Soap super for Dale.
A couple of weeks ago, Dale Meeks was shopping at his local supermarket.
As he unloaded the goods at the checkout, the girl behind the counter narrowed her eyes and stared.
"It's YOU, isn't it?" she said.
"I suppose it must be," replied a deadpan Dale, "I was still me the last time I checked."
As Emmerdale's newest character, Simon the fishman, South Shields lad Dale is going to have to get used to being recognised. Viewers of the ITV1 soap may have only seen him a few times over the past couple of months as the writers ease him into the show, but his contract has just been extended and he features much more heavily in the coming weeks.
He says: "It's been nice the way they've introduced my character - slowly, but surely. But it's taken a lot of pressure off me and is allowing the viewers to get used to Simon being part of the show."
But his appearances so far have given him a taste of what to expect when off duty. Wherever he's been around the country, fans have approached him.
"I've learned in a very short time that there are three grades of fans. First there are the starers, who've clocked you but are too cool to let you know. Then there those who come up to you looking a little confused and ask: "Is it really you?" Finally, there are people who just get really excited and are just dead chuffed to see you. I ended up signing an autograph on someone's tanning card yesterday.
"I'm used to being on TV - I've done it since I was a teenager - but there's something about soap that touches people in a different way."
Despite the recent attention, 28-year-old Dale's feet are rooted firmly to the ground. Before winning the role in Emmerdale, the former Whitburn Comprehensive pupil had been on the dole for two years and, as a result, takes nothing for granted. "It was a frustrating time for me, but as an actor you've got to be prepared for spells of unemployment. It actually got to the stage where I was going to give it up. I was fed up of having no money and travelling down to London two or three times a week for auditions that never came to anything."
Nine months ago, when Dale was at his lowest point, his agent called to say that the Emmerdale team wanted to see him.
Better still, they were paying his travel expenses to get to the audition at London Weekend Television.
"I went in there and I made them laugh, which was good," recalls Dale. "But then I got outside the audition room and there were about 50 others waiting to go in. I got a bit disheartened."
However, Dale got a message on his phone the next day asking him to a recall. To say he was pleased would be an understatement.
"Lots and lots of expletives later, I started to calm down," he laughs. "The next day I went down to Leeds. They told me they'd seen me do the comedy, now they needed to see if I had more depth. But the worst thing was, there was just one other bloke up for the part, and he was very different from me, both physically and in age.
"I was nervous, but I honestly think I gave the best audition of my life that day."
An hour later, on the train back up to Newcastle, Dale's agent called. He'd got the part.
"I apologise to anyone who was on that train for the language. I was in a state of shock. I desperately wanted to tell my mam, but I was so skint I had no credit on my phone. I had to get my agent to call her and tell her to ring my mobile."
His mother Pat has been a huge support, emotionally and financially over the years. "She's always dead calm and is kind of like my anchor. She was really pleased I'd got the part, but somehow managed to bring me back down to earth."
Chatting to Dale, it is clear Pat has done her job well. Dressed in dark clothing and a long, black overcoat, he is friendly and easy-going, full of jokes and anecdotal tales of life on the Emmerdale set. He is also keen to chat about his recent trip to Lapland with his new colleagues and the kids from the Make a Wish Foundation. During the visit he met the family of Luke Walmsley, the 14-year-old stabbed to death at his Lincolnshire school in November.
Dale said: "They've set up the Luke Walmsley Sports Foundation in his memory which I'm getting involved in. They're hoping to raise enough money to build a school gym and I'm delighted to help. I've given some Emmerdale stuff for them to auction. It's great to be in the position to help people who've suffered like that."
But for now, it's back to the grindstone. Dale's got 40 scenes to learn over his fleeting holiday and is gearing up for a gruelling day's filming on his first day back. But he's having a ball.
"It's been fantastic. It's very demanding; there's no time to learn lines during work. Because we're six episodes a week now, everything is done so quickly. There's no time to say: `Can I have another go at that scene because I wasn't happy with it?'
"But I really like the character; he's a non-conventional love interest for Nicola and she's finally met someone who gives as good as he gets.
"Nicola Wheeler, who plays Nicola, and Kate McGregor, who plays Emily, are the main cast members I've been working with and they've both been brilliant.
"The first day I walked on set was terrifying, but I'm settled now and enjoying it so much. I know it sounds cliched, but it's just like a big, happy family. Everybody's absolutely gorgeous."
This week, 10 years to the day of the famous plane crash, the Emmerdale residents experienced another catastrophe as a freak storm ripped through the village. Last night, Tricia Dingle was still in a coma, fighting for life.
Dale says: "Simon and Nicola are in the pub when the chimney collapses. I think it was one of my first scenes back after a short break. That was a nice welcome back, having the roof cave in on me!"
The high pressure, quick turnover is a world away from any acting work Dale has done before. From the age of 14 he spent four years in Byker Grove and has been a regular performer at South Shields' Customs House. TV work includes Catherine Cookson's The Wingless Bird, Badger, The Bill and Heartbeat.
And a few years ago he starred in Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd Webber's West End musical The Beautiful Game, for 18 months.
"I love theatre, but when you're in a show like The Beautiful Game for such a long time, it can be a real challenge to keep things fresh. Doing the same thing every night got a bit draining by the end, but it's a great show and I'm proud to have it on my CV."
The village of Emmerdale has been experiencing something of a Geordie invasion of late. As well as Dale, vicar Ashley is played by Whitley Bay's John Middleton. And Wallsend actress Charlie Hardwick has just joined the cast as the sister of Woolpack owner Diane. But Dale has no immediate plans to up sticks.
"Leeds is a great city, but I love Newcastle. It's my home and I'm going to stay up here. John Middleton has offered me a lift down from the North East whenever we're due on set at the same time, which was really nice of him.
"I'm just loving being part of such a brilliant programme. The writing is so good. In a way, Emmerdale is like how Coronation Street used to be with the characterisation and the great Northern humour. But it handles the serious storylines as well. They've just extended my contract until May, and I'd be more than happy to stay for a long, long time."
What advice would Dale offer to any bright young things wanting to make their way into acting? He flashes a bemused look at me then starts laughing.
"God, if they're prepared to be skint for the majority of their lives and are up for plenty of soul-destroying rejection, yeah, go for it.
"Seriously though, you've got to be so committed. There are far more actors out of work than in. Some of us just get lucky."
NCatch Emmerdale Monday-Friday, ITV1, 7pm
Emmerdale's Geordie link
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|Publication:||Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Jan 3, 2004|
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