"I think the show has saved me" - soap star Debbie Arnold on her new Zoom-inspired hit
During a career that has spanned four decades, Debbie Arnold has wowed the West End, featured in films, and been a familiar face in many of TV’s top-rated dramas. Her latest project The Wonderbirds - inspired by a lockdown Zoom catch-up - has become an internet sensation, as she explains to STEVE CAIN
Few people realise that the glamorous Debbie Arnold has the honour of having appeared as a regular character in all of the major British soaps.
She played April Branning in EastEnders – the first Branning to appear in the show – Debbie Wilson in Emmerdale and Janice Bolton in Hollyoaks.
However, it all began back in 1981 when she joined Coronation Street as Sylvie Hicks, a very young, very blonde girlfriend of Mike Baldwin’s father, Frankie.
“It was around the time of Dallas and Dynasty, when a man in his 70s could be seen with a girl in her 20s on his arm and nothing odd was thought of it,” explains Debbie.
Fast-forward thirty years and Debbie returned to the hallowed cobbles of Coronation Street, in 2012, to play Carole Evans, starting the cycle all over again. “She was the landlady of the Weatherfield Arms and an old sparring partner of Stella Price (played by Arnold”s former EastEnders colleague, Michelle Collins).”
Debbie is extremely proud to have played roles in all of Britain”s best-loved soaps.
“I think a lot of people may have appeared in a lot of the soaps, but possibly not as regular characters, and I don”t know if anyone else has done all four,” she says. “They were all great fun to work on, but my favourite has always been Coronation Street – probably because I hail from the North.”
A showbiz career was, perhaps, inevitable for Debbie. Her father, Eddie, was an impressionist and her mother, Mary, a theatrical agent. After a brief spell working as a secretary, Debbie’s talent for mimicry was spotted and her fate was sealed.
She established herself as a consummate comedian, appearing in hit sit-coms such as The Liver Birds, Terry and June, Don”t Wait Up and Birds of a Feather. Despite having perfected the portrayal of the bubbly blonde, Debbie has also played diverse roles in hundreds of TV dramas, including Holby City, Doctors, The Bill, Footballers’ Wives, Minder, All Creatures Great and Small and Miss Marple.
In addition to her television career, Debbie is also an acclaimed stage actress and has many West End credits to her name, such as Women Behind Bars, Four in a Million, Lives of the Wives and The Sleeping Prince in which she was leading lady to Omar Sharif.
She also received the Best Actress award for her performance as Mae Hudson in the 2009 movie Photoshoot, playing opposite her former EastEnders co-star, John Altman.
As a successful actress, author, columnist, radio host, and voice artist, Debbie is used to being constantly in demand and always busy. However, earlier this year, when the number of Coronavirus cases surged and a national lockdown was imposed, Debbie feared her industry might be one of those to be most affected.
A self-proclaimed “altruist”, the concern she felt for the effect on the livelihoods and well-being of her friends and peers prompted her to keep in closer contact with them. It was one such warts-and-all Zoom conversation with showbiz pals Sherrie Hewson (Benidorm, Coronation Street), Harriet Thorpe (Absolutely Fabulous) and Dee Anderson (daughter of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, creators of Thunderbirds) that provided the inspiration for The Wonderbirds.
“So, the evening lockdown was announced, I had a Zoom call with my friends,” Debbie recalls. “It was so funny that I said to the girls, “we should put this online”. With a little help from some techies, it was born! Harriet came up with the name, in honour of Dee’s connection with Thunderbirds.”
The show, which Debbie describes as “a kinder version of Loose Women”, was an instant hit, resonating predominantly with women of 45 and beyond. Now, only six months since it was conceived, The Wonderbirds has achieved more than four million hits.
“We’re real, authentic, kind and non-political,” explains Debbie. “It's just four birds in their 60s having a coffee and a catch-up for half an hour. We are all passionate, successful women who like to chat about girly things – make-up, clothes and our careers. We also talk openly about our worries, our kids, our families and how we're coping. We are light-hearted but compassionate at the same time and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our audience relates to that. It’s hilarious at times and tragic at others.”
The surprise success of the show led to Debbie and her fellow panellists roping in some of their celebrity mates, including Paul O’Grady, Gok Wan, Michelle Collins, Denise Welch, Vicki Michelle and Brenda Blethyn, to be guests.
“Between us, we've been in the business for 160 years,” laughs Debbie. “So, we know everyone!”
Additionally, The Wonderbirds has an impressive line-up of regular contributors. “Dr Tracy Mountford is on the show every Wednesday to tell us all about the latest cosmetic treatments and how they work,” says Debbie. “And Anne Henderson, a menopause specialist, is not only great fun but also especially informative on a subject so important to every woman. Linda Lusardi does a bargain bucket make-up slot and Steven Murphy, the editor of Inside Soap magazine has all the latest gossip from the world of soap. We also do a Saturday special with Richard Arnold – he gives us weird challenges and we love it!”
Since the show started, Debbie has found that The Wonderbirds has become all-consuming.
“With three shows a week to present and produce, it’s taken up all my time,” she admits. “We want to seem relaxed – and, actually, it really is – but it does take a lot of planning. But that’s probably a good thing, as I've been on my own throughout lockdown – apart from my three dogs. I walk them daily in the woods and they keep me sane.”
The routine associated with presenting and producing The Wonderbirds has provided some welcome structure in Debbie’s life.
“These are tough times and I think the show has saved me,” she says candidly. “Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I’ve had to get up and put make-up on. It’s given me a connection with the public, a lovely reminder that none of us are in this alone.”
Apparently, that sentiment is echoed by the show’s viewers, too, with messages and emails pouring in from fans and followers with stories of how The Wonderbirds has changed their lives for the better.
“They're all getting in touch to say they’re Zooming with friends, too,” says Debbie. “We didn't really expect anything like this level of success when we first started. But our viewers have now become like pals in a way. The Wonderbirds is not like work at all – it’s the best fun ever.”
Watch Debbie Arnold, Sherrie Hewson, Harriet Thorpe, and Dee Anderson live on The Wonderbirds each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 4.30pm, or catch up anytime.