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Interview Sarah Lancashire: Conquering my secret fears; Sarah Lancashire walked out on two hit shows at the peak of her fame without harming her popularity, but only now is she starting to believe in herself.

For an actress plagued by self-doubt and insecurity, Sarah Lancashire has taken two brave decisions in her career so far. First to quit Coronation Street at the height of her success, and then to do the same with Where The Heart Is.

Leaving the Street and a reputed pounds 100,000 pay packet behind was, she says, like, "Leaping off a cliff at midnight - I had no idea what was at the bottom", but increasingly it has proven to be the right decision.

And she has shown similar courage in her personal life, surviving a marriage break up and coping with being a working mum.

Out of it all she has emerged as more confident, and she has begun to accept that rather than just hitching a ride on the soap bandwagon, she is a talented actress. Nowhere is this new self-belief more obvious that in her decision to return to the Street as scatty Raquel. She appeared with estranged husband Curly Watts (played by Kevin Kennedy) in a special episode shown on January 2.

"Going back as Raquel was a big surprise for me too," admits Sarah, 35. "I didn't think I would. But I'd always said, 'Never say never'. And this was such a good storyline, I couldn't turn it down. I always knew Raquel couldn't grow old. She'd be embarrassing at 40. So I felt I should play her one more time at the age I am now. I felt I could take all the recognition this time. My shoulders are broader than they were. And I loved being back. I'm passionate about the Street."

If Sarah had not been so much in demand since leaving the soap in 1996, she may not have been so keen to return. But she has proved her skill in a variety of roles, particularly as Ruth in Where The Heart Is.

Last year she was kept busy. She worked on a ten-part drama Clocking Off, to be shown at the end of January, in Seeing Red she plays children's home founder Coral Atkins. Other projects included a sitcom, The Chambers, and a two-part psychological thriller.

"People are going to be so sick of me," she laughs, ordering more tea in the lounge of a Manchester hotel.

Sarah has braved foul weather to make the half-hour drive from her home in Bowden, Cheshire, to be here. But she says it gives her an excuse to pop into the nearby Granada Studios to see her friends on the Street, before collecting sons Matthew, ten, and Thomas, 12, from school.

She is wearing a thick green sweater and wrap-over wool skirt, and appears carefree and contented with life. "Yes, it's taken a long time but I feel more comfortable with myself and within this business," she says. "I feel so much more confident at 35 than at 25. I feel I'm earning the right to my little patch. As I approach 40, I feel I may deserve an even bigger patch."

The project which has done much to help her shake off any lingering self-doubt is Clocking Off, set in a textile factory. It is her first part since quitting Where The Heart Is after three series because, "My character was too chocolate-boxy, no longer a challenge". She plays Yvonne Kolakowski, a widow struggling to raise three children single-handedly who has also been repeatedly messed around by men.

"She's been quite damaged by her relationships," says Sarah. "And when the last boyfriend, her landlord, wants to kick her out, she feels everything has been taken from her. So she burns the house down."

In the crisis which follows, Yvonne seeks help from neighbour Jim Calvert (played by Christopher Eccleston).

"This unromantic relationship develops, very chilly, with quite a lot of mutual dislike. They kind of seep into each other's consciousness. She asks him to sleep with her because it's her birthday. He obliges and she ends up feeling even cheaper and more desperate."

She laughs out loud and adds, "It's a terrible confession but I understand Yvonne completely. She's taken so much from men that she wants to lead an uncomplicated life, do her work, care for her kids. I know this woman so well, believe me."

Sarah drew on her own experience of being a single parent for her part, and it's not the first time that art has mirrored life. In the month that Raquel left Curly, Sarah split from her musician husband Gary Hargreaves. She remains tight-lipped about why her marriage failed. But her father Geoffrey, 65, has said, "Sarah can be difficult. I'd hate to be married to her, though she's lovely and a great mother."

Although it was tough combining motherhood with her career, Sarah has come out on top. She is reluctant to work away from home unless filming schedules coincide with the boys' school holidays and they can go with her.

"I'm aware that if I am not there, they are not with a parent. And parenting is the most important thing," she says. "We share so much, the boys and me. We're all practical. Matthew loves to cook, we all love DIY and gardening. So we drool over programmes such as Changing Rooms, Home Front, Gardeners' World and all the cookery shows. When they were all shown on a Friday night it was fantastic."

After completing Clocking Off, she and her sons took their first holiday for three years in Lanzarote.

"I was still recognised but at least people called me Sarah, not Raquel. I've had to pedal so fast since Coronation Street to make progress, so I felt I'd achieved something," she says. "You're called a star and I found that silly because the status is thrust upon you. For me, it's important to have earned something. I crave respect from within the industry. I fight tooth and nail for soap actors, though. There are some extraordinary performances but they are put in a different class. Everyone is labelled and it's wrong."

Having finally shaken off her own soap label, Sarah is now ready for a new, long-term relationship.

"I've been on my own for a long time and I hope it's not for much longer," she says. "I'd like a man in my life, for the companionship more than anything. Who knows what this millennium will bring?"
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Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Kingsley, Hilary
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 8, 2000
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