When the bubble bursts for soap stars

Why do EastEnders and Coronation Street actresses struggle to replicate their success on mainstream TV? By Gerard Gilbert

This Sunday at the television Bafta awards ceremony in London, the cameras will linger on the expectant chops of EastEnders star Jessie Wallace as the Best Supporting Actress nominations are read out, Wallace winning her first Bafta nod for playing another soap star, Pat Phoenix, in the BBC4 drama The Road to Coronation Street. Wallace gave an engaging performance in Tony Warren's one-off-drama, up for an award itself, but compared to what she's pulling out of the hat on EastEnders four times a week since Christmas, it was nothing. If Wallace deserves a Bafta it's for her emotion-wringing, months-long turn as Kat Moon in the controversial baby-swap storyline – a bravura imitation of grieving motherhood.

But then she probably won't be nominated for this brilliantly sustained feat of simulation – because EastEnders is a soap, and soap is soap, and they even have their own dedicated televised gongs, the British Soap Awards. You can catch them tomorrow on ITV1 at 8pm, with Wallace winning the Best Actress award. Continuing dramas, as they are known to broadcasters but to nobody else, have always had to endure this snobbery – and it's probably one reason why Wallace struggled in "mainstream" TV drama since leaving EastEnders in 2005, and why she agreed to return to Albert Square last year.

It's also possibly one of the reasons why Michelle Collins is returning to soap – not to reprise her role as Ian Beale's understandably unfaithful wife, Cindy, in EastEnders, but to join the opposition, Coronation Street, and to take over running the Rovers Return. Despite a variety of TV roles since leaving Albert Square in 1999, Collins has been more noticeable by her absence from television in recent years, which may explain why she put out feelers in 2009 about a possible return to EastEnders. Since Cindy had been killed off (albeit off-screen) such a comeback was always going to be unlikely.

By coincidence, the current chatelaine of Manchester's most famous pub, Becky McDonald, is leaving the Rovers – the 31-year-old former Royal Shakespeare actress Katherine Kelly having decided she wants a personal life again. Although she has been careful not to say anything of the sort, Kelly probably also fears the typecasting that comes with playing such a strong female soap character as Becky. After all, Patsy Palmer didn't exactly thrive after she stopped playing EastEnders' flame-haired motor-mouth Bianca in 1999, eventually returning to the role in 2008. And Martine McCutcheon hasn't fulfilled her early promise once she stopped pulling pints at the Queen Vic to pursue a pop career in 1998. Life after soap isn't easy for these ladies. But why?

As happens, an actress who also played one of earlier Steve McDonald's wives, Suranne Jones (Karen McDonald, 2000-2004), stars in ITV1's upcoming new detective drama, Scott & Bailey, popped up in last Saturday's Doctor Who. Jones is one of the rare former soap actresses to have made a successful exit from soapland, and when we met on the set of BBC1's critically acclaimed Five Days, she told me just how difficult that had been.

"The label 'ex-soap star' that the media gives to people... even Anne Reid, who plays my mother in Five Days – she left Coronation Street 39 years ago, before I was born, and people are still asking her about her character today," said Jones, before adding that soaps can lead actors into bad habits. "Soaps are so fast. You get directed but sometimes you self-direct as well. Then I think you start to repeat yourself, because in soaps you have to."

Jones hired herself an acting coach, an act of hard-headed realism that might be beyond a lot of soap actors, fêted by press, mistaken for their characters, and, without realising it, stuck in a rut. They emerge from their sudsy bubble expecting the world to be their oyster, while, in reality, it's just like starting all over again.

The British Soap Awards are on Wednesday at 8pm on ITV1

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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