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Weekend: Sud's law The diary of a soap star Just what the Doctors ordered.

Byline: Maggie Cronin

Birmingham's own day-time soap, Doctors, is back for a new series on Monday, and this time it's going all year round. With its own permanent set at BBC Pebble Mill, the two-year-old soap is growing more popular by the month and regularly attracts top-name stars for guest appearances - from glamorous Stefanie Powers to musicals star Darren Day. Here, Belfast-born actress Maggie Cronin, who has played one of the lead roles as practice manager Kate McGuire since the show began, records her reflections and behind-the-scenes observations as she rehearses for the new series

It's minutes before curtain-up on the opening night of the play.

All around me, other actors are embarking on the rituals of making-up, dressing, handing out first-night cards and witty pressies, whilst eagerly discussing the beautiful clarity of the French text.

Gradually a sickening feeling makes its presence felt in the pit of my stomach. I don't have the faintest idea of who I am, or what I am supposed to say for the next two hours on stage.

I knew it all perfectly the day before, in fact luxuriated in complacency. Now, every word has fled.

Amidst the hubbub, I stare into my dressing-room mirror, willing the first line to make itself known to me again.

The beginners' call has been given. I make my way to the wings. The audience is eager, expectant. One can smell the backstage adrenaline, that high, sweet smell of sheer terror and excitement.

In the backstage gloom, a little voice whispers, accusingly: 'Maggie, I've walked the feet off me to find you a pair of size-eight shoes, and there's not a single one in the shops. You'll have to wear these.'

The wardrobe mistress proffers a pair of plastic bags, and elastic bands. Punished for my (extreme) pedal extremities and my amnesia. It's too unfair!

Then - I wake up, dry-mouthed and sweating. Slowly, it dawns on me that I don't have a show that night (this type of dream tends to occur weeks, maybe years after a play has finished its run). The relief! I've lived to perform another day. They haven't found me out. Yet.

In my board-treading days (cue actor luvvie, cravat moment), this was my regular panic dream. The fear of forgetting is all-powerful and deeply rooted in most actors - and nearly as bad as the fear of being forgotten.

People think that an actor's best asset is his or her beauty, or athleticism, or charisma. It ain't. It's the memory, and the ability to learn fast and retain faster, especially in these days of rapidturnaround TV.

The people pushing the herbal memory drug Gingko Biloba could quadruple their fortunes if they peddled their wares on the corners of West End theatres, or if they hung around Pebble Mill or the Pinewood and Elstree lots. I can picture the scene now. Legions of desperate actors, standing in line, waiting to score, waiting for their man. All to keep those elusive memory cells fed and primed. Ready for another day's action...

On Doctors there are days when one just sails by. The lines don't seem to be too difficult and the effort of recalling them is no effort at all. Other days, it's sheer hell. These are the days when you wish the words would just go in by osmosis - and I squirm in embarrassment as some of my more diligent colleagues have to listen to my approximations and witterings.

'I knew it backwards last night,' you squeak. But that's of no use now, or then. And the shame of getting it wrong in front of guest artists!

'But you've so many scripts to learn,' they soothe. You know that they are inwardly thinking: 'How on Earth did she get the job?'.

Well, you think you know that. Yes, it's a lonely feeling, when the lines don't flow. The game is up, you've been rumbled. You mouth your lines like a fish as a clarion voice prompts, (that'll be the continuity person) clearly, carefully. Correcting every line. Sometimes every word. And reminding you of your actions.

'No, Maggie you scratched your nose with the left hand whilst taking a sip of coffee and laughing playfully on the third line.' (Why oh why did I make it so complicated? Everybody knows that the most mundane action in the world takes on the critical precision of brain surgery in front of the camera).

This analysis of your shortcomings is very public. It happens in front of the cast, crew, director. Maybe even the producer. You want to fall to your knees in apology, but nobody acknowledges you directly. They know their lines. The pity in their gaze is tempered with a mixture of irritation, smugness and relief. Relief it isn't them. You hold everything up. You want to go home. You want to punch the prompter. The minutes tick by... time is money... is money... is money...

What does any actor worth their salt do in these moments of high tension? Some do indeed offer humble apologies all round, or try to defuse the situation with a joke. Some try extra hard, listening carefully, nodding humbly in acknowledgement of their failings, thanking all and sundry fulsomely for every correction uttered.

Others are more bullish, blaming the script for their dilemma.

'Well, the way it's written, darling, doesn't make sense.'

But the most popular stratagem is to swear. Loudly. Some are more prone to swearing than others. (Mea culpa). (You too, Miss Wicks).

I apologise profusely to all of those who have listened to my profanities on set over the past two years. I have tried to avoid the easily-offended and the tender ears of children. But you know, apart from the cathartic release of a jolly good eff and blind, there is also the perverse relief that some words never desert you. And for that we must give thanks. Gingko Biloba, my @*pounds !

A typical day... I've been racking my brains for diary pieces for the last few weeks, and butterfly-minded as I am, I seem to have come up with themes and people as the mood struck. A sort of collage that hopefully gives a flavour of what it's like to work in front of and behind the camera at Doctors.

But what would constitute a typical day? Hard to say really. Take today for instance - it's starting at the luxuriously late time of three in the afternoon. But that's because for the last few days we've had night shoots, going on until the early hours. One of the shoots involved a dramatic car crash, an absolute spectacular. The other involved a farm scene and a cow calving. And no, Christopher Timothy was not at the business end of the bovine beauty.

I wordlessly mantra lines for the forthcoming scenes. Or should I just pray? Sally starts to prepare the Polyfilla.

Being made up early in the morning is a bizarre experience.

Years ago I worked as a beauty consultant at Harrod's. (God knows why, I was a lousy saleswoman, and a lousy liar).

At the interview, the manageress reckoned I needed to wear more slap on my face, so I'd scuttle on to the tube every morning, looking for all the world like Coco the Clown's kid sister, and hoping that nobody saw me.

Now, at the crack of dawn every morning, I willingly submit to the tender care of the make-up artists. And they are angels, all of them. Sally's been doing me this week - she's tactful (or a good liar), cheerful and kind, and she tames my hair with a variety of tongs, brushes and brute force.

She gets rid of the shadows under my eyes, and the road-map of lines, and she makes me look, well human, all at an unearthly hour. And she and her colleagues, Trish and Helen, do the work of raising the undead every day.

That's only part of their work. On a series such as Doctors, it's the medical challenges that call upon their artistry. This series - oh, meningitis, eczema, stitches, bruises, sorting out pregnant bumps and inappropriate suntans (but the lights were a bit blue, so it didn't come out as strongly as it could).

They read forthcoming scripts, design the looks required for each character, liaising with our on-set doctor, Adrian, over the gritty details. They get us ready, come on to set, do checks before every take. Sometimes that's just a quick flick of a hairbrush so that the barnet's stayed the same from a minute ago. Or maybe more repair work is required - lipstick and powder reapplied as it all wears off under the lights.

The bottom line is to make sure that each character reveals the personality traits or medical conditions needed in each episode. Tattoos? No problem. Red eyes after tears? A breeze. Tears themselves, even, if an actor can't, or won't oblige. Of course, I produce all my own tears, darling. And thinking about the day ahead, I could weep already. More polystyrene coffee, methinks.

So any way, at three, the runner/driver picks me up for the wardrobe and make-up call. A little wait in the green room, and then we are transported to location: Kate and Mac's house. This is a real home and we are filming several scenes from two episodes today.

For one episode, Kate will be ironing work clothes and minding baby Ciaron, whilst chatting to her stepson.

Baby Matthew, who plays Ciaron, is on hand to be whisked into the scene at the last minute, after a quick rehearsal and last-minute checks. Fingers are crossed that he stays contented, and today, he does. The iron's switched on, the camera and lighting people are happy and we're ready to go. So far, so good.

Now for a quick scramble out of costume and more make-up checks as we prepare for the scenes in which Kate steals home after an eventful night out. She's so tired and emotional that she can't even fit the key into the lock of her front door. All those years of getting inebriated weren't a waste after all. I feel fairly confident of bringing authenticity to the scenes.

The pace starts to quicken as the deadlines loom. The first assistant director talks timings to the director: 'Only 15 minutes to shoot this.' There are three more scenes to film before the end of the day, including a tiny scene in which Kate has broken down. Time is tight. The director of photography surveys the space (a small bathroom) and decides where the lights should be placed.

John and Andy start rigging and placing what's needed. There's a plethora of cables criss-crossing the floor.

'Mind the cables! Mats down please!'

The sound men (or women) start rehearsing a strange balletic sequence, boom mikes aloft. They are plotting out where to pick up sound and dialogue without being caught by the camera.

'Nah mate, your boom's in shot there... Mark, you're edge-of-frame. Niall, that's safe.'

The crew-speak carries on. Andy Payne the cameraman looks at the mirror, gauging how to see the reflected action without us noticing a camera. Oh, the shades of subtlety that go into making a drama!

The director, continuity person and other assorted members of the crew huddle round the monitor in another room. This will give a semblance of what the viewing audience will finally see. The sound supervisor has headphones on, and several messages seem to be going through earpieces.

A brief rehearsal of the action. The setting-up doesn't abate. Or the banter. The choreography between sound and camera carries on.

'Are we nearly ready?' 'Checks please.'

A quick nod of approval from wardrobe, a deftly-plied lipbrush... or dab of powder.

Then: 'Mark it.' The camera assistant puts the clapper board in front of the camera.

'Scene 38. Take one... And... Action! 'Cut!'

Was it a good scene? Bad scene? Iffy-but-we-have-no-more-time scene? (Make time!) Will we have to 'Go again'? Is the actor unhappy? And is it relevant that the actor is unhappy? (No, not a bitter cry from the heart, but merely an observation that when you are caught up with the action, you're not always the best judge of your own work). Were there any technical problems - 'boom in' or soft focus? Or, horror, a mobile phone going off midtake? (Extremely rare, admittedly, but it happened today all right. It was mine.) No? Good then, let's move on, out into the cold, to kiss a fellow actor. The crew are wrapped up like Eskimos. In my finery, I'm as good as starkers. A million pounds to the person who invents invisible thermal undergarments!

Finally... it's a wrap! The runner/driver takes us back to Pebble Mill. We divest ourselves of our characters' glad rags, and then we are driven back to our homes, or to the station, by the runners. Ah! The runners... among the first to arrive at work, and the last to leave. Unsung heroes. Where the buck finally stops. Wildly over-educated for their jobs. Shouted at, reprimanded at every turn, doing the menial tasks, trying to do them with a smile. The lowest of the low. And - future executive producers!

Pebble Mill at 2.10pm It's so strange to think that Doctors has been going for just over two years.

It's a little gem that has been going from strength to strength. The latest news is that we will start filming for all-yearround transmission from late 2002. I remember landing in Birmingham from Belfast in January 2000, and the high hopes and nervousness that accompanied everyone's arrival. It's a rare privilege actually to be in at the start of a new series, creating characters from scratch, being part of the first wave.

The opening months of recording prior to transmission felt surreal. Sometimes it seemed that you were going into the studios to put in a day's work whilst some nice people videoed you. The idea that a television audience might actually want to tune in to view the (as yet unnamed) programme seemed unreal. Every now and then a little wave of a panic might go over you - what if people don't like this? What if everything I'm doing is wrong? But by and large, we kept on working in our protective cocoon.

When we first started, we were shown around the surgery set. Built where the old 'Pebble Mill at One' foyer used to be - it was perfect. A slightly scuffed, inner-city surgery with all the authentic dressings and props of a real practice in each consulting room. Even a play area with Wendy house and well-used toys to complete the feel in the waiting room. The set was hailed as a star of the show. And the excitement to set foot on this brand new space! All this for an unseen show! There were cleverly designed 'traps' and false window areas to allow a lot of access for the cameras. 'Noticeboards' would be dismantled to allow the camera to view the action. As the weeks wore on, we became more and more adept at knowing where the cameras were, and how to play our scenes effectively.

We soon became a close-knit group, cast and crew. The advent of Doctors came at a time when Pebble Mill was beginning its process of closure. So it's a bittersweet fact that, as the programme expands, at least old spaces and studios are being given a new lease of life, for the time being. And many of the fantastic original crew are still working there. And believe me, they are fantastic, every single one of them.

I think that there is a Doctors effect when working on the show, because so many people associated with it are so darned nice. It's great when guest artistes say that they've enjoyed working on a particular episode, and want to come back. I feel so lucky that I've worked with two sets of talented regulars who have become dear friends as well as admired work colleagues.

'Excuse me, but...' Akbar Kurtha (Dr Rana Mistrey in the first and second series of Doctors) said: 'You know, life will never be the same after the show goes out.'

It was the mixture of sorrow and world weariness that alarmed me. Well, I had visions of being mobbed in the street. Should I stock up on dark glasses, or was that merely drawing attention to my new-found fame? Wouldn't want to be too vulgar. In the event, I needn't have worried. The first transmission date came and went, and there was no need for any of us to employ a minder. A few days later in Birmingham, however, I got my first 'You're on Doctors aren't you? It's made here isn't it? Nice one'. A handshake, and an embarrassed but floaty feeling. I'd crossed the Rubicon.

Believe me, I was thrilled skinny when I realised that Chris Timothy and Jacqui Leonard were gong to be on the show (although I tried to appear cool about it) but then, the fact that they were work colleagues and just nice, downto-earth people made you forget their famous side until you went out and people stared. Or on one occasion with Chris, at a restaurant, we were videoed whilst we ate. By someone trying very hard to pretend that he wasn't doing it, oh so casually waving the video camera at waist level. Never mind snuff movies, the ultimate in horror is me shovelling duck l'orange at a rate of knots into my mouth.

But it is a perk to be recognised, and even lovelier when people say nice things about the show. One of the loveliest times was when a group of nurses recognised a few of us. They were out letting their hair down and having a great night out by the look of things. They were very complimentaryabout the show. But the very nature of their work makes them true superstars in my eyes. We don't hold a candle to them.

Invariably I am asked 'Are you off the telly?' when I don't have a scrap of make-up on, and my hair looks like a fright wig. Or when I'm buying unhealthily large portions of food at a takeaway. Bizarrely, I was once asked the question whilst being frisked at Birmingham Airport. Hope they didn't mix me up with someone off Crimewatch.

Corrinne, Chris and I were once leaving a Chinese restaurant (I know, more food!). We turned to wave to the proprietor, and the colleague who had joined her ducked down behind the counter, embarrassed to be caught out for looking! I've done similar things. I've grinned inanely at famous actors when working in a coffee shop in London. They must have wondered who the village idiot was by the cappuccino machine. Or worse, I've deliberately ignored them, trying too hard to be casual about their famousness.

Lest you think that I am being a little blas about being recognised, I'd just like to tell you that recently I was tapped on the shoulder in the centre of Birmingham. 'Excuse me,' a nice young girl said, very politely, 'I hope you don't think that I'm being a pain...' (I smiled in a 'Yes it's me, but please don't be afraid to speak' kind of way) 'But could you tell me'... 'Yes?'... 'Where Argos is?' Serves me right.

Of course, for everyone who asks, or who nudges a colleague, there are plenty of people who say 'Oooh no, don't watch daytime TV - I'm out working.' Well, so are we. So, set your timers. Doctors is what videotape was invented for! Better still, throw a sickie and watch the drama unfold as you snuggle up on a sofa under a duvet (nice cup of tea and chocolates optional). When the boss asks what was wrong with you, you can impress him by talking about the nasty condition you saw being carefully healed by one of the staff at Riverside. Oh, and then you can smile at us in that kind of 'Don't I know you from somewhere?' way. Because you will.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 2, 2002
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