By Katherine Hassell
Catherine Russell (51) hasn’t had much to smile about of late as consultant general surgeon Serena Campbell in Holby City. Overwhelmed with anger and sorrow after her daughter’s death, the medic is understandably struggling to put one foot in front of the other. Portraying that grief has been challenging for the actress.
“I’ve a daughter of a not dissimilar age and a son of pretty much the same age, so trying to put yourself in that position was upsetting,” she admits.
Some light relief, then, is just what the doctor ordered. It comes courtesy of a short sabbatical from the hospital drama to star as Mrs Prentice in Joe Orton’s classic farce What the Butler Saw on the 50th anniversary of the playwright’s passing.
“I’ve been at Holby for five years and it’s the most delightful, friendly and cosy place to work, but I didn’t become an actress to play one part. I thought I should frighten myself again,” Catherine says of her decision to return to the stage.
Offered more serious plays, she said no. “I just wanted to make people laugh again,” she admits. “It’s such a drug, hearing an audience laugh. Then, What the Butler Saw came along. I thought: ‘Can we really do this now?’ It’s so subversive, so brutal, not for the faint-hearted or the PC Brigade. By the third read, I thought: ‘This is not just hilarious, but a work of genius. I’m desperate to do it.’”
Action takes place in the clinic of psychiatrist Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound). Catherine plays his alcoholic nymphomaniac wife. Characters infinitely madder than those seeking treatment. “It’s a very dysfunctional marriage,” says Catherine.
“Both have sexual escapades away from each other. The play opens with him interviewing a secretary and persuading her to take off her clothes as he needs to examine she’s fit for the job. The whole thing crumbles into a delicious mess.”
Catherine’s no stranger to comedy classics. Her father, Nicholas Smith, was Mr Rumbold in Are You Being Served? “I’m one of few people that can claim I saw every episode filmed,” she says. “When it became Grace and Favour, I saw all of those filmed, too. You couldn’t go outside without people coming up or shouting: ‘Oy, Jug Ears!’” And, she adds, although they never acted together professionally, she always ran lines with Dad. “I played Mrs Slocombe in the sitting room…”
After toying with thoughts of becoming a bareback rider in the circus or a mounted police officer, Catherine – especially bewitched by theatre – declared she wanted to act aged eight. “I remember seeing Dorothy Tutin in a play with my father and thinking: ‘Gosh, look at that incredibly tall, slim, elegant young woman.’ Backstage, I was introduced to a rather short, dumpy, middle-aged woman,” she laughs. “I thought: ‘That’s magic! I really want a piece of that, please.”
Catherine’s since starred in TV hits Chandler & Co, Always & Everyone, The Cazalets and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, movies such as Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and critically-acclaimed theatre including Chekhov’s Three Sisters and musical Mamma Mia!
Her children, with film producer husband Richard Holmes, follow in family footsteps. Son Sam, 27, is a comedian/compere, while Poppy, 19, “sings like an angel and is a far better actor than I was at that age.”
Most recently, Catherine’s had Holby and the “will they, won’t they” love affair between Serena and her friend/colleague Bernie Wolfe (Jemma Redgrave). Catherine and Jemma have been “surprised and delighted” by the “phenomenal and incredibly supportive” response to the relationship.
“We just wanted to show two grown-up, intelligent, fun-loving women who’ve fallen in love. It’s irrelevant what gender they are. The phrase ‘love is love’ is absolutely true.”
Her packed postbag has seen letters from viewers aged 12 to 70-something. “I’ve been surprised by how many young women have got in touch and slightly disappointed to see they’re still struggling and still have families who aren’t supportive. I thought in this day and age we’d got over ourselves,” Catherine sighs. “People are saying how important it is to have representation on screen because it’s so rare. It’s also incredibly rare to have two women of a certain age.
“It’s very important to turn on the television and see yourself,” she stresses. “As I’m getting older, I’m seeing less of me on television. I know that feels strange. So to see yourself hardly being represented at all must be dispiriting and peculiar.”
- Catherine is in What the Butler Saw at Leicester’s Curve Theatre (3-18 March) and Theatre Royal Bath (27 March-1 April). Visit www.curveonline.co.uk for details.
- She stars in Holby City on BBC1 on Tuesdays at 8pm.