Amanda Barrie kept me at arms length during her recent summer season at Bournemouth’s Pier Theatre.
The Carry On and Corrie actress was topping the bill in a mediocre production of Alan Ayckbourn’s ageing black comedy Absurd Person Singular.
But unlike her fellow cast-members she was shying away from interviews. In fact apart from a cursory chat over a cup of coffee at the initial press call, Miss Barrie was routinely “unavailable”.
I soon discovered the reason. An insider told me that she had just completed an autobiography and there were some “sensational revelations” in the offing. She didn’t want them appearing anywhere in print until after the publication of her warts-and-all shocker. There was also a deal with a national newspaper to serialise the naughty bits.
Poor Amanda, her timing couldn’t have been worse. Her book, It’s Not A Rehearsal, contains the kind of material that on a slow news day would make major headlines. Not least that she was once asked to give a 15-year-old Prince Charles lessons in love.
However she clearly hadn’t reckoned on Edwina Currie and John Major, Ulrika Johnson and John Leslie or indeed Angus Deayton hogging her space.
Add to that the Washington sniper, the Bali bombing, the Moscow theatre siege and there simply weren’t any column inches left for Amanda’s stories of bisexuality, drug-taking and a life that has seen her engage in everything from running bets for Sid James to taking purple hearts with Dora Bryan.
She was even a dealer for a while, dishing out the pep pill of choice in the early 1960s to her chums in theatreland. They would arrive at the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre looking for something to help their show along. If Amanda didn’t know them or didn’t like the look of them she would give them laxatives instead.
To most people of course Amanda Barrie is known as Alma from Coronation Street, a role she played for 12 years until she finally left the long-running series and was despatched back into the real world via a controversial cancer storyline. Except that in Amanda’s case life has actually been stranger than the highly contrived world of the soaps. Born Shirley Broadbent (she was named after the child star Shirley Temple) she was perfoming on stage by the age of three and was brought up in the wake of the disintegration of her parent’s marriage by a domineering and fiercely ambitious stage mother.
By the age of 11 she had was deeply attracted to other girls but it was years before she sorted out the confusion she felt over her sexuality.
Within three or four years she was working as a Soho chorus girl and then landed a job as a hostess on Hughie Green’s Double Your Money before forging an acting career in theatre, television and film including of course Carry On Cleo, a role that turned her into a pin-up. There were relationships with both men and women including a bizarre affair with pop idol Billy Fury and a decidedly unconventional marriage to the actor Robin Hunter which was spiced up by three in-a-bed sex sessions.
In many way the stories that are most interesting are those about working in the less than thriving British film industry during the early 60s. The relentless regime on the set of the Carry On films for instance, where shooting to the strictest of timetables an entire film could be completed in a couple of weeks. Carry On Cleo cost just £160,000 to make ( a miniscule budget even 40 odd years ago) and Amanda and the other actors received a one-off fee of just £250 each.
The completed film was seen by some as a clever pastiche of its big-budget American counterpart Cleopatra which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and cost millions.
Amanda thinks any comparisons are ludicrous but then she recalls only too well the scene where Cleo bathes in asses milk. For the Carry On shoot she had to sit in 200 gallons of watered down semi-skimmed which was slowly curdling under the lights.
“When Elizabeth Taylor finished the bath scenes for Cleopatra she was given a week’s holiday, I was given a cup of Pinewood Studio’s coffee, then on to the next scene,” says Amanda ruefully.
And that sums her life up. Whatever she does (even 12 years in Coronation Street), its then on to the next scene.
A great read and an interesting insight into one of the great survivors of showbusiness.
*It’s Not A Rehearsal by Amanda Barrie is published by Headline at £18.99.