't travel well, so Sunburn is very much about British characters who just happen to work abroad. The work stories in Sunburn could be based anywhere. It's just nice to see some blue skies in January - it's like looking at your holiday photos during the winter. All drama doesn't have to be dark and gritty."

Collins is sitting in the restaurant of a photographic studio in north London surrounded by pictures of Mick Jagger, Anthony Hopkins and Michael Caine. She doesn't look out of place in such starry company. She is preparing for probable second series of Sunburn and of the powerful BBC1 drama, Real Women, in which she played a damaged woman.

For all her subsequent success, Collins still acknowledges the debt she owes to EastEnders. An archetypal bad girl, Cindy grew more popular the more wicked she became. "She struck a chord because she wasn't Miss Perfect," Collins reckons. "Men liked her because she was dangerous. Women liked her because they admired the way she walked all over men. But she wasn't a role model. I wouldn't want women to go around shooting their husbands."

Cindy came into her own during the cracking scenes where she had an affair with David Wicks. "Michael French and I had tremendous electricity," Collins recalls. "It was like the War of the Roses off-screen, but on screen it sizzled."

And it may do so again, if Collins has her way. "People might laugh, but I'd like to do Shakespeare at some point. Lady Macbeth would be interesting, with Michael French as Macbeth." Now there's a theatre production that wouldn't have any problems selling tickets.

`Sunburn' starts tonight at 8.55pm on BBC1.