REAL LIVES: SHE REFUSES TO BE PHOTOGRAPHED OUT OF CHARACTER, AND IS ALWAYS ON HER GUARD AGAINST THOSE WHO WOULD MAKE RAQUEL A FIGURE OF FUN. JOINING CORONATION STREET REALLY IS LIKE JOINING THE ROYAL FAMILY

4 'When I joined the show, the producer said, "Look after Raquel". Now I know what he meant' 4; the interview SARAH LANCASHIRE, ACTRESS TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON

what are the most affecting qualities of Raquel Wolstenhulme, Rovers Return bartender and would-be catwalk icon? Hauteur, kindness and dignity in the face of defeat. Coronation Street might be losing Bet Lynch, but as long as Raquel remains, something of the spirit of God's landlady will live on in the regal posture and big hair of the daughter she never had.

Sarah Lancashire - Raquel's straight-haired, straight-talking, demurely trouser-suited representative on Earth - returns from the set proffering a packet of Blackjacks, filched from the corner shop in the course of a rehearsal. "These are within their sell-by date," she confirms. "That's very unusual." Through the goldfish-bowl window of the Coronation Street interview room, there are distracting glimpses of Percy Sugden getting into his car, Jack and Vera talking amiably, and even a wheelchair-free Maud Grimes, probably sneaking off for a quick game of volleyball.

Television studios are usually disappointing, unmagical places, but Granada's Salford HQ is a dramatic exception. Clumps of autograph hunters block the gates. Hundreds of studio-touring faces press against the fence at the corner of the set shouting "It's Jim" and "It's Gail" as the stars go in and out.

In these circumstances, it must be hard not to think of yourself as a public servant. "When you join the show," Lancashire says, "you're there for one reason: because you're a jobbing actor and you're paying your mortgage. But as far as Joe Public is concerned, you're there because you exist. That's not to patronise our audience by saying that they think the show is real, because they know it isn't, but it does exist as an entity in itself; that's the most bizarre thing about it."

Sarah Lancashire grew up in south and then north Manchester. She had a twin brother (now a doctor). "It was very healthy," she says. "We were never compared." Her father was a television scriptwriter who actually worked on some early Street episodes. The Lancashire route to the Rovers was far from direct though. When she got into drama school - heading for the Guildhall in London straight after her A-levels - her original ambitions inclined more towards stage management than acting. But "too many people said, 'Do the other thing.' "

A walk-on part in the Street cropped up soon after she graduated in 1986, but Raquel didn't come along until five years later. In the intervening period, Lancashire had two children, now "nearly" six and eight, with her composer husband Gary, and worked as a drama lecturer in Salford to make ends meet. She also had a year in the West End as the chirpy Scouse love-interest in Willy Russell's long-running musical Blood Brothers.

Getting signed up as a Coronation Street cast member must be like becoming a member of the Royal Family. "It is really, but when you first join you don't know how long you're there for [initial contracts are for only three months], so it's not too overbearing. You start out with scripts pre-written, with no specific actor in mind, so you've got to build a character on top of that foundation. It's not just lifting words off the page, it's constructing a history around them as well."

Given that you have to spend six days a week with them, it couldn't be much fun playing a character you hated. Lancashire wasn't sure about Raquel at first. "I don't think they quite knew what to do with her. She was very two-dimensional, and there was an acidic side to her as well which I didn't really like, because I thought that if they picked up on that she'd end up being the street bitch." The interaction of Coronation Street writers and actors is "like a tennis match," she says. "It's down to the actors to show the writers the potential of the character."

Lancashire explains: "I played against a lot of what they wrote for her initially, just by making it slightly more comic, so that people would feel more sympathetic towards the character." It was her part in last year's classic Tanya and Des love-triangle saga that elevated Raquel to the pantheon of Street legend. "They constructed that storyline so well," she remembers fondly. "It ran over a credible period of time - they didn't rush it - and because Raquel lives in this very idealistic world - she's such a dreamer - when reality hits her, it hits very, very hard. That really was the first opportunity we'd had to strip away a bit of the exterior of her character and see how fragile she was. It was great."

Coronation Street has long provided vital proof that women in television drama do not have to be planning bank robberies or governing prisons to be imposing characters. "It's a women's show, without a doubt," says Lancashire, "it always has been. The men tend to vacillate; the strong figures from Day One have always been women."

At the odd moment when Raquel threatens to become merely a figure of fun, does Lancashire have to be her guardian? "Oh yes, I remember when I first joined the show, David Liddiment [then executive producer] said, 'Look after her', and I didn't know what on earth he was talking about, but having been here four- and-a-half years, I know exactly what he means."

Lancashire likes having to put on a uniform - even those insane jumpers - as it reminds her the character is a job, not a way of life. There is no chance of this woman taking the Chris Quentin route to tabloid oblivion. "Celebrity and actor are two completely different professions," she says, "and I don't believe that they mix if you want to maintain any sort of credibility." But how does it feel to see someone wearing a "Raquel Wolstenhulme Supermodel" T-shirt? "To be honest, it doesn't really feel like part of me, because she's so much herself: it's the character people are relating to. If someone was walking round in a T-shirt with Sarah Lancashire on it, I'd find that very disturbing."

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