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That lesbian kiss didn't scare me; Bad Girls' Simone on why she thrives on controversy.

Byline: BILLY SLOAN

THE directions to Simone Lahbib's dressing room read like a page from the TV Times.

You take a sharp right at the Big Brother house... go past the London's Burning backlot... and swing left at the Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels sound stage.

There, in a draughty, rather spartan portacabin, sits the star of ITV's award-winning prison drama, Bad Girls.

Simone had only had four hours' sleep and she'd been on set since 7am when we met. But somehow the 32-year-old Scots actress still managed to look a million dollars.

She is midway through filming a new 16-part series of ITV's Bad Girls, which comes back to our screens on February 26.

Stirling-born Simone invited me down to the studio set of Her Majesty's Prison Larkhall - where she rules the roost as Governor Helen Stewart. The full-size prison interior is built inside a huge hangar in an East London studio complex.

When Bad Girls returns, it will be back with a vengeance. The new series continues the cliffhanger storyline in which Helen is in turmoil over whether she should betray her escaped lesbian lover, lifer Nikki Wade - played by Mandana Jones.

The steamy storyline - which included intimate love scenes between the two actresses - caused controversy during the previous series. But that's just how Simone likes it.

During a break in filming, she told me: "I enjoy controversy. I thrive on it. I love taking on roles which really make people talk and have some kind of impact. I wasn't frightened to play the lesbian love scenes. It's just another acting role, that's how I view it.

"Helen Stewart is such a great character. She likes a good fight. When a battle starts they tend to be my favourite scenes. Especially if it's a fight I get to win - and I usually do.

"I also love the scenes where I have to verbally spar with bad boy prison officer Jim Fenner, who is played by Jack Ellis. The feisty side of Helen really appeals to me.

"The feedback I've had from other women is great. Helen seems to inspire them. They see her as a role model. Women who have had problems at work or at home have managed to overcome them after seeing how my character has dealt with similar situations."

The plots for the new series of Bad Girls are being kept under lock and key. But we eavesdropped on Episode Seven, in which a fly-on-the-wall TV crew goes into HMP Larkhall to make a documentary about the penal system.

Simone is also sworn to secrecy about how the lesbian affair will develop. But she did reveal that Helen and Nikki's relationship reaches crisis point when a new character competes for the prison governor's affections.

Simone said: "Helen and Nikki's story continues but their relationship has gone through the honeymoon period of sexual energy and moves into a different mode. There is a person who comes into the story who presents a challenge for Helen's love. Where that will go, I'm not sure yet."

The love match helped make Simone an icon among Britain's lesbians. She said: "I've had a lot of feedback from the gay community because they feel Helen is a well-rounded person they can relate to. This is a serious love story which just so happens to involve two women and it's done in a very believable way."

But Simone confessed that the first time she had to film a love scene with Mandana it felt strange. She said: "After we filmed our first ever snog, we both looked at each other and went: 'Yuk!' I think the director who shot the scene was more embarrassed than we were.

"I've known Mandana for a long time. In terms of our sexuality, we're both straight. So after we talked through how we were going to play the lesbian scenes, it felt more relaxed. I think we handled the love scenes in a convincing way.

"I've got two female friends who are in a very similar situation to Helen and Nikki and I've been able to use some of the experiences they've been going through for this role."

Bad Girls is produced by fellow Scot Brian Park, who also revamped Coronation Street two years ago. The series regularly attracts nine million viewers and won the Best Drama gong at last year's National Television Awards ceremony.

It is screened all over the world, in Australia, South Africa, Poland and Brazil. At the last count the show had more than 40 unofficial websites.

Fans just love corrupt officer Jim Fenner, dangerous inmate Shell Dockley and punk prisoner Shaz Wylie. Another favourite is tough warder Sylvia Hollamby, played by Helen Fraser.

The cast and crew - which numbers more than 60 - rattle through scene after scene with professionalism and good humour. Simone is proud to be part of the tight-knit team.

She told me: "We all work very hard to make the series as convincing and as real as possible. I did a lot of research to find out exactly what it takes to be a prison governor.

"I visited Winchester Prison and talked to both officers and inmates. I also spent time with an ex-governor of Holloway Prison to find out how she did her job.

"The insight I got convinced me that it's a job I could never do in reality. I think that a lot of the issues brought up in the series show that the prison system just doesn't work.

"In one early episode, we had a storyline where an inmate had a baby and it was taken away from her after just three months. I just can't go along with actions like that at all."

Sexy Simone is a million miles removed from prison governors in other TV penal dramas such as Within These Walls or Prisoner: Cell Block H. But Simone insists her portrayal is spot on.

She said: "Helen is very, very real. The female ex-governor I met was young, attractive and intelligent. She convinced me I would be taken seriously in the role."

Simone was brought up in Stirling, as the eldest of five children. Her exotic-sounding name came from her French father Joseph, who was site boss on a Scots oil rig.

She attended St Modan's High School, then later trained to be a ballerina. But she switched to acting when she was offered a small role in the movie The Girl In The Picture.

Simone studied drama at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh, but she feels that her solid Scots upbringing helped shape her as an actress.

She said: "Growing up in Stirling wasn't easy. I didn't go through my childhood wrapped in cotton wool. At times it was tough. So I suppose that strengthened my resolve to take the plunge as an actress.

"A lot of Scots women I know are feisty and have strong personalities. I'm a bit like that, too. I love bringing that aspect of my own personality into my roles on screen."

Her first big TV break came in The Young Person's Guide To Being A Rock Star. Other credits include London Bridge and Thief Takers. Simone said: "My mum Jean is a bit of a dreamer, like myself. So she was very supportive when I announced I wanted to be an actress.

"My father was more sceptical. I think he'd have preferred if I'd gone on to university first. But now they realise I have a real passion for acting, and are very proud of what I've done."

Away from the media spotlight surrounding Bad Girls, Simone is engaged to a fellow actor, who she refuses to name. She likes to keep her private life just that... private. But she admitted she hopes to get married some time next year. She said: "My family are getting scunnered with me. They keep asking just when I'm going to get married. My gran says: 'I've had a new hat on top of my wardrobe for more than a year now. When are you going to set a date?'

"So my fiance and I are just starting to get around to thinking about getting it organised now. It seems the logical step."

Sshhh... don't tell Nikki Wade! Or there might be a riot in HMP Larkhall.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Showbiz
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jan 21, 2001
Words:1380
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