Independent September 27, 2001
Claire Sweeney: From Big Brother to better things
As Lindsey Corkhill in Brookside, she was kidnapped, raped and blown up. But, she tells Brian Viner, it was only when she emerged from the Big Brother house that she found herself a fully fledged star
27 September 2001
At the 1999 Bafta awards, Brookside actress Claire Sweeney found herself at a table with a woman she vaguely recognised and a man she didn't know from Adam (we'll come to Adam later). A gregarious soul, Sweeney fell into conversation with them. And then it clicked. "I said, 'You're Emma Freud, aren't you?' And he was Richard Curtis." Sweeney, born and bred in the Liverpool district of Walton, pronounces Curtis in pure Scouse: "Care-tiss".
It was an encounter destined to propel her from modest celebrity into the searchlight beam of the tabloid press. Because some months later, the Baftas natter just a dim memory, Sweeney was surprised to get a call from the people at Brookside, saying that Curtis had been in touch. Would she be prepared to spend a week in isolation on Celebrity Big Brother, a wheeze that had been dreamt up for Comic Relief?
"I went in quite light-hearted about it," she recalls. "I thought it would just be a bit of fun. But my mum came down to see me off, and she said, 'I don't think you should do it. It's going to be really big, you know, Claire. And what if they don't like you? You're not a toughie and I don't think you could cope if they turn on you.' That's when I got a bit scared. Because my mum's really grounded, and spot-on with her advice."
As it turned out, the public liked Sweeney very much, reserving its venom for her housemates Anthea Turner and Vanessa Feltz. But Mum was right. Celebrity Big Brother was a huge hit; Sweeney went into the house a soap actress and emerged a star, with all the attendant hassles. Tabloid attention embraced her family back in Walton – her mother, brother and stepfather, whom she has known as "Dad" since she was six. "I haven't seen my real father for years," she says, fleetingly sombre. "I don't really know him."
Despite the popularity of Brookside, the family was not used to reporters on the doorstep. "My mum said, 'What are we, the Von Trapps?' when people went to interview her. My [step]dad went to jail last year, and I think she was worried that it would all get raked up again. He went to France, bought some cigarettes, and sold them in England. It wasn't murder, it wasn't drugs, it was nothing terrible. And it had already come out in the [Liverpool] Echo. But I was maybe a bit naive. Part of me was thinking that it might not come out again, but of course it did. It was all right, though. My dad's fine."
On the whole, she says, the tabloid beast has been kind to her. All the same, the greatly magnified interest took her by surprise. "You know I told Anthea that cockatoo joke," she says, referring to a faintly obscene gag which, no doubt reflecting the times in which we live, seemed to turn her briefly into the nation's sweetheart rather as "The White Cliffs of Dover" did Vera Lynn.
"Well, when I came out everyone was talking about it. I couldn't believe it. And when I first went out with Adam (her reported squeeze Adam Kenwright, the impresario nephew of impresario Bill Kenwright), all we did was have a nice meal, good night and God bless, and it was in the papers the next day."
Such are the pitfalls of celebrity. I tell Sweeney a story told to me by John Lithgow, the American actor from the sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, who stopped at a petrol station in Los Angeles, bought a fizzy drink, and got home 15 minutes later to find news of the transaction on the internet. "Really?" she says. "Wow."
We pause to order lunch. Sweeney chooses chicken with aioli. "But I don't want the allee-olee," she tells the waitress. "It's very garlicky, the allee-olee, isn't it?" We are on the terrace of a swish London restaurant, ostensibly to publicise Challenge of a Lifetime, ITV's new show for Saturday evenings, which Sweeney will present. The show presents contestants with challenges which, if they bottle out, Sweeney herself must complete. "And it's not as if I'm a daredevil," she says. "I did, like, paraglide halfway down an Alp to promote the show, but I would never go on an action holiday."
Nevertheless, a prime-time presenting gig is the fulfilment of a long-held ambition. "And I always wanted to do a show in the West End. And that looks like happening, too." The show is Chicago, the part man-eating Roxie. It is rather hard to picture Sweeney, irrepressibly cheerful and irrepressibly Liverpudlian, as an American vamp, but then she is nothing if not versatile. "The King and I approached me, too," she says. Not to play the buttoned-up governess, surely? "Mrs Sticky-out Frock, yeah," she shrieks, and turns the heads of buttoned-up businessmen on nearby tables by singing "Shall we dance?"
Sweeney has been singing and dancing since she was 10, when her mum offered her a choice between horse-riding or dance classes. She picked the latter – "which was just as well, because I later found out I was allergic to horses" – and wound up as North-West Disco-Dancing champion. "I used to do the pubs and clubs in Liverpool, and I had this singing teacher who used to insist on some sort of classical piece in the middle, so one night I was in this place singing the 'Nuns' Chorus' when this fella stood up, went 'aaargh', and then collapsed on the floor. I thought that he was drunk and just carried on singing, while the audience passed him over their heads, and propped him up at the back. He just sat there while I finished the song. And he was dead. He'd had a heart attack. Unbelievable. But it helps you deal with people, that."
After four years with a cruise ship entertainment corps, taking Oklahoma! to Gdansk, Sweeney returned to Liverpool and joined Brookside as Lindsey Corkhill who, in the honourable tradition of anyone who has spent ages in Brookie, has been raped, blown up, kidnapped by gangsters, imprisoned in Bangkok, worked in a chippie and become a lesbian. Next month, however, Lindsey is leaving Brookside Close so that her alter ego can concentrate on a new career. So what, I ask, does 30-year-old Sweeney see herself doing in 10 years time?
"Still presenting, and every now and then doing a nice musical, like Blood Brothers... and married with two kids, a boy and a girl, and the girl will be called Ava... I've always loved Ava Gardner."
She is unashamedly devoted to the golden oldies. Another moment that really brought home her post-Celebrity Big Brother celebrity, she says, was when she found herself on stage at the Royal Albert Hall for a gala concert to celebrate the Duke of Edinburgh's 80th birthday, alongside her idol Shirley Bassey. "I looked at my mum and dad in the audience and I got all choked," she says. Bless.
"And I went all the way to New York just to see Barbra Streisand at Madison Square Garden. At first I thought, 'I can't pay that much for a ticket,' and then I thought, 'yeah, I can'. I also went to New York just to see Liza Minnelli in Victor Victoria, although she was dreadful. She checked into the Betty Ford the next day."
Sweeney, I feel sure, will never succumb, as Minnelli has done, to the hazards of fame (albeit lesser) and fortune (albeit smaller). She is, and will forever be, a product of her working-class Walton background – down-to-earth, gregarious, funny, and as far as is possible in showbiz, without an inflated ego. Unlike many rising stars, she makes time to natter. Indeed, my allotted hour is over and she has long since finished her chicken, sans "allee-olee", but we sit for ages discussing the football team we both support, Everton FC, and listing our five favourite films. Hers are defiantly non-cerebral. "My all-time favourite is The Way We Were, Barbra Streisand," she says. "Then I'd have The Wizard of Oz, From Here To Eternity, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which always makes me howl laughing, and The Sound of Music... just for the sheer, the sheer doh-re-mi of it."
I ask, finally, whether she will ever forsake her native Liverpool to live in London? "I'll always keep my flat in Liverpool," she says. "It would be nice to have a place in London, too, but you know, my friends and me still get dead excited before a night out in London, and we get all dolled up, and halfway through the night we look at each other and say, 'we have a better time back in Liverpool, don't we?'"
'Challenge of a Lifetime' starts on 6 October on ITV