Thursday, 14 August 2014

Interview with Jennie McAlpine (Corrie’s Fiz)

(This post was originally posted by Martin Leay on the Coronation Street Blog in July 2014.)

Recently I visited the restaurant co-owned by Jennie McAlpine (Fiz in Corrie). After a top-notch breakfast (see my review of Annies here), I chatted to Jennie about her day job and the many other things – in addition to the restaurant – that take up her time.

Fiz has been through a lot in the 13 years she has lived in Weatherfield but Jennie finds it difficult to choose a favourite storyline. She did, however, particularly enjoy being part of the live episode in 2010 to celebrate Corrie’s 50th anniversary.

She is also immensely proud to have been involved with the recent Roy and Hayley storyline. “I was really chuffed, says Jennie, “that (the writers) acknowledged that Fiz was special to them and they were special to Fiz”. Fiz Brown arrived in Weatherfield a troubled teenager who was, of course, briefly fostered by the Croppers.

Fiz then became, as Jennie puts it, “one of Mike Baldwin’s knicker-stitchers”. Her early scenes with Baldwin – “one of the icons” – must have been intimidating for a young actress new to The Street.

However, she loved working with Johnny Briggs and reminisces fondly about the storyline in which Fiz threw whisky in Baldwin’s face before staging a topless rooftop protest after the erstwhile cockney wide boy had nicked her designs. Fiz removed her self-sewn basque and threw it from the roof. Whatever happened to the undergarment in question? “It’s in Gail’s back garden”, jokes Jennie.

Jennie has been with her partner, Chris Farr, for nine years now and they owe it all to Coronation Street. It was their mutual friend – Antony Cotton – who introduced them. Jennie is friends with many cast members but is particularly close to those she works with most – “Chesney, Tyrone, all my factory girls and honorary factory girl, Sean”. “You meet such great mates”, she says.

I imagine it’s hard, then, when a close friend leaves. Julie Hesmondhalgh is an obvious example. But Julie is “very much alive”, says Jennie, having recently appeared at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in “Black Roses”, the play about the murder of Sophie Lancaster. Being directly next to Annies, Jennie was able to see it and catch up with Julie. She also met up recently with Suranne Jones (‘Karen McDonald’) and remains “great mates” with Georgia Taylor (‘Toyah Battersby’).

You would think the filming schedule for Corrie combined with the demands of co-owning a successful business would leave little room for anything else. However, Jennie is involved with lots of different projects. She DJ’d recently at Manchester club night Bop Local and I’m curious to know what to expect when DJ Fiz is on the decks. “Cheese!” exclaims Chris, which Jennie concedes to be largely the case before qualifying this as “anything that makes you want to dance”. This includes Kylie mixed in with great Manchester bands such as The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.

And when she’s not spinning records at banging club nights, she can sometimes be heard on the radio – when she can “fit it in around Corrie”. The other week she had a guest slot presenting on local station Key 103 and she has previously appeared on BBC Manchester with her friend, the comedian Justin Moorhouse, who will soon be turning up in Weatherfield as the Landlord of the Flying Horse. Jennie is looking forward to his appearance. She thinks he could be “a great corrie character” and would “love it” if he became a regular fixture.

Having recently watched a repeat of Jennie and Justin’s appearance on Pointless Celebrities, I ask Jennie about her penchant for quiz shows. Before she was a contestant, her joint favourites were Pointless and The Chase. However, she now prefers the latter “because we did well on The Chase whereas, on Pointless, we didn’t do so well”. The Chase is presented by Bradley Walsh, who played Corrie’s Danny Baldwin; and currently stars in “Law and Order” with Jennie’s mate Georgia Taylor. Small world!

Besides the fact that she is a fan of TV game shows, there is a very good reason for Jennie’s appearances on them. It is not that she is “obsessed with going on quiz shows and being on telly” but because they provide her with an opportunity to raise money for charity, particularly Mood Swings, the mental health charity chaired by her Dad, Tom McAlpine OBE.

The charity, Jennie explains, has “always been a big part of my life” and she has been helping her Dad with it since before she joined Corrie. Mood Swings “is a charity that supports people who are going through life’s ups and downs”. Based in Manchester but with a national, sometimes international, reach; Mood Swings aims to provide people who are undergoing a period of emotional distress with the support they need to recover and “lead a life that is extremely fulfilling”.

Thankfully, Mood Swings is largely self-funded and so has been relatively unaffected by swingeing cuts to mental health services. It relies heavily on volunteers and in addition to Jennie’s fundraising endeavours, they organise events and have individuals raising money for them constantly. Jennie is particularly touched by the efforts of one 14-year-old girl, Erin, who she met at Annies. Erin nominated Mood Swings as the charity to benefit from her school’s annual sponsored walk. The school went on to raise a whopping £30,000 for the charity. Jennie attended the awards ceremony at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and describes Erin’s gesture as “really special”.

Mood Swings has not been totally unscathed by Government cuts though. As Jennie points out, “people losing their jobs… their houses… their family” means that “the need for mood swings just goes up and up and up”. Consequently, the necessity of raising money is endless because “the more we get the more people we can help”.

One quiz show that Jennie has not yet appeared on, but would certainly consider, is Ejector Seat. Presented by Andi Peters, contestants are moved backwards if they get a question wrong and then have to answer questions while moving. If they continue to answer incorrectly, they eventually get ejected. As Jennie explains, “there’s a big puff of smoke and then they go backwards and they’re out of the game”. It sounds brutal but Chris is waiting for them to do a celebrity version. And if Jennie does appear, then you heard it here first!

There are other causes that Jennie feels passionately about. For example, she recently used Twitter to highlight a report by Barnardo’s that calls for an extension to the help received by young people who are leaving care. “Imagine if you’ve been in care since you were a baby and you’ve been really looked after and then one day, all that help just gets totally cut off”, says Jennie – “you can understand why people go and end up in trouble”.

There are clear parallels to Fiz’s story and Jennie initially drew inspiration for playing Fiz from her Dad’s career in social work. “I’ve always been around tricky kids”, she says. “I absolutely love naughty children… I can’t help it”.

Currently expecting their first child, Jennie and Chris will soon have a little tinker of their own to think about. I am hopeful of an exclusive for the Coronation Street Blog when I ask if they know the gender. But alas, they are waiting till the day to find out.

If it is a girl, she will not be named Annie, despite the playful point made by Chris that “it would be good advertising”. I can also report that Chesney, Schmeichel, Kirk and Tyrone are not on the list either. Nor is Fiona. Jennie wants to “try and steer clear” of Corrie-themed baby names but accepts that “whatever we come up with, they’ll have been in Corrie at some point”.

Jennie has the ‘accolade’ of being the first actress to act out giving birth live on TV. “I might be the first actress to give birth live in real life”, she says – “that would be a laugh, wouldn’t it?” Well, it’d be a very different kind of celebrity ejection, that’s for sure, and would deserve a considerable appearance fee for charity!

If things are busy for Jennie McAlpine now, they’re about to get a lot busier. Some would be daunted by the demands of balancing an acting career with motherhood while running a restaurant, supporting various charities and pursuing other interests. But not Jennie. She is thankful for the “brilliant support” around her and feels she is “in a really lucky position”. She is taking it all in her stride and I’m sure that Jennie and Chris will be brilliant parents.

Jennie will be going on maternity leave from Coronation Street in October and Fiz will be kept busy until then. Jennie is excited about working with Wendi Peters again when Cilla returns. “I don’t quite know what they’ve got planned”, she says, “but I know it’s sort of to do with me going off”. One thing she is fairly confident of is that Cilla will “cause a bit of chaos” - “I don’t think she’s going to come back a reformed character!”

We also know that Tyrone is going to have an accident and a feud will erupt between the Dobbs-Brown clan and the Grimshaws. Filming has already started and Jennie promises “it is going to be dramatic”. According to Jennie, “Alan Halsall is back in make up again having bruises and various things put on him”. There will be a lot of characters involved and “a few of them know things that the other few don’t”. She can’t give anything away but it’s “going to explode”.

Jennie loved working with Graeme Hawley (John Stape) but also loves working with Alan Halsall (Tyrone). Apparently, she’s not allowed to mention Graeme’s name in front of Alan because he jokingly tells her she “should move on now”. With Fiz and Tyrone reunited, things have come full circle for Fiz. Jennie jokes that Fiz “had to go and try some other people” but when she found out John Stape was a murderer thought, “maybe I’d be best with the one I started with”.

In terms of future ambitions outside of Corrie, Jennie talks of one day returning to her stand-up roots (she performed comedy shows at the age of thirteen) by developing a show for the Edinburgh Festival; perhaps “with a baby on my back!” Although she would “like to do a bit of theatre at some point” she is totally committed to, and focused on, Coronation Street.

As Jennie says, “you can fulfil your ambitions because every week we get brilliant scripts and it’s all different. I play a character that is lucky enough, or unlucky enough sometimes, to have so many different stories… so I love it”. “I don’t want to go anywhere yet”, says Jennie. And nor do we want her to.

Jennie McAlpine clearly loves working at Corrie. While being enjoyable and rewarding in itself, it also provides her with a platform to do the other things that she is passionate about. Jennie is great company and an inspirational and talented figure who will hopefully be treading the cobbles for many years to come.

Whatever the writing team have in store for Fiz, I hope that she’ll always have Tyrone by her side and that the two of them will continue to rub along together like the twenty-first century Jack and Vera they are destined to become.

By Martin Leay
Twitter: @mpleay

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