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Life's sweet off the Street; Exit Coronation Street stage left, enter Holby City. Actress Angela Griffin, aka Fiona Middleton, talks to JIM TAYLOR about the good life after soap.

EVERY successful soap actor or actress faces the decision eventually. To quit and try "life on the outside" or to stay and rejoice that a regular wage is coming their way.

In acting, however, fortune favours the bold - not to mention the young and attractive. And Angela Griffin, who has spent the last five years playing hairdresser Fiona Middleton in Coronation Street, has both these qualities in abundance.

Last summer, at 22 years old, she decided life was to short to stay in Weatherfield's claustrophobic clutches forever. With no work lined up, she decided to cut and run.

She would see what life, and her agent, would throw at her.

And luckily, it's been bouquets rather than rotten tomatoes.

As she neared the end of her days on Coronation Street, an offer came in from BBC1's new medical drama Holby City, a spin- off from the enduring favourite Casualty.

Now she's joined a host of former soap stars and other well-known faces who will be seen in the drama when it starts later this month.

The cast is strong. Former EastEnders star Michael French - who played David Wicks - is a regular, as are ex-Brookside actresses Nicola Stephenson, who played Margaret the nanny who shared a lesbian kiss with Anna Friel, and Lisa Faulkner, who was Louise, Eleanor the lawyer's long-lost daughter. Lovejoy star Phyllis Logan is also a cast member.

Angela tosses her famous mane of dark curls and says: "I have no regrets about leaving Coronation Street. I haven't missed it a bit. I've been too busy and too excited. I finished on the Street on the Friday and moved to London to start work on Holby City the following Wednesday. Since than it's been go, go, go!"

She said: "No-one seemed to notice I was going at first. But it might have been because Geri Halliwell decided to split from The Spice Girls at the time. It was scary then and I got a bit twitchy because other members of the cast who were leaving at the same time were talking about the work they had lined up, and I didn't have anything.

"But I just had to make a leap of faith. "I soon discovered just how many bad scripts there are out there - for one they wanted me to be Cleopatra in a sitcom. I knew it wasn't for me.

"I also had several offers to sign up as a singer - record companies do that whenever a soap star is leaving.

"Money is not everything. I know it helps, but there are different ways of earning a living and I didn't want to sing.

"When the approach came in for Holby City it was solid and it felt right."

Angela prepared for the role as nurse Jasmine Hopkins by undergoing a crash course in nursing basics so she would know how to handle a bed pan - and make a bed with hospital corners with the patient still in it.

The moment she knew she had made the right move came during the filming of a heart transplant operation for the show's opening blockbuster episode.

She explains: "I thought I was going to be squeamish when it came to the gory bits in the operation theatre. I'm the type who watches that sort of thing at home on TV by covering my eyes with my hands and peeking at the screen through the fingers.

"I was meant to be assisting Michael French's character, who is one of the surgeons, in removing a donor's heart.

"The special effects team had used a pig's heart, all covered in blood, to make the operation look more authentic.

"As we were filming and trying to get all the actions right, it started to feel real. I was holding the clamps and you could see the aorta and everything.

"At the end of the operation I had to pick up the heart and put it in a container to take back to the hospital. It was a really delicate manoeuvre to hold it and look at it really closely. I kept thinking afterwards that it had been a fantastic experience - not a bit like giving someone a shampoo and set in the salon."

But after spending a day with a group of nurses at a hospital near London, Angela does not think she has what it takes to be a nurse in real life.

She said: "When we started filming, I thought perhaps I could be a nurse because it is nice spending time with the patients and giving them lots of tender loving care.

"But there are some terrible bits as well. Like when they have limbs hanging off or they're sick all over you - that's not so good.

"I enjoyed meeting the nurses though and I was impressed with the fact that they've all got a bloody good sense of humour.

"But you could see that the long hours and the job itself takes so much out of them both physically and emotionally."

Angela has kept closely in touch with her Street friends and even went along to the cast's Christmas party, where she re-enacted her role as Scary Spice from the Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes special.

She said: "I didn't plan to do the Spice girls routine again, but we had all had a lot to drink by the time we got on stage, that's all I'm saying."

On the ITV special, which was seen by over 15 million viewers, Angela looked decidedly grumpy at the end of the show - something she apologises for.

She said: "People have asked me if I was moaning to Matthew Kelly after our performance and to be honest I was being a real stroppy cow.

"The truth is that I hurt myself and my stomach and ribs were really sore.

"I wasn't having a go at the show, which was hard work but great fun during the two days rehearsing."

Angela hasn't ruled out a return to Coronation Street in the future and the door is still open to her.

She said: "I have turned out the light, but I haven't shut the door on ever going back. I had a fantastic time there and it's great the writers have not killed me off.

"Maybe one day I'll just be sitting in the salon with my head under one of the hairdryers - who know."

In Holby City, Angela's character, like Fiona in the Street, is a strong- willed woman who speaks her mind.

She said: "By the end of my time on the Street, Fiona was still strong, but down- trodden by all the things that had happened to her. Jasmine is a lot fresher and everything is new to her. She loves the job and being part of the hospital.

"I loved getting under the skin of a new character, right down to making sure she's got a big grin on her identity badge, because I knew she'd be so proud to be working there."

In real life, Leeds-born Angela spent Christmas and New Year with her family and boyfriend, Hollyoaks actor Will Mellor, who bought her a Vespa scooter to get around London. Holby City is being filmed at the BBC's Elstree Studios in north London.

She laughed: "I decided to get a bike because it's the only way to get around town. London is so much busier than Manchester or Leeds, but you're pretty nippy on two wheels."

The way her career is going, Angela Griffin will need to get used to life in the fast lane.

FOR 12 years and 250 episodes, the Casualty cameras have stayed within the confines of Holby City's A&E department.

Later this month, viewers will finally be able to see what happens after patients have been patched up and sent upstairs to the hospital's wards.

The BBC's big new medical drama series, Holby City, is set among the close knit team of doctors and nurses who work in Darwin Ward.

Familiar faces abound.

As well as Angela Griffin, Michael French, Nichola Stephenson and Lisa Faulkner,Scottish actress Phyllis Logan plays consultant Muriel McKendrick.

The team is led by arrogant consultant Anton Meyer, played by Gordon Irving, of Dangerfield and Cadfael fame.

BBC's head of drama, Mal Young, explains: "Holby City takes over where Casualty leaves off. It's a stand- alone show but viewers will be able to see connections with patients and members of staff from Casualty.

"Rest assured, Casualty won't change, because it is one of the most popular programmes. But it means we can find out what happens when patients get taken upstairs in the lift.

Despite being near relatives, the two shows are produced 200 ,miles apart. A BBC source says: "We have had to shoot some scenes twice. First on the Casualty set in Bristol and then, after bringing the cast members up to our Elstree studios in north London, on the Holby City set to finish off.

"There was no room in Bristol to build the surgical ward and operating theatre for the new show so we decided it was easier to start from scratch up here in London.

Mal is not unfazed about putting together a team of ex-soap stars. He said: "Some of the best performances on screen have come out of soaps in the past few years. There is a fantastic amount of talent on those shows.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Taylor, Jim (American writer)
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jan 2, 1999
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