Interview: Helen Baxendale: A good time to be a bad girl

TV channels fight over her, men gawp at her, women want to be her: meet the feminist icon with the 'phwoar' factor

A Louche wide boy reverses his sporty convertible carelessly into the path of a Mini driven by a woman. She storms out of the car to inspect the damage and rants at him: "You're a man with shit for brains. Tell me, were you starved of oxygen at birth?"

You can imagine the whoops of delight from front-room audiences at this classic scene of female revenge from Cold Feet, a new comedy drama to be screened on ITV next month. The woman doing the shouting is Helen Baxendale, a young actress who in three years has cornered the market in feisty female roles.

Baxendale herself reckons that she is landing plum parts because: "I suit high passions, and I can play women who have undercurrents going on. I look stern because I've got high cheekbones and a pointy nose, and a lot of my characters have been quite stubborn. Perhaps that comes from me - my mother would certainly call me a 'stubborn, stong-willed girl'. Must be coming from Yorkshire."

Baxendale is rapidly being cast as the toughest thing to come out of that county since Geoff Boycott. Since her first appearance on our screens in 1994 as the hard-nut Doctor Claire Maitland in Cardiac Arrest, Baxendale has chewed up and spat out a string of strong-woman parts: the tough-cookie lawyer in the BBC film, Truth or Dare; the scheming mistress in the BBC's political satire, Crossing the Floor; and an uncompromising Army officer examining allegations of lesbianism in forthcoming C4 drama, The Investigator. She's even gone 15 rounds with the hardest nut of them all, Lady Macbeth, in a recent film of the play.

Her entry in Spotlight might as well read "Dial M for Maneater", but Baxendale's not complaining: "If you're going to be pigeon-holed as anything as a woman," she observes, "it's good to be pigeon-holed as someone with an acid tongue who gets things done. I'd rather play parts like that than victims or people who show women to be lacking in self-esteem.

"People latch on to characters who are rude or naughty or bad," Baxendale argues. "Look at JR in Dallas or Angie in EastEnders. They're the best parts, the parts people want to be like."

She has become something of a feminist icon, but it is "mainly men I get letters from. Perhaps men write more letters," she adds with a mischievous smile.

Face to face, Baxendale is no ball-breaker, but people still have a habit of confusing the actress with the character. "People see the characters I play and don't take into account that I might have been acting a bit," says Baxendale. "A few times, I have met someone for the first time, and later they admit they were relieved that I didn't tell them they were idiots and had small penises."

Hunched over a cup of tea in the canteen at a TV studio on London's South Bank, she is sweetness personified, smiling bashfully if asked to assess herself. She plays down her new-found fame with plausible modesty. "I'm not in a position to spout off about politics and be Helen Mirren - 'yes, I believe whales should be saved'," she jokes. "I forget I'm on the cover of a magazine until I walk past a newspaper-stand and go, 'ooh, that's me'. I've got invited to a few more parties recently, but my social life hasn't improved because I don't always go. I get scared. I guess I'm not the new Christopher Biggins."

Sitting in the canteen she turns no heads - but only because she is half-buried in a rough black woolly jumper, loose grey trousers and the kind of baggy, fur-trimmed, hooded anorak Oasis have made trendy. She dresses down determinedly, and yet the "phwoar factor" has undoubtedly played a part in her rise and rise. Andy Harries, the executive producer of Cold Feet, tries to pinpoint her appeal: "She made Cardiac Arrest incredibly compelling. I used to hate it when the camera panned away from her - no disrespect to the other actors. You can't quite take your eyes off her. She's very beautiful, but she has a serene quality that I was fascinated by. I was obsessed by her - and I don't say that in an unhealthy way, I'm a terribly correct chap," he laughs. "She's sexy without being overt. She's mysterious, which is more alluring."

The London Evening Standard goes further, dubbing her "TV's most desirable actress", while the People got in a right old lather about a brief topless scene - "Doc Helen's revealing new role!" - in Truth or Dare. Even a female acquaintance of mine described her as "totty". The salivating attention of the tabloids is something Baxendale will have to learn to live with. "It goes with the job," she sighs. "It was the only thing about Truth or Dare that was picked up by the tabloids. What's the point if all they say is, 'look at her tits'? How anyone can be that interested I find hard to believe."

Baxendale goes on to dismiss the hullaballoo with a shrug. "Today's news is tomorrow's fish and chip paper. I'm amazed at how the publicity machine works and how an image is created. It's a relief to know that icons are made by the media and that they're normal people in reality. I did some photos for GQ. They looked lovely, but they didn't look like me.

"I'm quite happy to be called desirable - wouldn't you be?," she continues. At 26, she remains admirably mature about her hot-property status - Harries reckons movie stardom is only a phone-call away. "I'm very pleased," she admits, "but easy-going about it. I want projects I'm doing to be good. Being in successful things is addictive. Of course I think, 'I hope this doesn't end.' But if it does, I won't die. There are other things in life."

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