Wendi Peters’ first drama school audition was so brutal it’s a wonder she didn’t abandon all hope of being an actor right there and then.
The year was 1984, and Peters – just 16 – was trying for a place at the prestigious Arts Educational Schools London. What followed left her crying for two days straight.
“My ballet teacher had been there and it was the school to go to,” Peters recalls. “I sang Everything’s Coming Up Roses from Gypsy and they told me I was fabulous.”
She continues: “But then I got called before then headmistress Mrs Jack and the panel. And she basically told me, in no polite terms, as she sat eating chocolate digestive biscuits, that I should come back next year when I had lost a bit of weight.”
Cue the 48 hours of tears. Two days that would have left someone of a more fragile consistency contemplating giving up and going home.
Fortunately, Peters wasn’t ready to abandon her dream that quickly. “I knew I was never going to be in a line-up of chorus girls. And today we are aware of what saying something like that can do to someone,” she says. “But luckily I went the other way and thought: ‘Sod you, then.’ After crying for two days, I pulled myself together and thought: ‘Right, where else?’”
That somewhere else turned out to be London Studio Centre, where her contemporaries included Elizabeth Hurley and the choreographer Stephen Mear.
And Arts Ed’s loss was the London Studio Centre’s gain. Since leaving in 1987, she has gone on to become a familiar face of stage and screen, and had a four-year stint in ITV’s Coronation Street as Cilla Battersby-Brown.
London Studio Centre encouraged her to embrace her physicality. “We were doing Chicago, and I had a beautiful dress. But someone at the school was not happy with me in it,” she says. “My singing teacher turned to me and said: ‘Forget what they are saying. Costumes are only trappings. It’s what is inside that costume that matters.’”
Anyone who knows Peters will testify that the woman inside those costumes is warm and cheerful. She is as popular with audiences as she is with her fellow cast members, who have become as much accustomed to Peters’ bubbly personality and acting skills as they have her passion for baking.
Homemade brownies backstage are regular treats when she is in a show. “It’s become my signature on tour,” she laughs. “People ask me what I am making next week.”
Later this month, audiences will also sample some of her baking skills, when she presents a solo show as part of the London Festival of Cabaret at the St James Theatre, called Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.
It will also be a chance for Peters to show the broad scope of her talents. “I am known as a comedy actress,” she says. “I’ve played lots of fun characters and that is how I want the cabaret to be. You are coming for a whole rounded evening of entertainment. There will be chat and there may be a few cakes and brownies. You will learn more about me and where I come from.”
She adds: “A lot of people will know me just from Coronation Street. And I want people to see there is more to me than that. I had 15 years of career before that, and since then I have gone on to do lots more musicals and plays.”
It’s a fair point. When she left drama school in 1987, she began a career in theatre, working first in Cinderella at the Crucible in Sheffield, before landing Hello, Dolly! the following summer, directed by Paul Kerryson.
She worked steadily on the stage after, predominantly in musicals, until she “took the plunge” and realised that she was going to have to “start saying no to musicals” if she wanted to do straight theatre.
It was a move that paid off, with Peters eventually being cast by John Godber to appear in his play Teechers.
Slowly, she recalls, small parts in television shows started to present themselves, before Peters eventually found herself cast in the popular ITV series Bad Girls in 2001.
The opportunity to appear in Coronation Street followed a couple of years later – a role that she played solidly for four years.
But it very nearly didn’t happen. Just months before the call for the Corrie audition came in, Peters was on the verge of giving up on acting for good. “I had a terrible two years where there was nothing,” she says. “I had my daughter Gracie and then nothing. I had started teaching children’s music classes and was about to pack it in and do something else. But my husband Kenny [Linden] told me I should change agents and give it one more shot.”
She adds: “So I changed agents and six weeks later I got the call for Corrie.”
The call came when she was on holiday in Spain, and took her by surprise. “I had just got out of the pool and there was a message on my phone from my new agent, who I had just signed with, saying they want to see me for Corrie,” she says. “It was a bit gobsmacking, especially when I heard they were only seeing 10 people. They are so picky about who they see that the chance to be seen is hard enough.”
On her return to the UK, she read the breakdown of the character, and says she made a decision there and then to become Cilla Battersby-Brown for the audition. “I knew a little about what TV is like, and that they generally want you as you are,” she says. “Schedules are so hectic that it’s easier to be yourself than to put something on, and they want TV to be as natural as possible, too. I thought there was no way they would contemplate me as Cilla if I go in as me.”
So she raided her wardrobe and found herself a small miniskirt, padded her bra, wore a low cut t-shirt and piled on the jewellery, throwing into the mix a “big Cilla accent”. The whole image, she admits, was based on a woman called Lizzie from Rochdale she had watched on the Channel 4 series Wife Swap.
And this is what she presented to the panel she was auditioning for. “Even when they were interviewing me about me, I spoke as Cilla,” she says. “I had never done it before, but I thought it was an opportunity. You only get one chance at this kind of part and I decided if I did it and it went horribly wrong, I would have nothing to lose.” She laughs, adding: “Even after I was cast, the executive producer came up and said ‘I can’t believe you don’t speak like that’.”
What was your first non-theatre job? I spent the summer before I went to London Studio Centre filing in a company my auntie worked for in Blackburn. It was really boring, but it helped pay for the first term.
What was your first professional theatre job? Cinderella in Sheffield.
What is your next job? Filming the new series of Hetty Feather.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I would have to say those 1950s classic movies starring Judy Garland and Ann Miller. On the Town is my all time favourite film and I wanted to be Betty Garrett. I love a bit of Ethel Merman, too.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t treat it as an audition, treat it as a meeting between friends and don’t be afraid to speak and say things. I make a point of saying hello and shaking hands – there should not be a barrier. Just be natural and make it fun.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? At one point I decided I was packing it all in to do an interior design course, so it would be something arty.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No, I don’t. I don’t like whistling. But that’s because I just can’t stand it generally.
After four years in the soap, however, Peters realised she had to move on if she wanted to be able to do other parts. “People ask me why I left Corrie and I say: ‘I trained to be an actress,’” she explains. “For me, that meant exploring and playing lots of roles and not just one. I wanted to get back and do what I do.
“Don’t get me wrong. I am very grateful to it and a lot of the things I am doing now came from that – all the baking stuff such as Celebrity Masterchef and the light entertainment stuff I do on TV. But it’s lovely now to go back to some of the things I did before, with more people taking an interest in it because of my role in Corrie.”
Since Corrie, she has appeared in plenty of theatre, spanning musicals and straight plays, from touring the UK in Northern Broadsides’ Rutherford and Son in 2013, to playing the cavernous Dominion Theatre in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas from November 2014 to January 2015.
She has a particular soft spot for musicals, with most of her training at London Studio Centre having focused on the genre, but she is frustrated that performers in musicals don’t get the respect they deserve.
“To me, there is nothing harder than getting a musical right,” she says. “But musical actors are underestimated and it’s a shame that we don’t celebrate the genre here like they do in America. Musical performers on Broadway are stars and everyone in the country knows them. They are on TV shows, in sitcoms… but we don’t have that crossover here.”
Peters, you might argue, has managed the crossover quite well. Far from being pigeonholed as a musical performer, she prides herself on the variety she has achieved in her career.
Last year, for example, she went from a tour of Oh What a Lovely War to appearing in the more intimate 90-seat space at the Park Theatre in north London, in the play Hatched ’N’ Dispatched.
Despite the theatre roles being plentiful, however, television parts elude her somewhat at the moment. “TV jobs don’t come up as much as I would like,” she says. “There is a barrier still, because of Cilla. They [casting directors] still see that a little bit – even nine years on.”
She adds: “Look at Sarah Lancashire. People will still watch her and say she was Raquel in Corrie. You can’t get away from it, and I don’t think anyone would want to. Those are the parts that have forwarded our careers. But it’s nice to move on and see if you can do other things.”
Peters, born in Blackburn, began performing aged eight, when she persuaded her mother to let her start ballet lessons. From there, she began taking part in dance festivals in the North West, becoming friends with people such as Anna-Jane Casey and her sister, Natalie. “It was a really good grounding and we loved it,” Peters says, adding that at the age of 16 she knew she wanted to turn her hobby into a career.
She had her parents’ support, but the headmistress at her grammar school was unimpressed – “appalled”, to be precise. Nevertheless, Peters took herself off to London and, after her unsuccessful attempt to get into Arts Ed, took up her place at London Studio Centre.
Almost 30 years on, her career is strong. She recently shot a pilot for a Channel 4 series that she isn’t allowed to say too much about. But she is hopeful it will be picked up, given that it will show another side to her, she hints. Then, in the summer, she films a third series of kids’ drama Hetty Feather, playing the “matronly, Dickensian” cook.
For now, though, it’s all about the cabaret. And while it’s exposing for Peters to be presenting herself to an audience, she’s confident both she and those watching will have a good time.
“I just want it to be a fun evening with a few tales and few songs,” she says, adding: “It’s on a Friday night, so your work is done for the week. People will go away learning a little more about me. And with some cake in their bellies.”
Born: 1968, Blackburn
Training: London Studio Centre
Landmark productions: Hello, Dolly! (1988), Coronation Street (2003-07), White Christmas (2013-14)
Agent: Ashley Vallance, Cole Kitchenn