FOUR weeks ago Margi Clarke was signing on the dole before she got the call to join the cast of the Lyceum panto after Beverly Callard had to pull out through ill health.
“In one way it’s a sad way to get a job because I’ve known Bev from Coronation Street and she was so generous to other performers,” she says. “On the other hand I feel privileged to be playing the Wicked Witch. I’m part of an industry where 95% are permanently unemployed. And most of those who are working are on minimum wage.”
It is 20 years since she last appeared in a panto. “I was the Good Fairy then and now I’ve been promoted to the Wicked Witch which is loads of fun and gets a great reaction from the audience.”
Margi Clarke is into astrology and has worked out the Wicked Witch is Scorpio. “It’s because of the colours, red and black, and it’s helped me because I know everything about her down to what she likes eating.” Margi herself is Gemini - “which makes you multi-dimensional which is good for acting”.
And she has done plenty of that over the years in one-off dramas, movies and TV series such as Brookside, Benidorm, Making Out, Waterloo Road, and Coronation Street as Tyrone’s manipulative mother Jackie Dobbs.
She began, however, as a TV presenter in 1978 on late night Granada programme, What’s On, produced by the late great Tony Wilson. She called herself Margox, partly inspired by American model and actress Margaux Hemingway whose name she didn’t realise at first was actually pronounced Margot. “I called myself Margox because in punk days anything with an x was supercool,” she explains. “I was a presenter with a difference, one minute I was being sawn in half by Paul Daniels the next minute interviewing Demis Roussos, except I thought his name was Denis.
“It was the first time a genuine Liverpool accent was heard on mainstream TV. The Beatles were posh and Cilla’s accent was preserved in aspic. No one in Liverpool said chuck in those days.
“I went down to London to do a pilot for a national Margox show but the TV strike came along and it ended up on the cutting room floor. I ended up squatting in Brixton and then I ran away with Jamie Reid (the artist who was her partner for 17 years) to Paris. I changed my name to Margi Macgregor because I knew the French hated the English and loved the Scottish. It worked.
“Then I wrote a letter to my brother, Frank, and he replied saying, ‘Your name is Margi Clarke not Petula Clark’ (you have to be a certain age to understand that) and so I came home.”
It eventually led to her biggest break when she landed the role in Letter to Brezhnev, scripted by her brother, about two working-class Liverpool girls who meet two Russian sailors. “I wanted the lead romantic role played by Alexandra Pigg but Frank said, you are playing the comedy part and the film ends on your gob.
Letter to Brezhnev was made in 1984 and came out in 1985. “We were all wearing Coal Not Dole badges so that shows you how long ago it was.”
It proved a hugely influential film in inspiring a slew of British low budget indie movies. Clarke is proud that she has been in other landmark films. “In Blood Fist I played a female boxer 10 years before Million Dollar Baby”.
But she admits: “I’ve had a chequered career. It’s been like the Big Dipper with its ups and downs. There have been long times without work and then you find yourself back in the game.”
Her private life hit rock bottom for a period too, including a period of heavy drinking, something that also afflicted brother Frank but he too has now cleaned up his life, Margi reports.
“He’s coming to see the show this week. When I was moaning to him on the phone about how tired I was he had a right go at me. ‘You’ve just been sat on your bum for months, you’ve had plenty of rest, be grateful you’ve got this chance.”
And panto is something special, she believes. “What’s different about theatre and panto is that on screen if you want to show a reaction all you need to do is raise an eyebrow. You can’t go too big in panto. It’s the last remnant of music hall. It’s the only time all the working class go together to the theatre and if it’s good they might come back to see a bit of Shakespeare or something.”
She can even see politics in it. “Sleeping Beauty is a metaphor for our time. People have been in a trance for generations and they are beginning to wake up. It’s got a message of hope for the future even though the banksters are not in jail.”
But end your piece on a light note, urges Clarke. How about the story of how she arrived in Sheffield for the first time and went to look for her digs.
“I got on the bus and asked for Nether Regions and the driver had to tell me that’s a part of the body and that I wanted Nether Edge.”
Sleeping Beauty runs at the Lyceum Theatre until January 8.