Neighbours: Colette Mann interview – “Sheila and Clive make a dream couple – even though he thinks she’s barmy!”

The Australian TV veteran talks new romance, old flames, and working with Oscar-winner Mark Rylance.

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Ramsay Street’s resident battleaxe Sheila Canning is all of a flutter in Neighbours next week when she goes on a date with dashing doctor – and returning fan favourite – Clive Gibbons.

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But the budding romance hits the rocks when the Canning matriarch receives a letter out of the blue from an old flame that drags up some painful memories, crushing hopes of her and Clive becoming a couple. Can the gobby granny ever find happiness?

Colette Mann, who has played Sheila since 2012, is the woman to ask – so during a recent trip to the UK we caught up with the Australian TV legend to discuss Mrs Canning’s love life, among other things – including the actress’s history with Oscar-winner Mark Rylance…

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“I was very excited when I found out Sheila was having a thing with Clive,” she begins. “I worked with Geoff Paine, who plays him, years ago in a stupid play called Shear Madness, about a murder in a hairdressing salon. It was shocking – both of us clearly needed the work at the time – but we became friends so to have him back in the show is great.”

They didn’t exactly hit it off at first, when the hospital big wig falsely accused Sheila’s granddaughter Xanthe of stealing medication, but that mix-up is put behind them paving way for a date next Thursday. How did they go from mutual loathing to potential partners?

“He confessed to a colleague he was attracted to Sheila because she was fiery, and a bit barmy,” laughs Mann. “They’ve crossed swords a few times and Clive bumps into her and asks if they can start again, so she agrees to go on a date.”

But when the classy medic wants to take earthy Sheila to an art gallery, she panics she’ll be intellectually out of her depth so decides she needs a crash course in art history – with help from a most unlikely source…

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“She asks Paul Robinson, of all people, to help her bluff it because she thinks he’s really intelligent. I don’t know where she got that idea…

 “Sheila is already nervous about the date because she was married to the same man for 25 years, but it was a very comfortable relationship with not much spark. This is different. Clive is chief operating officer at the hospital, she thinks he’s above her intellectually and is a bit intimidated.

“So Paul teaches Sheila this bluffers’ guide to art so she sounds clever. I had to learn all these sentences with complicated phrases like ‘the dialectics of the ancient motifs’, it was a challenge. Luckily Sheila’s trying to remember it all so I could deliver the lines like she was genuinely searching for every word – which I actually was!”

If there was ever a case of opposites attract, it’s these two, but Mann maintains this is precisely why it could work.

“She’s different from everything else in his life, his job is very corporate – she represents fun. He’s cool, calm and collected, she is fiery.

“Unfortunately, it fizzles out quite quickly. I’m on a mission to get them together, though, I’m harassing our producer. I’ve heard Clive might be back, although I’ve been filming with a new love interest for Sheila… But viewers don’t want to see old people getting together, they’re more interested in seeing the youngsters doing it!”

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One of the obstacles the fledging flirtation with Dr Gibbons encounters is a letter from old flame Russell Brennan – estranged dad to Erinsborough’s trio of buff brothers Mark, Aaron and Tyler, and the last person Sheila expected to hear from…

“Russell left to seek help for his anger issues. Sheila is shaken to hear from him, she doesn’t open the letter right away but when she does Russell reveals he is very ill and wants to rekindle things…”

This closes down a clinch with Clive – for now – and also kicks off a dramatic storyline for the Brennans, which Sheila will be an integral part of (and will acknowledge the tragic death last year of actor Russell Kiefel, who played Russell Brennan).

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It’s typical of the lovable Canning clan to combine lighthearted and emotional plots, often in the same episode, and it’s a testament to Mann’s range that she’s able to switch from comedy to tragedy so adeptly.

 “It’s that mix that keeps it interesting,” confesses the actress, “after the fun stuff with Clive we go right into a tragic story about the Brennan family’s deep, dark secrets. Russell’s ex, Fay, arrives and bonds with Sheila. She confides in her things that weigh heavy on Sheila’s shoulders. When they eventually come out it’s going to be huge for her and the Brennans.

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“All the Cannings get quite a lot of comic material. I’m known for comedy in Australia and was hired to be the nosy stickybeak – a warmer Mrs Mangel was the original idea for Sheila. I love both comedy and drama, but like all actors when you’re doing one you want to be doing the other.

“The head writer said the nicest thing to me once, that it didn’t matter what they asked me to do, they knew I could do it. Some characters are just tragic all the time which must get a bit boring. And soul destroying!”

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Light and shade has been the key to Mann’s long and varied career in Australian stage and screen – her big break famously coming in cult drama Prisoner: Cell Block H in 1979 where she played Doreen (the show is now reimagined as Wentworth showing on Channel 5, which Mann and other original cast members were involved with when it launched), and she’s notched up a raft of credits in comedy, drama, variety, musicals (she starred in the Australian production of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) and even hosted her own chat show.

Back in 2002 she found herself working with a future Oscar-winner – Mark Rylance, then artistic director of London’s Globe Theatre. “I was here on a fellowship with a group of other actors from around the world. We studied for a couple of months and performed, Mark oversaw it all and watched us perform and would give notes. He was extraordinarily charming.

“I was in New York last year and saw him in a play called Nice Fish and sent a note backstage to say hello – he came out to see me after the show and remembered me which was really lovely, it was such a long time ago. Another part of my life before Neighbours!”

Neighbours continues on Channel 5 weekdays at 1.45pm and 5.30pm. 

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