Michelle’s latest acting challenge is playing Miss Scarlett in Cluedo.
There was one minor setback, though. Midway through one performance, a front tooth fell out of Michelle’s mouth. “I’d been eating too many peanuts,” she confesses.
“Initially, I panicked. I thought we’d have to get the understudy on.” But quick-witted CBeebies star Chris Jarvis – playing the Dame – handed Michelle a piece of chewing gum which he kept in place with a squirt of fixing spray.
“Luckily, I didn’t have any songs in the second half although I did start talking with a lisp. I sounded a bit like Janet Street-Porter, but the show must go on. I went to the dentist the following morning and got it fixed.”
Back on stage she continued to attract cries from the audience of “He’s behind you, Cindy!”, referring to the role that made her name. “And yet,” she protests, “I last played Cindy Beale in EastEnders in 1998.”
While she may be slightly mystified by the enduring appeal of her small screen creation, she’s not really complaining: “I was 26 when I first started playing her, initially for an agreed 11 episodes. In the end, I was 37 when she was finally killed off.
“So she was a major part of my life at a time when the show was attracting huge audiences. But it felt like I lived with her 24/7. I couldn’t sneeze without being in the papers. I had to move on for my own sanity.”
EastEnders: Michelle Collins as Cindy and Adam Woodyatt as Ian Beale in 1992.
Michelle as Cindy in EastEnders for Children in Need sketch in 2014.
So, she’ll always be grateful to bad girl Cindy? “Not bad,” she corrects me, eyes twinkling, “just misunderstood. Actually, I think she was a bit ahead of her time. Up until then, most TV villains were played by men. I’m proud of her.”
Appearing in a top-rated soap can’t have been too traumatic, as Michelle subsequently went on to play Stella Price, landlady of the Rovers Return in Corrie for three years.
While Cindy was certainly a mile- stone in her career, has it proved to be a millstone? “No, I’m grateful to her. Of course, no actor wants to be identified with just one role. It’s why Daniel Craig has stepped away from James Bond. It’s why Danny Dyer is saying goodbye to Mick Carter in EastEnders, although he could always Return .
“The difference between both of them and me, though, is that they were established names when they took on their most famous roles.
“I wasn’t really known so Cindy propelled me into all those sitting rooms. I’ll always thank her for that while being careful not to rely on her for any future work.”
There was a lot of pressure when she moved to Corrie. “I was from down south and played Stella with a northern accent which attracted a lot of criticism, to an unfair degree, in my opinion. I found it really tough. But, eventually, I think viewers came to love the character.”
Michelle as Stella in Coronation Street.
There have been many other roles, the latest of which is her starring turn as Miss Scarlett in the upcoming touring production of Cluedo which opens in Bromley on Friday and finally comes to rest in the last week of July in Belfast.
There was a successful film, Clue, based on the perennially popular board game. “But this is the first time,” says Michelle, “that it will be seen in theatres.
“I’d describe it as a comedy whodunit. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever done. Some days, I love it; on others, I worry if I’m ever going to get it right.
“I’ve done Agatha Christie before and Death In Paradise and Midsomer.
“But comedy is so much harder than drama.” She’s up for the challenge, though. “Miss Scarlett is sassy and smart and I get to wear some fabulous bright red costumes.
“And it’s very nice, I must say, to be creating the role on stage.”
How does she feel about touring for six months? “When my daughter, Maia, was younger, I always worried about being away from home – particularly when I was in Manchester filming Corrie. She had my mum and a nanny looking after her but I was always consumed by guilt.”
Cluedo opens in Bromley on Friday.
Michelle’s mum Mary – “the kindest woman I ever knew” – died from cancer last April. Maia has now finished her university degree at Bristol.
According to her mother, “she’s doing her own thing but she doesn’t like me talking about her in public”.
Maia is the product of Michelle’s relationship with Italian Fabrizio Tassalini which fractured after three years, although the couple remained friends. Indeed, she was with him when he died of cancer at just 54, in 2015. “He was a charismatic, charming man who died far too young.”
For 10 years now, Michelle has been dating retailer Mike Davison, more than two decades her junior. “I like the fact he’s not another actor,” she once told me. “Two big egos under one roof is never a good idea.”
But she doesn’t like talking about him either: “He’s a shy person, and anyway, I don’t want to jinx anything. The minute you start talking about these things you tempt fate and I think it’s important to keep some aspects of your private life close to your chest.”
Michelle turns 60 at the end of May: “Mike is 22 years younger and I’m regarded by some people as a predator. It drives me mad. Gossip columns call him my toyboy beau.
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“He’s 38, for God’s sake. He said, not so long ago, ‘Surely I’m not still your toyboy, am I?’ I laugh about it now but it does annoy me.
“And I hate that word cougar. I can’t stand it. I find it so demeaning.
“A cougar is a predator going around looking for young flesh. I’m certainly not like that.
“But then, women are judged far more harshly than men – and, funnily enough, often by other women.”
Professionally speaking, no one could accuse Michelle of letting the grass grow. A couple of years back, she launched Pellum, a skincare range for women in their middle years. “It did very well but I soon came to realise you’ve got to be on it the whole time and it was too difficult to manage on my own. I’m pleased I did it, though.”
She’s also got a production company with five projects all at different stages of development.
Ask her what she plans to do in the second half of 2022 and she’s very hopeful that one of these – a potential TV drama with a good juicy role for her and three other women – will come to fruition.
“I’m a Gemini,” says Michelle. “I’m always looking for the next thing. It’s also the Year of the Tiger and it’s going to be a good time for us tigers. Watch this space.”