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To the practice born.

BY PAM FRANCIS

Saskia Wickham has a red nose, a hacking cough and a streaming cold. In fact, the actress poised to take over this month as the enthusiastic new GP in Peak Practice looks as if she could do with seeing a doctor herself.

Her ailments could have something to do with weeks of filming outside in the bone-chilling temperatures of Derbyshire's Peak district. Especially as she takes her first plunge into the series by diving into an icy river to rescue a girl trapped in a submerged car.

"Actually it was the stunt double who went into the river. I just had buckets of cold water tipped over me," says the 29-year-old actress shivering at the memory. "It's a glam job this you know. A bit like being Julia Roberts. She does things like that . . ."

Tomorrow is even worse. Saskia has to film the underwater scenes, in which she pulls the child from the car fully clothed, in an outdoor swimming pool in Matlock. But being soggy, cold and wet is the price you pay for the female lead in ITV's hugely successful drama which regularly pulls in 17 million viewers.

The 29-year-old petite blonde landed the enviable role of Dr Erica Matthews, new partner at The Beeches surgery, after the show's stars Amanda Burton and Kevin Whately (who played married doctors Jack Kerruish and Beth Glover) quit following allegations of a real-life romance. Although she sees it as an exciting challenge, Saskia is not aiming to step into Amanda Burton's shoes. "It's hard going into a show that is this popular and I don't want to disappoint people. But the only way I have taken over from Amanda is as the female lead. I am nothing like her character, or her. Amanda and Kevin were such a team."

The offscreen drama on the Peak Practice set didn't finish when the screen lovers left. There was a pounds 2 million crisis when two of the show's new stars, along with production staff, were sacked. Larry Lamb, who was to replace Kevin Whately as a new GP, found himself out, along with Jane Wymark - his screen wife. Central Television blamed an "overdose" of doctors as the problem, deciding to cut back to three rather than four.

Having landed her dream job, Saskia feared she would lose it. "It was an unfortunate time, and it sounds selfish, but I didn't want to know about it. I felt sad for the people who lost their jobs, but it's just politics and it happens."

It's just as well Dr Kerruish and his wife Beth weren't around as they would not have approved of Erica Matthews' dramatic arrival at the surgery. Driving like a mad hatter she overtakes a car on a country road. Minutes later it disappears from her rear view mirror and she turns back fearing she has forced it off the road and into the river.

"Erica is usually late and overworked and harassed and thinks she has caused the accident, so is distraught. She tends to act before she thinks. She is very impetuous and impulsive and likes to leap into things - like rivers.

"She is open about everything and sometimes ends up in trouble. But Erica doesn't worry about offending people. She believes in honesty all the way. But she is still very likeable, despite the fact she messes things up a lot. And she's a bit of an emotional disaster area.''

By the time she arrives at The Beeches, Erica feels she has made such a huge mess of things that she immediately lays into Dr Will Preston (Simon Shepherd) and resigns. Thankfully, he talks her out of quitting which is just as well as the sexual sparks between the ecouple are set to fly. "Oh yes. There are several moments of sexual chemistry. More sex than romance. I suppose it's a matter of will Will or won't Will?''

Love, or lack of it, is one of the reasons Erica has come to Cardale. She is escaping a traumatic break-up with her boyfriend. And the pain of a broken relationship is a state of affairs Saskia knows only too well. She is currently separated from her banker husband Sean after two and a half years of marriage and has a new man in her life.

"The men I like have to be able to make me laugh. I'm not into bulging muscles, but they have to be a bit tasty . . .''

She is keeping the lid on her new love, and is reluctant to talk about her marriage split. Although she admits she has changed over the last few years. "Women change hugely between the ages of 24 and 27. It's a time when you start realizing you have choices in life and you can make decisions for yourself. For me it was a time when my career was taking off and I realized I could earn my own living.

"I'm much more confident in myself. Whenever I got boyfriends before I was always amazed that anyone fancied me. Now I think I'm more attractive. I'm not saying I'm a sex goddess, but I think I'm actually quite a good catch.

Also, when I was younger I had more goals and plans. But now I can't even think ahead further than next week. I tend to live for each day. If you plan ahead too much you can get disappointed.

"We all need human romantic relationships but until you can be happy with yourself you aren't going to be happy with anyone else, because you are trying to get that haappiness from them. That's what's changed about me. I'm happier with myself."

She has every reason to be happy with herself right now. The prize Peak Practice role came when she was unemployed, and she has since been signed up for two future series.

"I was really depressed when my agent rang saying I'd got the job even though I had never auditioned. I nearly fell off my chair."

Viewers may remember Saskia as Clarissa in the controversial BBC costume drama which contained a disturbing rape scene, or as Michael Elphick's leather-trousered assistant in the TV drama Boon. And she is currently appearing in BBC's Geordie drama Our Friends In The North as Tory candidate Claudia Seabrook.

Saskia's father Jeffry Wickham is an actor, as is older brother Rupert. "I always wanted to act. From the age of four I used to put on terribly naff shows for my parents in the drawing room."

These days she spends much of her life belting up and down the motorway in her new BMW convertible between her London flat and Derbyshire house. Six days a week and 12 hours a day spent filming are taking their toll and she is tired. "My dream way of spending an evening is coming home, changing into an old tracksuit and sitting down to baked beans and EastEnders," she says.

Saskia has been helped with her research for the role by sister-in-law Jo, who is a GP. "I couldn't be one myself in a million years. I faint at the sight of blood. I took a friend who had a cut arm to hospital and they only had to talk about stitches and I keeled over.

"When I woke up I was in the next cubicle. But I can cope with the mock stuff in Peak Practice. It looks like tomato ketchup to me.''
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Francis, Pam
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 18, 1996
Words:1240
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