When you’re a star in one of TV’s top soaps, death is an occupational hazard. And so it was that both Bill Ward’s and Rita Simons’ characters met a grizzly end in some of the most-watched TV stories of the past year.
The deaths were executed in suitably dramatic fashion. Bill’s Emmerdale character, James Barton, was famously killed by his wife Emma in one of the show’s most ambitious stunts. Fans were agog when she pushed him from a bridge, sending him landing on a car which led to a 19-car pile-up.
“I had a meeting with the producer earlier in the year and he said, ‘I’ve kind of got good news and bad news. The good news is your character is going to be central to the biggest storyline of the year. The bad news is it’s unfortunately going to result in his death!’ You love the big storylines and they chucked the kitchen sink at his exit, which was fabulous,” said Ward.
It wasn’t his first time being killed on TV. Years earlier, Charlie Stubbs — the violent nasty he played on Coronation Street — was whacked on the head with a statue by Tracy Barlow.
“I had such fun playing Charlie Stubbs in particular, because he was one of those characters who took on a life of his own really.
“It was quite an important subject matter. He was an abusive man and I did quite a lot of research on the role with Women’s Aid who are a very important charity in terms of supporting women who had been on the receiving end of men like him.”
For Rita Simons, who’d played the explosive Roxy Mitchell, involved in many of Eastenders’ biggest storylines, death came after Roxy got into trouble swimming while drunk.
She was ready to leave the show, but being killed off still came as a shock. “I’d wanted to leave for a long time, purely because I knew that to stay on a soap for that long means you’re teetering on never leaving. However, when I was told I was going to die, I didn’t want to! I needed to spread my wings but I wasn’t thrilled to be told I was going to be killed. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, as they say!”
Both actors have found new lives in Legally Blonde, the smash-hit Broadway and West End musical based on the hit Hollywood movie, which is coming to Killarney’s INEC. Based on the book which inspired the hit movie starring Reese Witherspoon, it tells the story of the underestimated Elle Woods, who makes a play for a place in law school.
“I play Paulette. She’s a New York hairdresser slightly stuck in the eighties I’d say, and she’s obsessed with Ireland because her grandfather was from Ireland,” said Simons. “Elle comes in because she wants her hair dyed brunette to look serious, which is apparently what she needs to do to get into Harvard. Paulette talks her out of making bad hair decisions and we find out this story about Paulette and her being treated badly by men.
“My first big number is called ‘Ireland’ and it’s her backstory, a very big number. Then we get to do ‘Bend and Snap’ which is the iconic one from the film when Jennifer Coolidge played it, which is Elle teaching her how to do the bend and snap to get a man.”
Simons has 12-year-old twin daughters who adore the movie, so mum is a very cool parent these days. “At the moment, yes. I hope it stays that way,” she laughs. “We’ve seen the film about 112 times! My kids love it.”
Simons came to showbusiness through singing, although Legally Blonde is her first musical theatre role.
“I’ve done every arena in the country about three times over. I supported Hearsay on tour, I supported Blue. I was in girl bands for years and years. It was a very different kind of singing. Then I spent ten years at Eastenders. I’m not a stranger to stage, but it’s very different — it’s much more scary when you don’t have the band behind you. This is much more exposed, but I love it.”
She got to play the notorious Roxy Mitchell after her agent put her forward and she impressed Eastenders producers. She was thrilled to get the role on the iconic soap, but struggled in the early days with going from relative obscurity to a household name. It was intense and overwhelming, says Simons.
“I was told and warned when you join and of course you take it all in, but you can never really fathom it until you’re doing it and being recognised everywhere you go. Your life really really does change dramatically.
“At the very beginning I found it really difficult. I did not adjust well at all. It was quite scary, actually, and we had to move because we lived quite near the studios and we were having people hanging around outside our house. I had two 15-month-old babies. I’d be feeding the kids and they’d be like people on the drive banging on the door. We moved out in a day, it was too intrusive. It can be pretty overwhelming. Now, ten years later, I’m used to it.”
Bill Ward, too, had a period of adjustment when he went from jobbing actor to playing the controversial Charlie Stubbs on Corrie. Within a day of his very first episode going to air, he was recognised on the train.
“There were 12m people watching every episode of Coronation Street at the time. So all of a sudden you are quite high profile. It is a bit of a shock to the system. If people watch it as a family you almost become part of the family, I think, or the characters do. You’ll watch that person in character maybe for 300 episodes, so in that sense you’re very much identified with as a character.”
Still, every actor loves to play a baddie and Ward is again relishing the chance to do it on stage. “I play a chap called Professor Callaghan, who I suppose is the show’s villain. He’s the nasty piece of work, he runs the law school and he also happens to a partner in a billion dollar legal business. He’s ruthless, there’s a part of him that is narcissistic, in love with himself. But particularly, he’s in love with his own intelligence.”
Acting came to Ward later in life and for ten years he had what he jokes was a “proper job” in advertising.
“I was an account director and a strategic planner at a couple of big agencies in London. But I’d always done a lot of acting at school and university, and I’d always wanted to have a go, to see if I could do it.
“I put myself through drama school when I was 32 and came out at 33 and just tried to get work really. For the first few years I did a lot of work on the fringe in London, largely unpaid or poorly paid jobs.
“I started picking up a bit of theatre work. The tricky thing when you come out of drama school aged 33 is that you’re up against men of a similar age who’ve got a ten-year-long CV. The good thing about acting is that it’s quite democratic, and your currency when you come out is not pounds, shillings, and pence, but it’s in being seen.
I wrote loads of letters to casting directors and people like that trying to get people to see my work. And after three or four years people started to have an idea of who you are and think of you for slightly bigger gigs. My first TV gig was as a policeman and I literally said: ‘Stop!’ That was my one line, my one word!
Still, he’d managed to get an agent, who put him forward for the character of Stubbs, described as older than he then was and a native Mancunian, which he wasn’t. “I went along and knowing that I didn’t fit the casting criteria, under those circumstances you often throw caution to the wind. It was one of those times when I got very, very lucky.”