Actor Michelle Collins talks to Tim Bano about the culture she has been enjoying during lockdown, from Grayson’s Art Club to past adaptations of The Birthday Party, which she was due to tour before the pandemic hit
Actor Michelle Collins, who has starred in both Coronation Street and EastEnders, making her a familiar face to many, has also had an extensive career on stage. In response to the pandemic, she has produced a series of monologues featuring well-known actors and writers, partnering with Equity to raise money for the Equity Benevolent Fund.
When the lockdown started, she was due to star in a touring production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. During lockdown, Collins says she has been finding ways to keep busy.
“My agent said to me: ‘Theatre-wise, don’t expect work until next spring.’ I watched a lot of TV at the beginning of lockdown, but now I’m trying to be more creative. I’ve been sending scripts around, I’ve got a production company. As an actor we’re used to being self-employed, we’re used to spending time on our own. But unless you’re extremely lucky, you won’t be at a point where you are doing lots of television, or knowing what work is coming up next.
“Young actors will suffer through this. They can’t supplement themselves in hospitality, because there is no hospitality. It’s great when you reach a certain level, but it’s a very small percentage of our industry. Theatres provide services to the community. They have youth theatres, they have dementia-friendly cafes. If they go, that’s what I worry about.”
I’ve been watching Unorthodox, on Netflix, which is incredible, about a young woman in an Orthodox Jewish community. That led me on to a series called Shtisel, which is also about a Jewish Orthodox family, living in Jerusalem. There are three series, and I finished them all – I loved them. The show involves many of the same people who made Unorthodox. I don’t know much about the lives of Orthodox Jews, but this really delves into the characters’ lives, and shows you that no matter our religion or race, we’re all the same. We have the same problems: rows with the family, jobs, everything. I would urge people to watch it – it’s really interesting watching people from a completely different culture.
I’ve also been watching a series called Giri/Haji. It was on last year [on BBC Two and is now on Netflix] and it’s about a Japanese detective who goes to London to find his brother. He goes to Soho and gets mixed up with the wrong crowd. It’s so clever, very stylised – it goes into anime at one point – and it has really great actors too.
I’m loving Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4. It’s got a really lovely warm feeling to it. It’s so uplifting, it made me want to cry. It’s great that something like that can come out of this. It’s something I would never have watched, but I’ve really enjoyed it.
I listen to a lot of podcasts – crime ones in particular – as well as series on BBC Sounds. You Must Remember This is a great podcast, all about the golden age of Hollywood.
I watch a lot of Talking Pictures TV because I love old movies. There was a great programme about Leslie Howard recently – I didn’t know that he was a director, and that he died in an aeroplane crash. The channel was showing The Birthday Party [from 1968] the other day – when lockdown started, I was playing Meg in a touring production. This week I should have been performing it in Richmond, so it
was very weird watching it. In the 1968 film, Dandy Nichols played Meg, but then I watched Joan Plowright’s version from 1987, which was very different. In that version, it was actually Harold Pinter playing Goldberg. I was very anxious stepping into those shoes, but I was really looking forward to doing it.
What theatre work have you been doing?
I’ve started an initiative called For the Love of Arts (#FLOA), a series of monologues by actors to raise money for Equity’s Benevolent Fund. Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Lesley Manville (below), Joseph Fiennes, Frances Barber, Elaine Paige, Bertie Carvel, Sue Johnston, Pearl Mackie and others have signed up. Some are existing monologues, some are new, by established and emerging writers.
I was talking to a friend of mine, a theatre producer, and she told me about a well-known actor who had to apply for a cash fund. People would not believe that this actor was struggling. So I talked to Equity, who explained that they had set up a cash flow fund for the current crisis, and the claims were amounting to £85,000 per week. They said there was a real need for it, not just from actors, but lots of people in the industry who were struggling to pay their bills.
I said I’d like to do something, and I thought I’d ring up some people I know and ask them to do a monologue. I started with some of the more famous people, like Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen and Lennie James, and within about two days I had 20 or so people signed up. It became too big for me to manage on my own so I got in touch with a friend, Debbie Gray, who’s a producer, and she came on board.
Some were slightly worried about filming at home – I don’t think Ian McKellen’s ever had to do a self-tape – but what’s really nice is the intimacy of them doing it in their own homes. All the monologues are so different, and everyone who’s done it has really cared.
You can donate to Equity’s Benevolent Fund via its JustGiving page: justgiving.com/crowdfunding/equity-benevolentfund