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Interview: Debra Stephenson - Bad Girl makes good; Beneath the shocking Shell of Bad Girls' bisexual jailbird beats the heart of a natural comic.

Byline: Colin Wills

Debra Stephenson had only just hung up her school uniform when she began a quite different education. It started in a smoky club in Sunderland, jam-packed with yelling, beer-sodden blokes. While Debra struggled on with her act, one of them jumped on a chair, turned his back on her and dropped his trousers while his mates cheered him from the rafters.

"I couldn't believe it," Debra says. "I was in the middle of an impression of Cleo Laine and suddenly there was this guy doing a full moony." What was it like? Tattooed? "No, but it was hairy.

"You've got to think quickly in situations like that. If I'd shown any sign of weakness, I'd have been finished. I said to him, `Is that your face or your backside? You're talking out of one or the other, but I'm not sure which it is'."

It's still hard to imagine Debra in such a place, where lager fumes mix with sweat and cheap after-shave. She looks too healthy and fresh-faced. But that is where she started her showbusiness career and now it has come full circle. Last month she emerged as one of the most exciting young comedy talents to reach our screens in a long while.

In BBC1's new sketch show TV To Go, Debra has returned to her roots, telling jokes in front of an audience for the first time in almost 10 years. In between she has created one of the most vivid monsters of our time, the fearsome, violent, bi-sexual jailbird Shell Dockley in ITV's Bad Girls. So although with her wide blue eyes she may look as though she should only be playing nuns or sweet-natured housewives, Debra, 28, knows how to surprise people.

Her showbusiness training came not at some teeth-and-smiles stage school but in the workingmen's clubs of Northern England. She started when she was just 13. "Sometimes I wouldn't get home until two in the morning and I'd be up again at eight to go to school.

"My attendance wasn't as good as it might have been, but it made me very inventive. My teacher used to say she could write a book based on my excuses.

"I was leading a double life which nobody knew about. Only my best friend had any idea what I was doing at night. It was only when the local paper printed a story about me being on stage with Les Dennis that my cover was blown. Then I got on to Opportunity Knocks and all my classmates saw me.

"My main impression at the time was Margaret Thatcher.

I ask you! Thirteen years old, in a blue suit my mother made, pearls and a handbag. My exit line was, `I have to go now, I have another hospital to close'.

"Mostly the audiences were quite kind. They'd say, `Oh, she's quite good for her age'. But then I started doing alternative comedy and the whole atmosphere changed. The first time I was really scared was at a club in Edinburgh. I was only 17. I was looking through a gap in the curtains while the woman who was on before me got a hell of a hammering. It was like a bear pit. They were throwing cigarette packets and ashtrays at her. There was about 80 of them and they were all drunk as skunks.

"When she came off, I begged her for help. `What shall I say if they start doing that to me?' I pleaded. `Tell 'em to **** off,' she said. `That usually does the trick'. But I went on, did my five minutes and got through it somehow. I don't know whether they threw anything or not. I couldn't see - the lights were in my eyes. But nothing hit me.

"You'd go to clubs and the blokes would sit there in front of the stage, arms folded, glaring at you as if to say, `Go on then, make us laugh'. But a comedy act is like a muscle. If you keep on building it up, provided it doesn't break it gets stronger and stronger." Only the brave survive such a blooding, and Debra did stand-up for another two years before giving it up and enrolling at drama school. Her return to comedy is slightly less taxing. TV To Go is pre-recorded and doesn't shred the nerve endings in the way performing live would do. "To tell you the truth, I don't think I could do stand-up now," she says. "I'd be far too frightened. I'd be afraid my material wouldn't be good enough." She thinks Shell, her character in Bad Girls, would make the perfect club comedienne. "She wouldn't stand any nonsense. If she got heckled she'd say, `If you don't shut up, I'll rip your head off and turn it into curry.' Nobody would get the better of her."

One thing Debra will always be grateful for, however, is that stand-up brought her the love of her life, her husband James Duffield, 30.

They met in a pub in Manchester. "Our first date together was going to see me on stage. Thank God I did all right and didn't die the death, otherwise he probably wouldn't have come back a second time. Worse still, he might have heckled me. Wouldn't that have been awful? It wasn't exactly love at first sight, but it was very close to it. There was a moment I glanced at him in the pub and thought, `You are one hell of a nice bloke'. We've been married almost two years now and I love him to death. He's a builder and he upped sticks and moved to London and started all over again from scratch. He makes me laugh, that's what I like about him. That and the fact that he's not at all star- struck."

A genuine blush comes to Debra's cheek when she talks about James, and it reminds you that for all her hard-knock education in the clubs, she never had a wild period sexually. "I was quite a goody-goody in that department. A late developer, I suppose. I was so busy concentrating on my career that I didn't have a lot of time for boys. Even when I was away from home at 17 doing summer season, I didn't go off the rails. People would talk about their sex lives and it would wash right over me. I never strayed from the straight and narrow - not surprising if you'd seen who I was working with. I was in Great Yarmouth with two drag queens and the show was full of double entendres. There was a Cockney number where I had to sing lines like, `Strolling down the Strand with a banana in my hand'. I don't think many of the audience got the double meanings though - most were pensioners."

Appropriately, for such a romantic, Debra's wedding day was unforgettable. "I saw this two-piece band busking on the Tube. They were brilliant. I went up to them and asked them, `Do you do weddings?' They said, `We would if we had the chance,' and I said, `Well then, do mine'. At the reception I sang to James, his favourite song, Fly Me To The Moon. He had no idea it was going to happen. I rehearsed it with the band in our living room while getting into my dress."

Debra looked a picture on the day - a sharp contrast to Simone, the dowdy, telesales girl she plays in TV To Go who couldn't sell water to a dying man in a desert.

It's another step along the way for a girl who became entranced with showbusiness aged four when she got up on stage, danced with the Wombles and had to be dragged off. "I've absolutely no idea where it comes from. I only know I was completely stage-struck from then on. Every time I saw a camera I posed. There was a picture in a local paper when I was a child about a puppet theatre coming to our school in Hull. Everyone else is looking at the puppets - except me. The caption read, `Most of the children were enthralled'."

Her parents, Ricky and Deborah, indulged her. One of her abiding childhood memories is of her mother sewing sequins on dresses for her act in the clubs. "My mum and dad are both teachers, but my dad was always good with voices - he'd do politicians of the day like Denis Healey. So maybe that's where I get it from."

After TV To Go, in which her co-stars are Pauline McLynn (Mrs Doyle in Father Ted) and Hugh Dennis, several other comedy projects are in the pipeline. Nobody shows their bum at Debra these days. It's a happy time for her. "I know people say going into showbusiness and getting applause is a way of making up for a lack of love in your personal life. Well, it was never like that for me. I'm an only child and I was showered with love. My trouble is I'm greedy. I want it all."

CAPTION(S):

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS The talented Debra made 'em laugh even as a child. Could it have been that hair?
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 10, 2001
Words:1532
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