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For any bride-to-be, it's a dream-come-true. Let loose in a boutique full of wedding dresses. A temple dedicated to the white arts. Stocked to the rafters with satin and lace. Talk about the kid in the chocolate factory.

For Peak Practice star Saskia Wickham, however, the shopping spree brought with it an extra poignancy. Her TV character, Dr Erica Matthews, is beside herself with joy as she prepares to marry GP partner Andrew Attwood on April 20. But in 1991 Saskia walked down the aisle in real life - only for the marriage to break up four years later.

"It brought it all back very vividly," she says. "Mine was a white wedding too. In fact, my dress was very similar to the one Erica wears on screen. But these things happen and it's no use dwelling on the past. It has to be onwards and upwards."

Saskia has been in a relationship with her boyfriend, a film director, for three years now, and she admits that her visit to the brides' shop had her pining just a little for another try.

"Oh yes, every woman wants to do all that," she says. "We've just finished filming the scene at the church. I was in my dress and my veil and it was just wonderful. But I realise now that the wedding itself is not the important thing. It's what happens afterwards that counts. While I would love to do it again, it won't be right now, or tomorrow or the next day. But no, I certainly don't rule it out. I'm all for it. I'm a big fan of marriage, even though I've not been massively successful at it myself."

I tell Saskia not to be too hard on herself. Everyone's allowed a dummy run. "Yes, I agree," she says, roaring with laughter. "Though I don't suppose my ex-husband would thank you for putting it like that.

"But in one way it is a bit like a practice take-off in a plane . . . it certainly costs as much!"

Maybe at 24 she was just too young - but she doesn't want to go into the reasons. At the time of her divorce she said: "I would say the marriage wasn't meant to be. If something is strong enough, it survives."

Today, mellowed by the passing years, she remains open to whatever the future brings: "I've nothing against marriage itself - nothing that would put me off doing it again one day."

For the wedding-minded, the Virgin Brides shop is the perfect place to be. "I don't think I've ever seen so many different sorts of wedding dress in my life.

"My favourite was one with sunflowers on. I thought it was such fun. There was another in tartan and one covered in hearts that looked as though it had come straight out of Snow White.

"There was even one in pink PVC which was absolutely extraordinary. It looked completely vile on the hanger, but when I got it on it actually turned out to be very pretty. Maybe it would be a bit kinky for Erica, though. Actually I can tell you she goes for something very traditional . . . a beaded dress costing pounds 3,500.

"We had a great time with the staff fooling about trying them on. I felt like a little girl again. Getting in and out of them was the hardest thing, because they all laced up at the back. I needed three people to help me. It was like being put into a corset."

Seven years ago, she was choosing white satin for real. Saskia, now 31, married merchant banker Sean Henderson following a whirlwind romance of just 30 days after they met on a blind date. But within six months they ran into problems, and they divorced four years later.

The wedding was just as breathless as the courtship. Saskia was filming Clarissa with Sean Bean in Shropshire at the time. She played - highly appropriately for any bride on her way to the altar - an innocent virgin. She dashed to London for the wedding, had a one-day honeymoon and then returned to the set "nursing a massive hangover".

In contrast, Dr Erica's romance with Dr Andrew, played by Gary Mavers, has been played out over months and months.

"Erica had a fling with him when he was married, and she thought that was a terrible mistake, as you do, so it's been on and off for quite a while.

"Then they ended up in bed together after a village barbecue, where they both got a bit tiddly, and they hardly seem to have been out from under the sheets since. Luckily, Gary and I are old mates, so we know the rules of intimate scenes - like popping mints into your mouth at regular intervals and watching what you eat the night before. "Curries are the worst. And, strangely enough, coffee. Coffee breath is horrible, especially the sort of coffee you tend to get on location, so thick and strong you can stand the spoon up. We've got it down to a fine art. Gary breathes all over me before a kissing scene and says, 'Does my breath smell?'

"Having a nice person play opposite you is a big help. It's not too bad kissing Gary Mavers, as I'm sure millions of women all over the country can imagine. It's gone on quite a while now. My boyfriend was complaining to me recently that I've been spending more time in bed with Gary than I have with him.

"Of course once they're safely married - if it goes ahead, that is, I'm not giving away any plot secrets - that will be it. There won't be any kissing at all. That's his ration. I'll never kiss Gary Mavers ever again!"

While Gary strips to his T-shirt in their steamier moments, Saskia tries to avoid nude scenes. She still recalls with a shudder a film where she was naked in a sauna with Helen Mirren and they had to beat each other with birch twigs.

"Actually," she jokes, "I think everyone else would prefer it if I didn't take my clothes off any more. It's not something I like doing, to be honest. It's very unnatural being stark naked in a room full of technicians. No way is that an enjoyable experience.

"Having said that, sometimes inevitably you have to do it. As you get older, you get more circumspect about where and when you do it, and who you do it for." She explodes into a fit of giggles. "In your own life as well as in films! You get older and wiser and also your body gets a lot less attractive. It's much easier to say, 'No thank you.' And, of course, fewer people ask you."

In order to let country life wash over her, Saskia stays in a farmhouse in Derbyshire during filming.

"They're wonderful people," she says. "They've become a second family to me."

Playing a doctor for so long is not without its pitfalls. Saskia has to keep a close eye on herself to stop fact and fiction blurring.

"It's not just other people coming up to me and asking for a free diagnosis - sometimes I actually begin to think I'm a doctor myself. The other day my boyfriend pulled a muscle in his leg. He kept saying to me, 'What have I done to it?' as if he expected me to know right away.

"I rushed around with ice packs trying to be efficient. I was on the point of giving him a full examination before I realised that I really didn't have a clue what I was doing. I said to him, 'I don't know - go and see a doctor.' He looked quite surprised and disappointed."

Peak Practice has a punishing schedule which starts at cock crow and goes on late into the night.

"But it's a nice sort of tiredness, a tiredness that comes from enjoying yourself. It's not like working down a coal mine. I feel I'm very lucky to do what I do. Sometimes you moan if it's raining and you're freezing cold, but I'd far rather be doing this than stuck in a boring job.

"The worst job I ever had was as a temp secretary. Temps are treated so badly, like they're the lowest of the low. Everybody in the office hates the temp. At least that was my experience, though I wasn't very good at it, it has to be said. Ugh! It was horrible, horrible. I used to cry a lot when I was a temp."

Tears are not unknown at the altar either, and to make the marriage scene lifelike for the 12 million viewers expected to tune in, Saskia has drawn on her experience of weddings over the years - her own and other people's.

"I love a good wedding and I always take a load of hankies with me. They never fail to turn into emotional occasions. I remember going to my best friend's wedding and she was crying so much she couldn't say the vows. That set her off and the next thing she started laughing uncontrollably. We were all standing there wondering what was going to happen next and then we had to get tissues out to mop her up.

"My sister-in-law was the same. It was a very small wedding in Chelsea register office, and she burst into tears because she was so overcome with emotion. She and my brother already had a little girl, who thought something was the matter with her mum, so she started crying too. It was like a moment from a comedy film. The mum started crying, then the baby started crying, then another baby started crying. Before we knew it, the whole place was awash with tissues and tears."

For men, weddings can be even more fraught than for women. "Women are much more used to being the centre of attention so for men it comes as a bit of a shock."

The tension, the drama, the Kleenex, the champagne . . . Saskia loves them all. "I can't think of anything better than a wedding. It's a great excuse for a jolly good weep, a jolly good booze-up and a jolly good knees-up."
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Wills, Colin
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 29, 1998
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