Tanya Franks: 'If EastEnders saved one life by putting this story out, it's worth it'
As an actor, we've seen her smoking crack cocaine on Albert Square. But the real Tanya Franks is teetotal – and campaigning to save young people's drug and alcohol services from cuts.
Tanya Franks, a teetotaller who has barely touched alcohol, has spent a lot of her career playing drunk. From Karen, the flamboyantly alcoholic primary school teacher in Pulling, the Bafta-winning BBC3 comedy, to Tanya Branning's vodka-soaked sister in EastEnders, she has perfected both the wild-eyed stare and the aggressively penitent mumble.
Her portrayal of Rainie Cross smoking crack cocaine with Phil Mitchell in some of the most controversial scenes in the soap's history drew hundreds of complaints. But in her first interview since leaving Albert Square at Christmas, Franks says she believes East- Enders was justified in carrying the storyline. "I think it can be massively helpful when a popular show like East- Enders covers an issue as important as drugs," she says. "If EastEnders has saved one life by putting this story out, it's worth it."
To prepare for her scenes, Franks was supported by the charity DrugScope. "After they helped me with my research, I wanted to give something back," she says. "Recently they told me young people's drug and alcohol services are on the frontline of government cuts. Some young people's services are facing budget cuts of 50 per cent – enough to close many projects down altogether.
"Young people haven't caused the financial meltdown, and yet they are the ones paying for it. It can't be right that some of the most vulnerable in society are the ones to foot the bill."
So, a few weeks ago, Franks visited a flagship young people's drug and alcohol project in Wandsworth, south London, called Th@w, with DrugScope. A short walk from where riots tore apart the high street last summer, manager Nigel Eggleston told Franks how his project aimed to "get to the Rainies of this world in the early stages of their drug use".
"If I hadn't come here, my life would have been ruined," 18-year-old Felix told Franks. "I'd made such a mess out of everything. I was kicked out of school, going nowhere." He unbuttoned his shirt to reveal consequences of teenage drinking that he will bear all his life. "When I was drunk I was 'branded' by a friend," he said. His chest was cut across by an angry scar. "I don't remember anything except the pain."
He shrugs. "When I got kicked out of school that was like the end of my life. But being here has helped me to help myself. Now I'm doing a Btec in sports science. I'm playing rugby and going skateboarding."
A second teenager, Ryan, 16, told Franks how he'd been referred to the service by police after being arrested for assaulting a shopkeeper. "If I'd carried on, someone could have got badly hurt," he said. "Being here, I'm learning about my anger and how to deal with my triggers. I've stopped drinking because I couldn't control myself. I'm playing semi-professional football now and doing a plumbing course."
Unlike many of his friends, he stayed home during the riots. "I used be full of anger and emotions. Something would just trigger me off and I would switch. Girls, teachers, my mum, anything could set me off. But coming here has really changed the way I look at myself."
Felix had stopped to talk to Franks on his way out. "It would be awful to lose this service," he said. "After the riots especially."
"It's made me feel really positive being here," Franks told him.
But a few weeks ago, Th@w closed down, the victim of funding cuts that caused the collapse of its parent charity, Involve. Its staff were given no redundancy pay. Now, around 3,850 young people a year in the borough of Wandsworth alone will have nowhere to turn when they have problems with drugs or alcohol.
"There has to be some way of making this right," Franks says. "It can't be right that these kids are losing their only hope."
Franks is a supporter of the Robin Hood Tax campaign, which is calling for a tiny tax on banks to prevent ordinary people paying for the financial crisis. Last week, President Nicholas Sarkozy announced France is to pioneer a version of the tax on financial transactions.
"It makes sense to me," Tanya says. "The £62.2m needed to protect drug and alcohol treatment for young people could be raised in barely more than one single day of the tax."
Around 24,000 young people received specialist drug and alcohol treatment in the UK in 2008 to 2009. A report for the Department for Education recently found that for every £1 spent on young person's treatment, between £5 and £8 is saved by the NHS and other agencies.
A National Theatre actress from Plumstead in south-east London, who has worked with directors including Steven Berkoff, Franks' role as the darkly alcoholic Karen in Pulling saw her nominated for Best Newcomer at the British Comedy Awards. "I think I must have a dark side to me to be drawn to these parts," she says. "It comes out when I'm acting. In real life I don't drink. I had close people in my life who were stopping so I stopped with them to support them. I hardly used to drink anyway, so it was a bit pointless."
When she was 16 she joined a drama school not far from the Th@w project, so she knows what it's like to be a teenager in Wandsworth.
"But in real life I'm a very cautious person. I'm fearful of things and not into experimentation. I'd always think, what if I'm the person who gets addicted? I'd think I might not be able to handle it. I'd think I'd be the one to get caught. I've been like that all my life."
At Th@w, before its sudden closure, one of the counsellors had told Franks about a 16-year-old client of the project who had been running drugs for one of the local gangs. With regular visits to Th@w she had begun going to college and was now keeping herself away from the gang.
"Where will girls like her go in future?" Franks says. "There won't be anyone to show her there are different paths. I was so encouraged and inspired by my trip to Th@w. I can't believe it's gone. We have to do something to stop these cuts before lives are lost."
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