Natalie Gavin

Exclusive interview with actress Natalie Gavin

by Karen Shaw

With her fiery red hair, Yorkshire accent and an expressive face that can switch in an instant from winsome to damn-you defiance, Natalie Gavin is an actress in demand.

Seen on TV in series including Channel 4’s low-life comedy Shameless, BBC’s Prisoners’ Wives, BBC’s The Syndicate (written by Kay Mellor) about lottery winners in conflict, and ITV’s Jericho about labourers on the Settle-Carlisle railway, Natalie has also starred in the films The Arbor, about the life of Andrea Dunbar, the writer of Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

Her work frequently takes her to London, but she’s a down-to-earth woman who remains passionate about the North. Home is now Denholme, near Bradford, but she will always be associated with the Buttershaw Estate, which featured prominently in Rita, Sue and Bob Too before she was born.

Natalie GavinAs a child Natalie grew up a stone’s throw away from Buttershaw and moved to Denholme as a teenager, “I love living here, there’s a gate that separates our patch of garden from the Yorkshire Moors, and there’s an abundance of beautiful purple heather and lavender, it’s stunning. I went blueberry and blackberry picking the other day and made fruit juice.

“You can’t get it any better. The air is so fresh and clean. I’ve learned to love London over the years though I must admit at first I didn’t feel like I belonged. I felt like I was a bit of an alien, but once I met a really good group of people there they showed me all the secret little pockets of London and I realised that in parts it’s pretty cool. Once I’d got my head around it and understood it because it’s a different world.

At 27, Natalie has become the youngest patron of the Square Chapel Arts Centre at Halifax, joining the likes of Timothy West, George Costigan and Sally Wainwright.

“I love it. I’m still sort of getting my head around the things I need to do because I’ve never been a patron before. I genuinely love the place especially the new build as well. It’s stunning and it’s fascinating to see people walk in and go ‘Oh my god, this has been here for years’ and they never knew.

“We’ve just opened up, and people are coming in floods. I keep popping down and having my lunch there and it’s just heaving which is so pleasing because the amount of effort and work that goes into that place is phenomenal.”

Natalie is performing at the Square Chapel on November 9 in Shirley, Andrea Dunbar’s last play, a snapshot of life in the working class council houses of 1980s Bradford.

Natalie Gavin in The Arbor

Natalie starring in The Arbor, about the life of writer Andrea Dunbar

“Shirley…has a real place in my heart, as well as Andrea Dunbar. I’m so lucky to present her work because I did The Arbor and that went global. That became so successful, and rightly so.”

Natalie feels close connections with Andrea Dunbar, who died tragically young, one of which is the dyslexia they share. However, she refrains from discussing dyslexia “or I’ll go off on one. No, rein me in!

“I’ve learned to love London over the years though I must admit at first I didn’t feel like I belonged”

“When I was cast as ‘The Girl’ – (Andrea Dunbar) in The Arbor, I studied her work and went to the school she went to. My dad worked very closely alongside her dad. My dad is a builder and he’s got a picture of Andrea’s dad shovelling whatever he’s shovelling alongside my dad.

“My dad’s Irish and he came over here when he was 16. He first moved to Birmingham then he moved on to Brafferton Arbour, which is The Arbor. My dad knew Andrea Dunbar and used to drink in The Beacon, so I’d heard stories, you know, but obviously there’s the classic Rita, Sue and Bob Too which is still today my favourite film. It’s real. It’s comical. It highlights so many subjects that are controversial.

“The way it’s displayed is light and humorous but also dark. It was ground breaking back then and I know it upset a lot of residents of Buttershaw but I think the reason why is because they were looking in the mirror.”

Does Natalie think she’d have enjoyed going out for a beer with Andrea?

“Yes. My Dad said I would have definitely got on with her. I wish I’d have met her. I really do feel like I’ve become someone successful in my career because of her. The Arbor really put me up there on the ladder and people still recognise me because of it. Sometimes if I’m walking around that area I’ll get ‘Ey up, it’s that lass from the telly’. I feel really comfortable in that area. I’ve never felt uncomfortable I’ve always felt like I can just get on with it round there.”

Did Natalie have any hesitations about taking on such a sensitive role, playing Andrea Dunbar?

“Oh god, yes, especially still living where I live and being surrounded by her family. But they were really welcoming and warm towards me.”

And did her opinion of Andrea change after playing her?

“I remember feeling quite protective of her. As an actor it’s important to find some find of empathy or likeness to the character you’re playing. I’ve played a drug dealer, a druggie mum and even a murderer, but I always feel like I have to find the core reason for what and why it is they do what they do and Andrea was a pure survivor. She had bravery and to be able to produce the work she produced in the circumstances she was under is off the scale.”

Natalie was especially pleased when Andrea’s youngest daughter Lisa (who Northern Life featured in the last edition) told her: “My mum would have enjoyed your performance. She would have been so proud of you.”

Natalie recently met Lisa again at a Square Chapel event where writer Adelle Stripe was talking about her book ‘Black Teeth and Brilliant Smile’ about Andrea Dunbar’s life. She didn’t know that Lisa was suffering from terminal cancer.

“My accent has helped the way my career has gone with the class of people I represent”

“I’d not seen Lisa for so long and she looked very pale, I popped over and asked: ‘Are you alright Lisa?’ and she said: ‘I’m dying. I don’t have long to live. I’m not having chemo. What will be, will be.’ I was bowled over. She’s exactly like her mum. Say it how it is, no messing about.”

After playing characters from the darker side, Natalie enjoyed appearing in GB Shaw’s Pygmalion at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, earlier this year. She was playing Eliza Doolittle…with a Yorkshire accent! In fact, accents fascinate her, not just from an actor’s point of view, but from the way people tend to be classified by their accents, especially Northern.

But can she speak posh? “Yes, I can. It took some doing but I love acting and I find myself listening to someone or watching them, then repeating different vowel sounds. I am fascinated by it.”

“My accent has helped the way my career has gone with the class of people I represent. I feel like there’s a particular voice that is attached to those people and I’m happy to represent them, because as an actor it’s gold. I love my accent.”