Interview: Helen Worth - It had been perfect for 21 wonderful years.. when it ended I felt lost. I couldn't function; WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Coronation Street's Helen Worth talks for the first time about her marriage break-up sadness.
IT WAS the performance of her life - so convincing that no one knew it was an act.
For almost a year Helen Worth dragged herself out of bed and forced herself to go to work with a smile - determined that no one should know she was falling apart inside.
The Coronation Street actress had never been one to wear her heart on her sleeve. Personal problems, she reckoned, should remain just that.
So, when her husband, whom she had been with for 21 years, sat her down and told her he had met someone else, Helen insisted on carrying on as normal.
Not even her closest family knew that her marriage, the foundation on which her life was built, was slowly but surely collapsing around her.
"It was the longest year of my life," she reveals. "Looking back, it seems a bit of a blur. I was all over the place, determined to convince the rest of the world - and myself, I suppose - that things would work themselves out."
But they didn't. While she threw herself into her work, confining her tears to the dressing room, her husband, actor Michael Angelis, continued his affair with divorcee Jennifer Khalastchi.
The disintegration of what had been regarded as one of the strongest marriages in showbiz was inevitable. And the ensuing pain broke Helen's heart.
Until now, the actress, known for her role as Gail Platt in the Street, has never spoken of her private life.
Although one of the most famous faces on British television, she has consistently shunned the limelight.
She has spent the past three years trying to come to terms with her loss. Today, just weeks after her 50th birthday, she finally feels confident enough to speak out about her struggle to rebuild her life. And she can't quite believe she is doing it.
"I must admit I never ever thought I would be sitting here telling you that life is great and that I am enjoying being 50. A couple of years ago, I thought there was never going to be anything to look forward to ever again.
I WAS at my lowest ebb. If it hadn't been for work, there wouldn't even have been any point getting out of bed in the morning.
"Having been through it, I can fully understand why some women go under when their marriage ends and they are facing the rest of their lives alone.
"At my worst point I felt as though I was drowning. I was being dragged down and down and I couldn't see any way out. I couldn't think straight. Couldn't function. I was lost for the first time in my life.
"But the very fact that I am here today talking about it means that I have come through it. I finally saw that patch of light. And I must say, that is a wonderfully liberating feeling."
A tiny woman with a great figure and a huge laugh, Helen Worth is a million miles from the downtrodden Gail Platt, who she has played for 26 years.
Confident, intelligent and assured, she was never going to be one of life's victims.
Today, she insists she has never been happier. Nonetheless, she admits that her husband's betrayal, which she learned of in May 1995, launched her into the most painful period of her life.
"Nothing can ever prepare you for the day your husband sits you down and tells you he is having an affair," she explains quietly.
"My marriage was everything to me. It was the foundation on which everything else was built. I had been with Michael for nearly half of my life. I never imagined that we wouldn't grow old together.
"When he told me, everything just went black. Things started to make sense. Maybe I realised right away that something like that had been bound to happen. Things hadn't been right for some time, but - naively maybe - I didn't think it was serious.
"I knew there was a problem. I just didn't know it was me."
The devastating news came when Michael learned a Sunday paper was planning to run a picture of him with the other woman.
"The pictures were about to be published and he knew he had to tell me fast," recalls Helen. "He just said he was having an affair.
"I went through every emotion. I was hurt. Then angry. So angry. I tried to tell myself it wasn't happening.
"The worst thing was that I knew it was going to be in the papers the next day. To know that the rest of the world had to know about my pain was just unbearable."
Many women would have asked their husband to leave, but Helen saw things differently. Despite the fact that Michael had told her he was having an affair, she was unwilling to accept that the marriage was over.
"Our capacity to deceive ourselves is quite remarkable," she smiles.
"But at that time there was no question of us splitting up - neither of us wanted to throw away 21 wonderful years. As far as I was concerned, we had been perfect together. It never crossed my mind that we couldn't rebuild that.
"The last thing I would have wanted then was for Michael to go."
Immediately, the couple decided to try and salvage their relationship. They refused to make any comment about their marital difficulties.
But the damage had been done.
Over the following weeks and months, Helen and Michael would spend hours talking about where they'd gone wrong.
"I can't describe how hard it was," she recalls. "Everything was slipping away and I couldn't do anything to stop it.
"I'd be up in Manchester, just trying to get on with the job and telling myself everything would be OK. But maybe I knew, deep down, that it was never going to be OK again."
WHILE she can now talk about her anguish in measured terms, back then she was anything but composed.
"I wasn't this calm," she smiles. "I shouted and screamed and threw things. It was quite spectacular. Poor Michael didn't know what to do with me.
"I suppose I knew that the marriage was over. Perhaps I even knew it was right that it should be over. But knowing it and accepting it are two different things. I couldn't accept it.
"I was afraid to let go. I just couldn't imagine a world that didn't have Michael in it.
"But in the end, I didn't have a choice. I had to accept it. It was either accept it, or go under, and I was never going to do that. I'm a survivor. I'd just never been put to the test until then." Helen's way of coping was to throw herself into her work. When Michael eventually left - spurred on by more pictures in newspapers - it was Coronation Street that filled the gap.
"People cope with trauma in all sorts of ways. My way was to work my way through it. During that year, I didn't tell anyone what was happening. My best friend knew - but that was it. I didn't even tell my own father.
"Work kept me going. Having a reason to get up in the morning is what keeps you sane. You can't burst into tears on the set - people are depending on you. When I did my crying it was in the dressing room, alone.
"When the second lot of pictures appeared in the papers we couldn't keep up the charade any longer and Michael went for good.
"That was so hard for me but the people at work were brilliant. They closed ranks and protected me. The Street is fantastic at doing that. No-one made a fuss - they just let me know they were there if I needed anything.
"I will always be grateful to them for that."
HER family also rallied round. Helen's brother Neville, who is three years her senior, was immediately at her side.
"He was wonderful," she says. "I've always adored him, but he really came into is own when I was in trouble."
Cracks had begun to appear in the marriage several years earlier, but Helen, confident that the relationship was indestructible, thought it was a temporary blip.
"Looking back I knew Michael was unhappy," she reveals. "He had told me he wasn't happy. With hindsight, I had had every warning.
"The problem was that we were both busy people. This industry is so hard on relationships. It puts you under enormous pressure.
"Michael was working more and more in London while I was filming in Manchester. It was that old cliche - we became like ships passing in the night.
"Sometimes we didn't even manage to see each other at weekends. We had different interests. I suppose it just became easy to lead separate lives.
"In the early days we had made superhuman efforts to do things together. We were always in the car, driving up or down the country. It's silly, perhaps, but I thought we could weather anything.
"But I don't blame Michael. I was as much to blame as him."
She sighs and thinks hard.
"I guess I took my eye off the ball," she says. "I was happy to let things coast along. I've always sailed through life thinking things will work themselves out. I suppose this was a hard lesson."
The pair met when they were both out-of-work actors. Michael had nowhere to stay in London and Helen offered him the sofa in her flat.
"He was the most amazing man I had ever met. He was the best," she remembers, her face breaking into a huge smile.
"We started off as friends - for a long time there was nothing else in it. We just had a great time together. We liked the same things and thought along the same lines.
A kiss in the park changed everything between them. Almost immediately, Helen realised she was in love. "I'd never felt like that about anyone before and it was wonderful," she remembers. "Boyfriends had never really been a big issue, but Michael was different. I felt safe with him and we were just brilliant together."
For 18 years, the couple lived together, travelled the world together and laughed together.
And as their relationship progressed, so their careers took off. Helen landed a role in Coronation Street, and went on to establish herself as a key member of the cast.
Meanwhile, Michael worked in both TV and the theatre, and became best known for his roles in The Liver Birds and The Boys From The Blackstuff.
It wasn't until 1991 that the couple finally decided to get married.
"It wasn't a big deal," recalls Helen. "We had already made our commitment. We'd been together for so long that marriage wasn't an issue.
"But Michael booked the register office and sorted everything out. I was absolutely thrilled."
THEIR wedding day was - and remains - the happiest day of her life. It was a low-key affair with friends and close relatives.
"I know lots of women would think differently, but I refuse to let what has happened since spoil my memories. It was the best day. The absolute tops. I was so happy - I had Michael there, and all my friends around me. It was really special. Nothing can take that away."
Today, she still regards her relationship with Michael as one of the great achievements of her life.
"People talk about my marriage having failed - but I don't see it as a failure. How can you call a wonderful 21- year relationship a failure?"
She and Michael are good friends who often meet up for lunch.
"When we meet we can remember the good times again," she says.
"I've come to realise that being on your own isn't the worst thing in the world. In fact, I rather like it.
"It's nice that I don't have to worry about rushing home for someone else. I can book the holiday I want. I can go away for the weekend on the spur of the moment. I can sit on the sofa eating Chunky KitKats all night if I want.
"This whole process has made me realise how much women spend their lives worrying about other people.
"Now I am having some 'me' time."
Ask her about her feelings of betrayal and she insists those days are gone. She refuses to play the role of the wronged wife, insisting that Michael wasn't completely to blame for the break up.
"He was vilified in the press," she remembers. "He was called a love rat and a cheat. But he wasn't. That's not how it was, things are never that easy. He just met someone who made him happier than I could. It wasn't a crime. It was just desperately sad.
"I know now that Michael suffered as much as I did. He still loved me when he left. It tore him apart that he was hurting me. He would never willingly have caused me pain. He is the gentlest man I know."
Even more remarkably, perhaps, is that she bears no animosity towards the woman who took her place.
"Once, it might have been difficult, but now I think I could maybe even meet her," she reveals. "It wasn't her fault. She met someone and fell in love. She did what she felt she had to do.
"The important thing is that we have all come through this. The world didn't end. People survive. Sometimes, we even learn to smile again."
BETRAYAL: But Helen refuses to be bitter about her ex-husband's affair with Jennifer Khalastchi, inset; SPECIAL: Helen's low-key wedding
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Mar 12, 2001|
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