DAD WAS a docker, mum a cleaner and grandad a First World War volunteer who'd lost his left leg. He'd been injured at 18, sent home and had his leg amputated three times. In those days the amount of compensation depended on how much they cut off: below the ankle paid so much; below the knee so much more; and above the knee paid best of all. Grandad would slap his stump and boast to me: 'I got the most out of the buggers in the end]'
At eight, I'd do a busking double act with grandad when we went hop-picking. I'd balance on beer crates to sing with him. We shared our earnings fairly, and I soon sussed we had a symbiotic relationship: his money went on beer, and the more he boozed the more crates I climbed on to sing.
My career, like most things in my life, was never planned. I auditioned successfully for Lionel Bart's musical Oliver], working beside Phil Collins. We'd been together quite a bit as kids in shows, and around 1989 we bumped into one another as adults. 'I bet you don't remember me,' I said. 'Isn't it funny,' he replied, 'every time I saw you on television I'd think, 'I bet he doesn't remember me'.'
Soon after Oliver] I was dispatched to stage school in Surbiton, partly to lose my accent. But it was with an East End accent that I later got my biggest break, joining the cast of the soap EastEnders in 1986 when it was just 10 months old. Julia Smith, the producer, offered me the part of Colin, an openly gay character. I accepted only after consulting my family and boyfriend, Paul. I wanted to ensure they understood the media pressures likely to follow.
I went into the show deliberately not banging the gay rights drum. But the Government introduced Clause 28, a protest march was organised, and I knew I had to be on it. Outside No 10 a riot erupted - it was the last time anyone managed to scale the barricades to get to Margaret Thatcher. Now, I look at the heavy gates erected at the end of the street as a testament to the struggle of lesbians and gay men.
I played Colin for three years before quitting, and I did get some homophobic mail along the way. One Christian wrote, citing the Old Testament and telling me homosexuality was a sin I should turn my back on. I wrote back suggesting this was perhaps the one part of my anatomy I shouldn't turn.
I've been a member of the Labour Party for 20 years and always campaigned for it at election times. Two days after the election in 1987, somebody threw a brick through the window of our house. Then another brick came through the window at 2am. Paul and I were in at the time. The attack was stealthy and, I was sure, completely planned. I realised that brick could easily have been a petrol bomb, so for the security as much as anything, Paul and I moved to a flat near the Thames at Wapping.
One of my reasons for leaving EastEnders was to set up the Stonewall Group with Ian McKellen and some well-seasoned lesbian and gay activists. The Stonewall Riots in New York started the day Judy Garland was buried, when the gay community fought a hostile police raid on a bar.
I do have political aspirations today. I have a vision of a world that is better for most people; a society that people can grow into rather than be isolated from. One lesson I have learnt is that you never have enough lessons, and the learning curve is likely to be a helter-skelter.
I was disappointed not to win nomination as Labour's London Central MEP candidate, but I did at least confound my critics within the party by coming second on the shortlist. Recently I was asked: 'Have you thought about a parliamentary seat?' 'Which one?' I replied.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content