Since originally joining Cold Feet initially for one episode, Marji Campi appeared in the show as Barbara Blyth across three series from 2016 to 2020, playing the mother of Fay Ripley’s character Jenny Gifford. Over the years, Marji has had numerous roles which has seen her appear in shows such as Z Cars as BD Girl, Coronation Street as Dulcie Froggatt, Brookside as Jessie and she played Joyce Watson in the comedy series Surgical Spirit across all fifty episodes. Marji also works on the Elsie short film series which so far consists of Jermaine and Elsie, Val and Elsie, and Elsie, written by her co-star Ashley Campbell. Having also worked in theatre, Marji’s stage credits include Shirley Valentine, The Importance of Being Earnest and Arsenic and Old Lace. Answering our questions, Marji talks about playing Barbara in Cold Feet, working on Jermaine and Elsie and her time as Joyce Watson in Surgical Spirit.
What was Barbara like to play in Cold Feet and how was it joining the show in Series 6?
I was cast as Barbara for just one episode in Series 6, but to my great joy was asked back for the next three series. Barbara was a nice character to play, warm and loving to her family and not as ‘dotty’ as her daughter Jenny (Fay Ripley) liked to think!
How did it feel filming your final series in the show and is there anything you miss most about playing the character?
I was very sad when I was told that Barbara was going to die in Series 9, but when I was assured that it was the last series, at least for a few years, I thought it was not a bad way for Barbara to leave.
I said to one of our producers, “if I’ve got to die, could I at least go out dancing?” and she said “funny you should say that” and Barbara did in fact collapse on the dance floor dressed as Boy George at an eighties weekend. My favourite scenes in the whole series, I think, as we got to spend the day dancing, which I love. Barbara died the next day in hospital. I miss Cold Feet a lot. I loved the sparky relationship between Jenny and Barbara, although they became much closer after Jenny’s diagnosis of breast cancer. I miss all the laughs we had in the Gifford house and the camaraderie on the set with fellow actors and the lovely crew. John Thomson kept us amused, as did Fay, and I had a great time.
You filmed an episode of Doctors which aired last year, can you tell us about playing April Lansbury?
I have appeared in four episodes of Doctors over the years, playing a very different sort of character each time. April was a fun one, a rather bohemian ex-art teacher, so I got to wear a colourful kaftan, necklaces and scarf, rather the way I dress anyway sometimes.
It wasn’t much fun lying on cold, damp, gravelly ground at 8am however, after April’s fall off a stool, after which I ended up in hospital – again! I had to be hauled up after each take, (and there were a few), as it was too painful to push myself up with my hands, or even to kneel on the gravel and the days of leaping up from a recumbent position are long gone! Very embarrassing, but, apart from that, I had fun doing it, as I do with every job. I just love working.
You played Elsie in the short film Jermaine and Elsie, can you tell us more about the film?
We have actually made three Elsie films. Jermaine and Elsie, Val and Elsie, and Elsie. One of my favourite parts ever! Elsie is a cantankerous, rather nasty and racist old woman, who, luckily, does show her nicer side eventually. It’s always more fun to play the baddies than the goodies. I think most actors would agree with that.
The scripts were written by the very talented actor and singer Ashley Campbell, who also played Jermaine, Elsie’s carer. Val, another carer, was played by the brilliant Suzy Chard. They were directed by Leon Lopez, an old friend from Brookside. The films are sometimes shown on London Live and Jermaine and Elsie is on Prime. I would love to carry on playing Elsie and live in hope…
Can you tell us about your time playing Jessie in Brookside and what the show was like to film?
I played Jessie for about four-and-a-half years and seemed to spend half my life on the train to and from Liverpool. Soaps are hard work, with twelve-hour days and lots of lines to learn at the same time although, of course, some weeks I was only working for two or three days, or sometimes none at all. It’s very satisfying playing the same character long term in some ways, as it becomes second nature to know how the character will react in any situation. One of my abiding memories is of how cold it was filming in Liverpool at 7am in the middle of winter and, sometimes late at night. Apart from that, I had a good time, as usual. I used to love coming home and finding bulky scripts at the door. Nowadays it’s all done by email and we have to print our own scripts if we want a hard copy. I always do as I like to make notes on the script and one of my favourite things is reading the script and highlighting my lines. Train journeys are great for learning lines and I certainly had plenty of those when I was at Brookside. I made some very good friends like Suzanne Collins and Dean Sullivan and I try to see them if I’m working up in Liverpool or Manchester.
Having played Joyce Watson across all episodes of Surgical Spirit, what did you enjoy most about playing the character and working on the show?
A wonderful job! One of the best. Fifty episodes of fun. I used to come home from rehearsals with my face aching from laughing (Rehearsals! What luxury. We don’t get many of those these days for television work). We rehearsed in London and shot in Manchester, where some of us, myself included, could be very badly behaved, staying up until all hours drinking and gossiping in the bar, often with actors from other shows who were filming in Manchester at the same time. We were always on time and ready for work the next day, of course. I used to love doing scenes with Duncan Preston, who is so tall I’d have to look up a long way, good for smoothing out the wrinkles! It could be very difficult working with Duncan though as it was hard to keep a straight face sometimes. I remember we did several takes of one scene together and, when we finally managed it, we collapsed on the floor in a heap, giggling like a couple of teenagers. The scripts were written mostly by Peter Learmouth who had worked as an operating department assistant and knew all the medical terms and we had a medical advisor, so the operations looked authentic. Very well-written and very funny. Another job where I made lifelong friends and we meet when we can, or did before the nightmare of lockdown.
Do you have any favourite memories from playing Dulcie Froggatt in Coronation Street?
What a name! How could anyone resist playing a character called Dulcie Froggatt? She was an out and out tart, who not only had an affair with Jack Duckworth when he came to clean her windows, but also seduced his son Terry a while later when he was selling dusters door to door. Another really fun part to play. Again, a bit of a baddie rather than a goodie. Dulcie had some really good and ‘naughty’ scenes with Jack and a good fight with Vera at the end and I enjoyed every minute of it.
It can sometimes be a bit intimidating going into a long-running series as a guest artist, but Bill Tarmey (Jack Duckworth) and Liz Dawn (Vera) made me feel very welcome and were great to work with.
Can you tell us about some of the other screen roles you have played which have included Evie Brown in EastEnders, BD Girl in Z Cars and Doreen in Moving On?
Playing Evie Brown in EastEnders was rather more harrowing. I appeared in four episodes and spent three of them dying rather slowly. People often ask what it’s like to play a death scene and it is a bit strange on the first take, but after three or four, it becomes more technical than emotional in my experience. Other actors might disagree, of course. One of the best things about our job is that, at some point in the day we usually have a good laugh, in spite of having to depict really sad, indeed tragic events. I suppose it’s a release from tension as much as finding something very funny.
The BD Girl in Z Cars was another fun job. Nobody seemed to know what BD Girl meant. I think we decided on ‘base to driver’. A lovely cast and another good time, except when I appeared almost straight out of drama school, in a episode of Z Cars as a character with a dodgy boyfriend. It was in the last days of live television and absolutely terrifying! The BD Girl came later when Z Cars was on tape.
Doreen in Moving On was the leader of a spiritualist church who said ‘We always start with a song and tonight we’ve chosen hymn number 17,’ which was Any Dream Will Do from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was quite hard to say with a straight face!
In 2016, you appeared on stage as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, how was this?
I didn’t actually appear on stage. Titania and Oberon’s scenes were shot on film and shown on screen in various locations in Oxford. It was an interesting production, in that the audience followed the actors (or were given instructions) to a different place for each scene. We only did a few of Titania and Oberon’s scenes. The first one was glimpsed on a screen through holes in a garden shed and the last was projected in a church. It was rather dreamlike and strange. All the other actors were giving live performances, so it really separated the fairies from the humans in an interesting way. I thought it was quite a novel idea to have two older actors playing Titania and Oberon (Richard Tate).
What was it like playing Shirley Valentine in Shirley Valentine?
Well, Willie Russell certainly knows how to write for women! It’s a wonderful part, very funny, but also full of humanity and longing. A woman finding her way to independence and freedom from a humdrum life. It’s always easier to learn really well-written scripts and this was not too difficult to learn in spite of it being thirty-six pages of monologue. In the stage production, Shirley gets to play all the different characters, unlike the film version where all the other characters appear. Being on stage alone for over two hours was fine and I loved the challenge of timing the egg and chips to be cooked at just the right moment and playing so many different parts, but the drawback was having nobody else in the cast to ‘play with’ after the show. It can take a long time to come down and relax after a theatre performance and it’s nice to go for a meal or a drink in the bar with fellow actors. I played Shirley three times. The first time in Colchester, which was fine because I often had friends from London in to see the show, but Hull (at Hull Truck) and Frankfurt at the English Speaking Theatre were rather more lonely. Each time I was directed by Graham Watts, a superb director and now a great friend.
Over the years you’ve worked on a number of theatre shows, what are some of your highlights?
Highlights – Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest when I was just starting out. In recent times, Arsenic and Old Lace at Salisbury Playhouse and A Passionate Woman at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, in which I spent the second act sitting on a roof and got to fly off in a hot air balloon. I loved that.
Too many plays to pick out really over the years. Many of them could be said to be highlights (and a good few turkeys) but one big one was working with Theatre at Sea (JW Productions) in the eighties. We were performing on the QE2 and the Canberra, sailing all over the world doing plays for the passengers. The QE2 had a full 550 seater theatre, which was also the cinema. I don’t think I ever went to bed before 3am after dancing every night until the nightclub closed. They weren’t the most memorable plays but it was certainly one of the best jobs of my life and I got to travel and see places I could never have afforded to go to normally.
Where does your love of acting come from and did you always know you wanted it as a career?
I just knew that I wanted to do it the first time I read for a part in a little school play. I think I was eight or nine years old and I’ll never forget that the character was called Ruby. Apart from an uncle who played in a dance band in Liverpool (amateur), nobody else in my family has shown any interest in performing.
Do you have any favourite TV or theatre shows to watch?
Of course I love seeing plays and I’m afraid I judge them these days by whether I’d like to be in them or not. If I think ‘ooh, I want to up there with them doing that’, I think it’s a good play, but if I think ‘ooh, poor souls have to do this eight times a week’, I don’t think it’s a good play. Pretty frivolous of me, I suppose.
I like a wide range of TV programmes as long as they’re well-made. I loved The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, Frasier, which I have watched over and over again, and closer to home, Happy Valley, Line of Duty, Endeavour and, at the moment, The Great. I also loved Spiral. My husband Anton Gill and I lived in Paris for a few years and we started watching it there. I also like Modern Family and Outnumbered. I also watch documentaries and any David Attenborough series.
What’s your favourite aspect of working on stage and screen?
The satisfaction of creating a character, inhabiting her, feeling at home in her skin (and hoping it’s the way the writer saw her).
The camaraderie of being with a tribe. Most actors are very supportive of each other, because we all understand and feel the terror of going on stage for a first night and we know that we’re all in the same boat. People become very close, very quickly and it doesn’t matter if you don’t see someone for years after working with them, you never lose that thread. Also the laughs, the anecdotes, the FUN.