Kellie reveals that Barbara was her mentor
Former EastEnders actress Kellie Shirley believes there’s no better time than the present to launch a third series of comedy In The Long Run. Depicting a black family on a London estate in the 1980s, it reflects the reality of those times – although with more harmony evident than currently seems the case. “The odd thing,” Kellie says over the phone not long after the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, “we’re all from working-class backgrounds in the show and that’s how we remember it. Families had immigrated over here and it was a real melting pot, wasn’t it?”
In the warm-hearted comedy created by Idris Elba, we see the actor playing a version of himself and struggling to please his wife, his son, his brother Valentine, who has a wandering eye, and, in the new series, his mother, who arrives from Africa.
Not only is there friction with the white population, but Idris lightly mocks division between black Africans and those from the Caribbean. He doesn’t shy from any issue in this series – but it’s done with subtlety.
“There was definitely casual racism in series two when Kevin Bishop’s character used the word Velcro to describe a black character,” says Kellie. “There were the slogans around the estate, too. It’s not in your face, but washes over you. It is a comedy at the end of the day and one that hasn’t shied away from the real issues.”
“That was Idris’s experience. People were getting abuse but with a level of casual racism which you just had to deal with.”
“We just had the story about Fawlty Towers and issues of racism and the n-word. We were talking about Love Thy Neighbour and everything that had. People were being called names while being nice at the same time.”
Kellie will star in Idris Elba’s In The Long Run
Does that make it worse? “It does. Absolutely. In In The Long Run it’s not shoved in your face. It’s just there.”
Married with twins, Kellie, 39, can just about remember the 80s although for her character, Kirsty, she shaped her corkscrew-curls look because of a familiar name from the period.
“I remember going into make-up and shouting, ‘Kylie please.’ It was more the kids’ disco for me during the actual 80s but I do remember getting into people like Salt-N-Pepa, and Pepsi & Shirlie, together with Kylie and Madonna. The music in the series is just great, really. We play it off camera, too, which really helps the atmosphere.”
Kellie owes her career inspiration to another 80s show, Emu’s World with Rod Hull.
“I used to be a big fan of the show, especially Mrs Grotbags. She had Rice Krispies all over her face, Mrs Grotbags, along with being all green and horrible, and I remember my dad telling me that she got paid for doing this. I said, ‘That sounds like the best job ever. You get paid for getting stuff thrown over you?’ So from a really early age I wanted to be an actress.”
Kellie was inspired and continued to “read plays and watch things on the telly” and, on leaving school at 15, joined The Brit School in Croydon, close to where she lived. It was bursting with talent.
Kellie hair in the show is inspired by 1980’s Kylie
“It was a really exciting time for me, with Amy Winehouse in the year below me.”
“The school had only started four years earlier and there were all these cool people. I wouldn’t say I was in Amy’s circle of friends but she would always say hello. There were always performances in the foyer and you would have these scratch nights when people could try out new material.”
“Amy would always be trying new stuff with people huddling around her. It was like our playground really. People singing, dancing, listening to her.”
“It was like the film Fame, but cooler. Much, much cooler. When I’m in the nursing home and I haven’t got any teeth, it will be the time I remember the most.”
“I did think about singing myself, but I realised I’m not on her level so I left it. Just bits here and there. I am actually singing in a new film called Benediction, about the life of war poet Siegfried Sassoon. That will be out next year now. I’ve been practising during lockdown. My poor neighbours.”
After attending the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, Kellie’s big break came when she joined EastEnders as Carly Wicks after the death of her character’s father, Kevin, played by Phil Daniels.
Another significant showbusiness figure then entered her life.
“I started in EastEnders when I was 21 and Barbara Windsor became my mentor and a very good friend. She really took me under her wing, which was great.”
“The producer at the time was Kate Harwood, and I’d been in a series of hers called Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky. She took me with her, which was wonderful.”
“She decided that many of the younger cast would be put with an established actor because, at that time, there were a lot of stories appearing in the tabloids.”
“They were just being young, really, because when you’re that age and in the public eye there’s always going to be people looking out to get a story from you.”
Kellie says she and Barbara are still incredibly close today
“I really lucked out and got Barbara. I spent a lot of time with her in the dressing room. She made sure I knew my lines inside out. She was keen on that. She wanted to know that I knew about my character’s objectives and knew what was going on, too.”
“She was fantastic, and she’s still a big part of my life today, checking in with her and Scott to see how things are. She also taught me about being nice. Barbara always had the time to sign an autograph. That was important to her. And to talk to people, too.”
She had gaps in her career, too.
“She did, that’s true,” Kellie adds. “After the Carry On films, there was a long period of time, about 10 to 15 years, that Barbara didn’t work at all. She was working in clubs, singing, that sort of thing.”
“But it was EastEnders that really made her, alongside the Carry On roles. But I know what it’s like to have a period of not working. It happened to me after the soap. There were bits and bobs, but nothing major. I talked to Barbara, and said, ‘What has happened? Why is this?’”
“She said, ‘You’ve got to ride it out. Go away and do something else and just know that someone will take a chance on you again.’ I did and things worked out again. And she was right.”
Kellie has missed spending time with Barbara throughout lockdown
Coronavirus, Kellie reveals, has taken a toll on the actress, who suffers from dementia. “Barbara and Scott’s life has changed such a lot under the pandemic.”
“It really has. It’s affected everyone. Barbara is such a sociable person, so not being able to see close friends at the moment must have an effect. But Scott is a really incredible person and adores her.”
“I haven’t been able to see her and Scott for months now and the phone is not as good for a proper catch-up. It’s really hard not doing fun things like a matinee at the theatre or a short walk, things like that. And the constant worry that if you do go out that you’ll pick it [coronavirus] up.”
“So I know it’s been really difficult for them and stressful. Hopefully, things will now pick up.”
“When you meet her she still has so many stories about EastEnders and everything. She waxes lyrical about it. And she can still remember songs. When we did the London marathon in honour of Barbara last year she took us out for afternoon tea when we were finished.”
Kellie and some of her cast buddies ran the London marathon last year in Barbara’s honour
“We then had this enormous sing-song. It was amazing, a proper East End singing session, with Roll Out The Barrel, that sort of thing.”
“I brought my twins, Pearl and Louie (aged four), along because she loves them, and they love her, too. It was one of my best days ever.”
“I’m not sure if I will do the marathon again – see how we go. I’m an ambassador for Mencap, so I might be talked into it again. If it’s next year, that is.” As lockdown eases, Kellie’s hoping for a fourth series of In The Long Run. “I really hope so. I think it could go again,” she says.
“The 80s is so rich with politics and drama, there’s so much to draw on, really. And you’ve got the perm and the mullet in hairstyles alone. It’s comedy gold, isn’t it?”
She’s also eager to be reunited with co-star Bill Bailey, who plays her husband. “He’s so dry, he really is. He’s also the only person I know who can pick up a saucepan and he’s ready to start performing at the Royal Albert Hall. We just need to get through this coronavirus first. You can’t let your guard down for a bit.”
In The Long Run is on Wednesday at 10pm on Sky One.