Female attention is something Anna Friel has got used to since she started playing the part of Beth Jordache in Brookside - a teenager who discovers she's a lesbian and has an affair with her best friend. The high point of the affair came in January when the pair kissed in front of 6 million viewers: the first ever pre-nine-o'clock watershed lesbian kiss. Tonight Anna narrates, video- diary style, the story of the Jordache family's troubles, in a one-hour special for Channel 4.
Anna Friel is 18 and lives in Rochdale with her parents, who are both teachers, and her 15- year-old brother Michael. Although not a drama school brat - she went to a local Catholic school - she has been acting since the age of 13, when she passed the enrolment assessment at the prestigious Oldham Theatre Workshop.
The company, which has bred many Coronation Street actors, is a well-known talent pool for casting agents, and Anna landed parts in GBH, Medics and a children's programme, The 8.15 from Manchester.
'Life then was pretty stressed,' she says. 'While I was doing my GCSEs I was also in a production with the workshop and doing Medics. I was very, very tired.' Still, she pulled off five As, two Bs and two Cs.
She had just started doing four A-levels at a new school, Holy Cross, in Bury, Lancashire, when her agent got a call from Brookside's casting agents. Three auditions later, she'd landed the part. She was not quite 17.
'It was a tough decision at the time to leave college,' she says. 'Now all my friends are going to university and I'm not. But I decided I could go to university any time, whereas I could only do Brookside then.' She's glad she took the part. Beth's life has been action packed. In 18 months she's helped kill her father - who had sexually abused her and physically abused her mother - and embarked on the lesbian affair which has made her famous.
Anna is flattered by the thought of being a lesbian pin- up: 'Being a gay icon is no different to being a straight icon,' she says. Actually she's a unisex icon: she has also posed as an 'alternative' sex symbol for the new lads' magazine Loaded.
The crossover is possible because Beth's image is of a young 'lipstick' lesbian: the long brown hair, pouting lips and pretty face make babe material. Anna doesn't like the lipstick lesbian label. 'Suddenly lesbians are trendy, but lesbians have existed for years. Women have always been attracted to women, it's just that society has never allowed them to be seen.'
She is not gay herself: her current boyfiend is actor Darren Day, now playing Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Manchester. She says playing Beth has been an eye-opener. 'I do have lesbian friends. I talked to one of them about it, as I couldn't identify with the idea of coming out. It was only then that it registered that lesbians don't have children or get married and have to face parental rejection.'
Her character has brought lesbianism into mainstream television for the first time. 'People may not watch the news, but they watch soaps. So much had happened to Beth that people can relate to her.'
When the storyline was at its peak, Anna's fan mail shot up from 20 letters a week to 100. 'Fifty per cent of them were from gay people. Most were supportive and positive about Beth and I had lots of letters from people saying they were confused and that Beth had helped them to come out. So I'm glad I'm doing something to help.' Even so, for a straight woman who plays a lesbian, there are bound to be some tricky moments: the kiss, for instance.
'But kissing a man is just as hard as kissing a woman,' she says. 'I had a very long scene after the kiss, so if I didn't get it right, I'd have to do the dialogue again.' Then she laughs. 'At least I've had the excuse to kiss a woman now.'
She has had offers for presenting jobs and record contracts but rejected them in favour of her acting career. She admires Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Jane Campion as directors and, like any actress, hopes to make films. But for now she is still committed to playing Beth. There is still her father's body under the back patio which eventually needs to come up.
'It would only be right to follow the story line through and I'm excited about that. I came in with a bang and that's exactly how I want to go out.'
'The Jordache Story', Beth's own video diary about her family, is on Channel 4 tonight at 6pm
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