Claire’s in with a Shout!

Jo Green From Brookside Close to the bright lights of the West End, Claire Sweeney’s rise to fame has seen her transformed from Scouse sweetheart to singing sensation, appearing in Shout! at Norwich Theatre Royal. It’s been a phenomenal few years and she’s still loving every minute of it, she tells Jo Green.

Jo Green

It's not often you find a celebrity whose worst sin, so it seems, is that they prefer not to scratch other people's eyes out as they claw their way up the showbusiness ladder. Yet in Claire Sweeney's case, the worst the celebrity press can say about her is that she hasn't been pushy enough to elbow her way to the top of her profession.

In 2001, fresh from success in Celebrity Big Brother, the showbiz world was at her feet and, like many before her, Claire was expected to take full advantage of it.

For a while - in tabloid terms - she did. Her singing talent saw her clinch a coveted role as Roxie Hart in Chicago, taking over from that other TV golden girl Denise Van Outen. She released an album, presented several prime-time TV series and appeared in big shows like Strictly Come Dancing.

But then she didn't waltz off to Hollywood a la Martine McCutcheon or start dating ageing Hollywood stars and B-list celebrities. Soon the pages of Hello magazine were filled by younger, prettier Brookside stars, while an unrepentant Claire rolled up her sleeves and got on with doing pantomimes, musicals and the sort of TV work she enjoys and which she continues to do today.

Unambitious, too nice for showbusiness?

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No chance, she says, with that distinctive Liverpool laugh.

“Look, all that stuff was great, it gave me the chance to do the sort of work I'd dreamed of but I was never interested in five minutes of fame, I'm in this for the long term,” she says, matter-of-factly.

“I look at Su Pollard, who's starring with me in my latest show, and I mean she's 58 and she's fantastic, still going strong with boundless energy and enthusiasm. The people I respect are people like Cliff Richard, who've been working all their lives and doing great work.

“That's what I want. It's a sign of the times that people today expect everything now, they send texts and expect everything to happen immediately. But it doesn't work like that. I'm doing the sort of work I love and I'm proud of that. If I can keep going as long as Su and enjoy longevity like she has I'll be happy.”

It's that sort of down-to-earth approach that has made 36-year-old Claire so popular with the public. As Brookside's Lindsey Corkhill she combined girl-next-door charm with the sort of glamour anyone could get at Top Shop. Her character wasn't exactly a laugh a minute - during her time on the show she was raped, kidnapped and eventually, after more than her fair share of rocky straight relationships, became a lesbian.

But in 2001, she got the chance to reinvent herself when she appeared on Channel 4's Celebrity Big Brother. It was a life-changing moment. The real Claire Sweeney, it turned out, was just as sweet and charming as she appeared, with enough self-deprecation and wit to add a bit of spice. Fellow contestants Anthea Turner and Vanessa Felt, both of whom enjoyed minor breakdowns on the show, mooned about like a pair of mascara-smudged giant pandas, emphasising her prettiness and normality. She emerged from the house in second place but in truth was the show's biggest winner. She was officially the nation's darling and the work offers flooded in.

This month she's appearing at Norwich's Theatre Royal in a new musical Shout, a bright and breezy tale of four young girls, experiencing life and love in London's swinging sixties. The show is packed with hits from stars like Lulu, Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark. After it hits the West End it will move to Las Vegas.

“It's really good fun, the songs are fantastic and the show itself is a feel-good show, everyone joins in with the music. It's great to perform songs that are such a joy for singers and when we finish you're always on a high because its such fun to do.

“The part I play, Ruby, she's a girl who always ends up with the wrong guy although eventually she does find love, with a Spanish waiter!”

No stranger to East Anglia, having worked here many times before, Claire will be staying in Newmarket during the show's run.

“I have friend who's a racehorse trainer and I'm going to see him and stay in a local hotel,” she explains. “I know it well, it's nice to be back.

“Yesterday I was in Liverpool doing a radio show with Dean Sullivan (who played her dad Jimmy Corkhill in Brookside); I still keep in touch with the other Brookside actors.

“Its ironic really, I fell into television and got the part of Lindsey by accident but people still remember me for it and that's fine, I'm proud of it. And I go back to Liverpool whenever I can. It's really different now, you should see the work they've done with regeneration, the whole place has a real buzz about it.”

Ringo Starr, I say, said something similar when he visited Liverpool a few weeks ago - but at the mention of the former Beatle, the atmosphere changes.

Claire, so bright and breezy, is bristling.

“Yeah, well I don't think he's very popular right now back home. He said some terrible things when he was on the Jonathan Ross show and upset a lot of people,” she says through clenched teeth.

You're lucky you've never made the same mistake, I say, hoping to lighten the mood.

“I would never, never,” she says, icily. “I wouldn't dream of it.”

So, with so much behind her, and hopefully a long career ahead, is there any ambition the unstoppable Claire Sweeney has yet to achieve? Her goal, she says, was always to do what she does now. Screen and stagework and singing, although she hasn't yet found Mr Right and settled into a role as a wife and mother, who knows what's around the corner.

“There is one person I haven't met yet who I've always wanted to,” she says suddenly.

“I was a huge Wham fan when I was younger, so George Michael would be it for me. That would be brilliant.”

Perhaps when Shout goes to Las Vegas, I suggest. George, if you're reading this, go book yourself a ticket.

t Shout - The Musical is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, Monday March 10 to Saturday March 15. To book tickets telephone 01603 630000 or log on to see www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

FACTFILE

t Born April 17, 1971, in Walton, Liverpool. Her interest in dance and singing from an early age was encouraged by her family - mother Kathleen, father Ken and brother Shaun - and she trained at the Elliott-Clarke Stage School, Liverpool, and Italia Conti Academy, London. She worked in entertainment and cabaret before landing the then tiny role of Lindsey Corkhill in Brookside in 1991. After a few brief appearances she left to work as a singer on cruise ships before returning home in 1995 to reprise the role of Lindsey as a main character and play a leading part in the soap until its demise in 2003. During her stint with Brookside her character enjoyed an affair with a neighbour, was jailed in Bangkok on a drugs charge, taken hostage by a gangster, remarried and divorced and, opened a nightclub that was bombed.

t Big Brother: Claire's appearance on the first Celebrity Big Brother, in aid of Comic Relief, catapulted her to celebrity status. Appearing alongside Anthea Turner and Vanessa Feltz, both of whom went into a very public meltdown on screen, she appeared fresh as a daisy and thanks to some down-to-earth banter, a slightly lewd joke and the discovery that underneath the tracksuits of her Brookside character she had a fantastic figure, she was declared the nation's sweetheart on her release from the house. She may have come second in the competition but the flood of showbiz offers that awaited her return to the outside world marked her out as the clear winner in the celebrity fame stakes.

t Chicago: In December 2001 she began a stint in London's West End playing Roxie Hart in the hit stage show Chicago, taking over from Denise Van Outen. Her singing talents were already on record - she won celebrity Stars In Their Eyes as Celine Dion - and in 2002 she capitalised on her new career by releasing a self-titled album of classic songs that made the Top 20. Other stage roles followed, including the lead in Fosse, stints in pantomime and in 2006 the role of Miss Adelaide in the West End production of Guys and Dolls, starring alongside Hollywood star Patrick Swayze.

t Strictly Come Dancing: Claire danced her socks off in the original series of the TV show, wowing the judges with her spangly frocks. Although she failed to reach the final, her TV career continued to thrive and she currently appears on ITV's Loose Women as a regular presenter. For a time she was officially Force's Sweetheart, boosting troop morale with visits to Afghanistan and in 2001 she won the coveted accolade of Rear of the Year. Her latest stage role in the musical Shout sees her tour the UK before finishing the show's run in Las Vegas. t