The kids here have so much energy... it's a tonic in itself; Brenda Blethyn tells how she was inspired to help disabled kids at Caern House.
SHE'S the Oscar-nominated movie star who boasts the kind of celebrity lifestyle most of us can only dream about.
But when Brenda Blethyn strolls into Caern House, little Michael and Andrew Stevenson simply see her as someone to play with.
The 60-year-old Pride and Prejudice and Little Voice star is passionate about children's charity Barnardo's, who run the Edinburgh-based project offering overnight breaks to disabled kids aged five to 16.
Brenda said: "It's just brilliant. The work they do there is just wonderful.
"They give children with all kinds of problems a couple of days break, a holiday with other children if you like.
"In turn, that gives the carers and families of those kids a few days of respite as well. "I love going to see the kids there. The invention, the exuberance, of those youngsters is a tonic in itself."
Brenda has no children but knows giving families a break can be vital. During her own childhood she left her troubled mother to go I and live with her elder sister. That's why, when there's a break in her hectic filming schedule, a visit to Caern House is a top priority.
She said: "The last time I went there was a little chap called Patrick who was a huge fan of TV's Big Brother. He really made me laugh.
"We were all playing out in the garden of the home and, when it was time to go, he suddenly said, 'Let's play Big Brother'.
"So he went inside, into the nearest room, and pretended to be Davina.
"He said, 'Brenda, you have been evicted. You have precisely 20 seconds to leave the building and, remember, please do NOT swear, because we are live on air!'
"And then wee Patrick started to give the countdown while the other kids threw me out on to the street.
"We were all whooping and laughing and waving. It had me in fits of laughter."
Brothers Michael, 15, and 11-year-old Andrew Stevenson were two of the kids joking around with Brenda in the garden that day.
The pair, who live in the capital, spend a weekend every fortnight at Caern House giving their exhausted parents Keith and Christine a chance to recharge their batteries.
Keith, 42, said: "The boys both need a lot of attention and are very demanding.
"When they stay at Caern we rest and even catch up on sleep.
"Sometimes we'll go to the cinema or just do something everyday that most couples take for granted.
"Barnardos have given us the support we need to get us through."
MICHAEL has Attention Deficit Disorder, which means he struggles to concentrate or stay still.
Even simple tasks such as dressing are difficult.
Sales assistant Christine, 44, said: "We realised there was something wrong when Michael was three and still not speaking.
"All his development was late. Now, although he's a teenager, he still likes watching children's cartoons.
"He needs attention all the time. Often there's not a second to get something simple like food shopping done."
So it was a blow when they discovered Andrew also has learning difficulties. Today, both boys benefit hugely from their time at Caern.
The family respite is also a boost to the boys' confidence, as staff inspire them to achieve more than they'd ever hoped for.
Michael, a keen Scout, was recently chosen to star in The Gang Show variety performance while Andrew won bronze at aspecial needs judo championship.
Christine said: "When the boys first went to Caern we were on the phone every five minutes to check everything was okay.
"Now we know they have such a great time there we can relax and switch off.
"It means when the boys come home we have the energy back to look after them."
Of their famous friend, she added: "They really like Brenda. Michael was impressed because she's an actress and so famous."
0The star is one of Britain's most celebrated actresses, picking up an OBE for her services to drama in 2003 and winning a Golden Globe for her role as troubled mum Cyn in the Mike Leigh movie Secrets & Lies.
But she understands what it's like to survive a tough childhood.
The youngest of nine children, Brenda writes movingly in her new autobiography Mixed Fancies about her early life. Her mother was 42 when she had Brenda and, not coping, used to "get a bit squiffy".
Eventually, Brenda was sent to live with her sister, Pam, who was 21 years her elder.
But she remembers her confusion when her mum told her: "You're the cause of all the trouble."
Brenda said: "Sometimes she'd say it and then give me a cuddle. I think my mother had a lot of disappointments prior to me turning up.
"The key is to try and understand things and not to apportion blame.
"We are all very close and we laugh a lot and that humour is from mum. We also learned not to get too above ourselves.
"I never did find out why she occasionally drank too much - it wasn't all the time, you see."
Perhaps scarred by her early life, Brenda and her theatre director partner of 30 years, Michael Mayhew, have no children.
She said: "I used to think of it as vanity to want children - which is ridiculous as it is the whole point of us all being here.
"But it was too big a decision for me. If it had happened accidentally that would have been all right, but I couldn't plan it."
Instead, she is happy to channel her maternal feelings towards the children helped by Barnardo's.
The organisation have a staff of 20 who guarantee everything runs smoothly at five-bedroomed Caern House.
Senior project worker Fiona Cameron said: "This is the best job. Every day is worlds apart depending on the children who are staying with us.
"It's great that a film star thinks what we do here is special too."
"Before each child arrives we decorate their bedroom with the posters, stickers and duvet covers we know they'll like so they feel relaxed and at home.
"We ask them what they'd like to do and often go on outings.
"One moment I'll be painting a girl's nails and the next I'll be in the garden chasing a go-cart. There's a lot of laughter.
"We also let the children do as much as they can on their own.
"Even standing back and supervising them making toast or letting them buy a pint of milk can give them confidence."
'We were all whooping and laughing and waving. It had me in fits of laughter'
Barnardo's run 371 UK projects and help more than 120,000 young people a year. To donate call 0800 027 3439 or www.barnardos.org.uk
ONE OF THE GANG: Brenda with the children from Caern House, above, including Michael and Andrew, main pic' SUPPORT ACT: from famous Brenda