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Bad girl makes good; Debra Stephenson has become famous for being a Bad Girl, but really she's just an old- fashioned softie at heart.

Byline: Karen Hockney

In one of TV's most thrilling cliff-hangers, trouble-making lifer Shell came at her former lover with the jagged edge of a broken bottle. Now, after we've been kept in suspense for eight months, hit prison drama Bad Girls is back, and we'll finally find out whether Shell, played by Debra Stephenson, has added murder to her lengthy crime sheet.

"Her relationship with prison officer Jim Fenner wasn't happening any more, and she tried to take revenge, in typical Shell style. The last series ended with her about to go for him and all I've been asked since then is, `Does she kill him?'," says Debra, 27, with a smile.

"I was on holiday in New Zealand last summer and I was even asked out there because the series is shown all over the world. But I'm not giving anything away."

When Bad Girls starts its third series on Tuesday, it'll be the last time we see tarty top dog Shell Dockley, who is feared by prisoners and guards alike, because Debra is quitting the show.

"I've got itchy feet," she says. "I've enjoyed playing Shell, but I get bored quite easily. I'm ready to do something else now. I'd like to do a comedy, a film, or work in TV abroad. I'd also love to do a costume drama, they are so romantic. It's that thing of they want to bonk each other, but they won't say it... I'm just an old softie, really."

She's not joking. Whereas the nymphomaniac Shell has had more men than hot dinners, Debra is a true romantic who married her first serious boyfriend, builder James Duffield. They met when she was 18 and at drama college in Manchester. She has no regrets about going steady and missing out on the wild student social scene.

"I'm glad that I fell for James when I was so young," says Debra, who also played Diane in Playing The Field. "I'm so happy with him. I don't feel I've missed out at all. You don't feel that if you're happy. I'd hate to be in the position now of being on the singles market. It was never my scene. I'd hate that whole thing of being harassed by men and everybody wanting to know the ins and outs of your past relationships. I'm so glad I'm not in that situation.

"I'm not knocking celebrity couples - it's hard to find other people who wouldn't find that lifestyle intimidating - but James and I are lucky that we've experienced the whole business together. It's as if he is part of it. He knows all my friends in the cast and gets on well with everybody I work with. He's special in that way. He is my darling."

The pair tied the knot in a quiet wedding at York House in Twickenham, Middlesex in 1998 before jetting off on honeymoon to Mauritius."We meant to have a little do but it ended up being a big one," smiles Debra. "James has a huge family and all my family were there, as well as our best friends. We didn't want it to be showbizzy, we just wanted it to be about us, so I kept it a secret. My mum made the cakes and my sister-in-law designed the dresses. All the men wore kilts and when it was time for the speeches I sang Fly Me To The Moon, which is James's favourite song. There wasn't a dry eye in the house."

They spent their first wedding anniversary in a picturesque village in Cornwall.

"We stayed at a place called Coverack on the Lizard peninsula and it was gorgeous, really quiet and very romantic. We went out for a special dinner on our anniversary, and spent our days touring the countryside in the BMW Z3 sports car I'd just bought to replace my old banger. The weather was glorious. We ate seafood and watched dolphins performing in the bay. It was bliss.

"Getting married has changed our relationship. It's a really nice feeling knowing that person is there for you. It has brought us even closer together.

"When I was filming Dinner Of Herbs in Newcastle I really missed James, I couldn't wait for the weekends so I could come home and see him. I was on a farm and I kept having fantasies about the two of us living in a farmhouse and having a big family. But I'd like to have a house rather than a one-bedroom flat before we have babies. There are also lots of things I want to do before I devote time to a family. We want to travel to places like Peru, and you can't do that with small children.

"James is the love of my life and he will make a fantastic dad. I look at our nieces and nephews, and think how beautiful they are and it makes me very broody. Then I look at him and think, `Yeah, I want your babies'."

Now that her career is in overdrive, babies are off the agenda. Her success is thanks in no small way to James, who followed Debra to London so she could fulfil her acting ambition.

"I was living in Glasgow with James, but it was too far to commute," says Debra. "We were trying to be together, but we both wanted to establish our careers and it was a difficult balance. In the end, I had to be in London and he chose to move down to be with me.

"It was a big decision for James because he grew up near Glasgow and his family are all up there, but he could see how tired I was doing all the travelling. So he said he'd move down and make a fresh start, and we bought a flat in South West London." From an early age, Debra knew she wanted to entertain others. At 12 she began her showbiz career doing impressions of Frank Spencer, Cilla Black and Margaret Thatcher on the social club circuit in her hometown of Hull.

"I'm embarrassed about all that now," she says. "My nickname at school was Maggie, which didn't help me pull any blokes. I was an odd child. I nagged my parents to let me audition for Opportunity Knocks. I was a pushy kid as opposed to them being pushy parents."

That nagging paid off when, in 1987, she got a place in the all-winners final of Opportunity Knocks at the age of 15. Later she dabbled in alternative comedy, working at London's Comedy Store and the Edinburgh Fringe, before enrolling at drama school in Manchester, where she met James.

Her TV career started with a small role in the Robson Green drama Reckless, but it's Bad Girls and Playing The Field which established her as a major talent.

"You get a lot of attention when you're on TV," she says. "Going on holiday has become more difficult. Usually I'd dance at the hotel disco, but now everyone watches you and gets excited because you're on telly. It has made me more self-conscious, especially if I'm in my bikini going to the pool bar. People are probably thinking that you've put on weight or your dark roots are showing."

Debra was also worried that people might confuse her with the mouthy, vicious Shell.

"After the last series I got a good response from the public and I was very relieved," she reveals. "The fan thing worries me, though. What if there are people who are a bit out of touch with reality? You hear about it happening - people come up and talk to you like it's real life. Being confused with a character like Shell wouldn't be much fun.

"If we're out in the car and a driver cuts me up, I'll just give him my best Shell death stare. My husband thinks Bad Girls is hilarious.

"Shell doesn't have any redeeming factors. She doesn't have a nice side, but she is vulnerable. She comes across as a selfish nymphomaniac and an evil slut, but when you get beneath the surface you see that things have happened to make her that way.

"She is a classic case of someone who has had a traumatic childhood and is re-enacting what happened to her in her adult life. Shell comes from an abused background and depends on sex to feel loved. So she throws herself at anything in trousers."

At the end of the day's filming, Debra has no trouble switching off from Shell's trials and tribulations. She just heads home to James and the flat they are doing up together.

"Being married to a builder, I'd like to say I live in a dream home but it's not quite there yet," she laughs. "I'm very lucky, though, because I get to decide how I want the place to look and James does it for me."

l Bad Girls, Tuesday, ITV, 9pm.


BIG DAY: Debra and James tie the knot in 1998; TROUBLE: As Shell with prison officer Jim Fenner
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 17, 2001
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