By Jeremy Miles
Soap actress, impressionist and sometime stand-up comedian Debra Stephenson appears to be dressed as a pile of leaves. She’s just been lying across a couple of chairs pretending to fly.
Now as we walk out into the street, I look around nervously fearing that local council workers might try to sweep her up. It’s funny old business, the world entertainment.
In fact Debra - probably best known as Frankie Baldwin in Coronation Street - is in the middle of a photo-shoot for this year’s pantomime at Lighthouse in Poole.
She’s playing Peter Pan - hence the costume, though she stresses this is not the actual outfit she’ll be wearing during the production which opens for a month on December 10.
That one was designed by Ken Powell who graduated from Bournemouth Arts University last year.
There’s much excitement about the show which is Lighthouse’s first-ever home-produced pantomime and finds the multi-talented actress joined by CBBC presenter Michael ‘Abs’alom as Captain Hook's sidekick Smee and former Emmerdale star Gary Turner as the evil Hook himself.
For Debra however there’s another very good reason to be pleased. It means she’ll be able spend Christmas at home.
Together with husband James and children Max (8) and Zoe Louise (3), the 38-year-old whose other starring roles have included psycho Shell Dockley in the prison drama Bad Girls and the highly popular The Impressions Show with Jon Culshaw, decided to move to Poole last year.
After years in Manchester and London she says they love the natural beauty of Dorset.
“The sea, the fresh air, the trees...it’s such a better place to bring the children up,” she told me.
“We actually lived in a pretty nice part of London but even so we were right under the flight path to Heathrow. It was like having a motorway over your head.”
You get more bricks for your buck in Dorset too and the family have been able to move to a bigger house with a bigger garden. They’ve clearly been busy making the most of their new environment.
“Places like Swanage and the Purbecks are so beautiful, we have so much to explore,” says Debra. “It’s really exciting. It feels like we’ve come on our holidays but instead of it just being for a week or two it’s forever.”
Landing a panto job on her doorstep was a big bonus. It happened, she says, by a chapter of happy accidents. “I went to Lighthouse to see a show by Brendan Cole from Strictly and was introduced to the chief executive Elspeth MacBain. We got chatting and kind of clicked immediately. We had a lot in common. We’d both quite recently moved from London and we had kids of a similar age. I also really liked what she was doing at Lighthouse. Elspeth has great ideas and really good taste. Basically I asked her if she was doing panto this year.”
The question came at exactly the right time. Elspeth and in-house executive producer Robin Cave were searching for a high-profile star for their home-grown show. In Debra they had the offer of a talented actress with a wealth of TV exposure.
During a career that took off when she graduated from stage school in 1996, Debra has appeared in everything from drama and documentary to comedy, current affairs and reality TV. She had originally paid her dues as a teenager, entering talent contests as a singing impressionist and doing turns on the notoriously tough working mens club circuit.
It was invaluable experience that undoubtedly helped when she landed her biggest break - the Coronation Street role – straight out of college. She describes working on Corrie as a surreal experience. “Having grown up watching it, you know that street, you recognise those cobbles and those little houses. Suddenly finding yourself walking into that world is very odd. It’s like walking into a book.”
Her departure from Weatherfield came three months after a flurry of tabloid headlines claimed that she was having an affair with Bradley Walsh who played her on-screen husband, Danny. They both adamantly denied there was any truth in the rumours but admitted they had grown “very close”.
Ironically Debra will revisit Coronation Street, and the subject of affairs, during the latest series of The Impressions Show in which she and Jon Culshaw imagine that, at some point in the deep distant past, Corrie’s Ken Barlow and EastEnders’ Pat Butcher might have been an item.
“It’s a lovely little sketch, a sort of cross-pollination of soaps,” says Debra.
Working with Culshaw she says is a dream. “He’s absolutely brilliant. Other characters she’ll be exploring in the latest series include Lady GaGa and Katie Price.
Debra’s career trajectory continues to rise despite leaving both Coronation Street and Bad Girls.
“They were big TV series but it was time to move on.” she tells me. “I think it’s important to remember that fundamentally you become an actor because you want to play different roles, do different things and keep things interesting. It’s about finding what makes you happy. The job is almost incidental.”
She says the same applies to moving to Dorset. “I don’t build my life around my career I build my career around my life and right now I feel Dorset is the ideal place to be.”