Frances Ruffelle is a name most people passionate about, or working in, theatre will recognise. You don’t need me to tell you that she was the original Eponine in Les Mis, that she appeared in the musical on Broadway and that she continues to work in the theatre to this very day. She’s currently in Leicester, in fact, where she’s appearing in Piaf at Curve. She is, quite simply, a theatre legend.
But mention her name to those with less theatre knowledge however and – despite the fact she represented us at Eurovision in 1994 with Lonely Symphony – you’re likely to get a blank look. Frances who? Ruffled what? Eurovision? You big gay!
And while they may have a point about Eurovision, it never ceases to amaze me how those people we think of as the biggest and brightest names in theatre – Janie Dee, Anna-Jane Casey, Joanna Riding, Maria Friedman to name a few – remain, on the whole, confined to theatreland. Theatre, in short, doesn’t make stars of its best talent.
Do casting directors worry maybe that performers with a theatre background can’t transfer their skills to a television set?
It never used to be that way – just look at Elaine Paige, for example, or Michael Ball. Theatre used to create stars – household names. But it doesn’t seem to any more.
And so instead, theatre, as we know, looks to take “stars” from television and film and cast them in lead roles, in the hope of boosting box office sales.
But while the theatre world will embrace someone who has made a name for themselves on television, and cast them in a lead role in a musical or play, television seems more reluctant to take the cream of the theatre world and make use of them on screen.
Indeed, when I spoke to Ruffelle this week about Piaf, she told me that, despite initially beginning her career on TV, it’s been harder for her to get TV work since as she is predominantly “known as a theatre actress, and sometimes the two don’t mix”.
It’s an interesting point, isn’t it?
She has become known as a theatre actress, and so she has struggled to land roles on television. Why is that? Do casting directors worry maybe that performers with a theatre background can’t transfer their skills to a television set?
Okay, I can think of some stage actors who have made the crossover from theatre to television, such as Ben Whishaw, who first came to our attention through stage appearances in plays such as the Old Vic’s Hamlet in 2004, and David Caves, who has recently made his television debut as the new lead in Silent Witness having started out in theatre.
But – to my mind at least – they seem to be in the minority. And there would appear to be a whole host of theatre performers who will never make that crossover, even if they wanted to.
Only this week I chatted to Jennifer Ellison, best known of course for Brookside, who has since appeared in musicals such as Chicago and is currently in Singin’ in the Rain. Look at the opportunities television has opened up to her in theatre. I am not suggesting this was a calculated decision on Ellison’s part – I don’t think she masterminded a television career in order to land the top roles in theatre (she was ridiculously young when she got the part in Brookside). But the profile she gained from television – and she’d be the first to tell you this – has helped her no end in getting the best parts on stage.
Would Ellison have become a TV star had she started out in theatre first? I’m not sure. But I do know that in a world where series such as The Only Way is Essex can make stars out of complete nobodies, it would be great if television made better use of this country’s real, but relatively unknown, theatre talent.