Denise Black on growing up in Emsworth
PUBLISHED: 11:50 18 May 2015 | UPDATED: 12:43 03 November 2017
With fish and chips in hand, star of stage and screen, Denise Black, tells of her childhood growing up in Emsworth
Denise Black recalls there was no A27 when she was little and living in Bedhampton. Born in Emsworth, the 57 year-old actress has many fond memories of Hampshire: “We could walk from our house through the fields and onto the marshes back then. We played there for hours. I had a den – an old war look out. “When not playing by the water, we’d be on the water. Dad built a little 19-foot wooden motorboat. He’d cut out the engine and we’d fish as we drifted. Watch birds. Swim. Camp out for the night. Langstone Harbour and Chichester Harbour were the backdrop of my childhood. On special nights out mum and dad would buy fish and chips and we’d eat them in the car up on the Downs, looking over the twinkling Portsmouth lights. I love that view. We called it ‘Fish and Chip Hill’.”
Born to perform
Thinking back, all the signs were there that Denise would be a performer, and she firmly believes that “acting chooses people rather than the other way around.” She was a big fan of dancing to whatever music was playing when she was young – even as a toddler in a high chair: “All in all I found it pretty impossible to sit still,” she laughs.
The only person in the family with what Denise would call ‘theatrical tendencies’ was her Aunty Lily, “but she was deemed very selfish and not approved of”. The idea of a career in acting was very much frowned upon: “When my friend next door announced to her parents she wanted to be an actress she was told in no uncertain terms that they absolutely forbade it. I overheard my parents approving of their decision, so I never even entertained the thought that I might become one.
“The arts were a kind of life that other people lived. They were considered a ‘different kind of people’, a ‘foreign breed’, not altogether proper. In fact actresses and impropriety went pretty much hand in hand. For years I accepted this and tried to fit in. Only as a young adult did the idea of becoming an actress finally burst out of me fully formed, and that was that. My mind was set.”
Denise went to a Girls Public Day School Trust in Portsmouth and was soon singled out not only because of her inability to keep still, as she explains: “I was taken aside for extra speech training at the tender age of six because it was deemed I was ‘too loud’. And so I joined the sibilant s’s and the wet r’s with Miss Sturgess the drama teacher. I got to miss math, so it wasn’t all bad.”
After five years of reciting poetry in a whisper Miss Sturgess gave Denise the part of town crier in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’: “I remember my lines: ‘Oyez oyez! Make way for the Emperor! He is about to set forth from the palace and he expects you to admire his new clothes!’
“Actually I remember I was pretty miffed because that was pretty much my only line. But I had a ball, and so an actress was born, albeit a loud one,” she smirks.
Making the cut
Denise’s catalogue of roles both onscreen and on the stage is a lengthy one, with most of us remembering her as ‘siren’ hairdresser Denise Osbourne in Corrie, Denny’s mad mother in Bad Girls or perhaps Hazel in Queer as Folk. Her first ever screen role however was in Casualty, as a street hooker with a bite on her thigh. All the memorable characters in various television series are easily matched when you look down the list of her theatre credits. In fact, she lists two of her theatre roles as being pivotal in her career: “Yerma in Lorca’s play of the same name and Mary in ‘The Long Road’ – a new play by Shelagh Stephenson. On television, my favourite has to be Hazel, in ‘Queer As Folk’.”
“When you play a character you learn so much,” explains Denise. “You draw from your own experience, but where you lack the relevant knowledge - you research and borrow from others. You are eternally indebted to writers who write well and give you scope to learn something really valuable.
“Yerma is desperate for a child, I mean desperate. And it destroys her. She cannot love her husband and ends up killing him. I don’t know anything about that personally, but I can identify about yearning for something and how if left unharnessed it can eat you up. I was able to use that lesson when playing Mary in ‘The Long Road’. Her son had been senselessly stabbed to death and she is incandescent with rage. ‘The Long Road’ is Mary’s journey to harnessing that rage so it doesn’t destroy her.
“And finally Hazel. What can I say? Playing Hazel made me happy, very, very happy. It’s that simple. She was a perfect fit and I loved her. I always will.”
Denise’s love for Hazel clearly hasn’t diminished over the years, and those of us who saw the recent series ‘Cucumber’ on Channel 4 will have noticed her welcome return to the screen. Denise explains how it all came about: “Russell T Davies (RTD) emailed me to say he had written Hazel a brief but pivotal scene in his new series. I was filming in Benidorm at the time. He said people had told him to write Hazel into Cucumber but he was dead against it. But episode six didn’t follow the serialisation of the story. It was a one off, and RTD was writing Lance at a defining crossroads in life, when he found himself writing in dead Hazel. Lance sees a Hazel doppelganger in his final dying moment – so did Lance maybe just imagine her? Russell wanted Hazel at her most real. He said he liked to think there was someone like her there for all those lost boys. It is a spine-chilling scene. We agreed that we wouldn’t let anyone know; I kept it quiet right up until the week of transmission. Then the cat got out the bag.”
Denise has become a familiar face on our television screens, as well as at theatres across the UK, including here in Hampshire. She admits she wouldn’t have a preference if she was faced with a choice between stage and screen, but you can read between the lines: “Stage is magic because the audience is with you, and they feed into the event, making it a different show every night. Laughs flood over you like a wave, and spur you on.”
However she doesn’t need an excuse to come home to Hampshire: “I’m back here all the time. My family is in Portsmouth – Don my dad and my sister Carol. Driving along the A27 from my home in Brighton is one of my great joys. The sounds, the Downs, the light, the sea, the clouds and plane tracks though the sky…it feels like I never left.”
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