It feels as if Stephanie Cole has been old for ever. She was 30-something when she starred as Tenko’s maternal Dr Beatrice Mason in the early 1980s, all fortitude under fire and a moral compass for the junglebound PoWs. In Open All Hours, she was the “black widow” Delphine Featherstone, who gloomily pursued Ronnie Barker’s Arkwright.
Alongside Thora Hird and Maggie Smith, she shone as one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads in 1988, and in the nursing-home sitcom Waiting for God in the early 1990s, she played the irascible Diana Trent. Now she’s Roy Cropper’s spiky mother Sylvia Goodwin in Coronation Street, a battleaxe who makes others look blunt.
“With the death of the beloved Maggie Jones [Blanche], there was space for a battleaxe and I was honoured to fill that space,” Cole says.
Of course, Cole hasn’t been old for ever at all – though she did make her stage debut at 17, opposite Leonard Rossiter, playing a 90-year-old, and when she started playing Waiting for God’s Diana, who was supposed to be in her 70s, she was 48.
Which goes to prove that Cole, who’s only 69, is an accomplished actress. She can convey a lifetime’s experience in a look and lacks the vanity that deters others from playing curmudgeons and killjoys – and then imbues them with a surreptitious warmth.
Which is what she’s doing with the character of Sylvia: “As is often the case with a battleaxe, it’s a cover, an act put on by someone who doesn’t want to be vulnerable.”
It was Coronation Street’s warmth and wit that attracted Cole, but there’s more to it than that. “Coronation Street reflects reality – women are in a majority and there are plenty of older people on screen. It’s a rarity on TV even now and that’s an appalling state of affairs.”
Cole lays the blame for this at the door of the top echelon of television executives. “The people in charge have a very bizarre idea of what people want and they have no idea how ordinary people live their lives. They churn out so much crap that’s an insult to the man and woman in the street and say, ‘This will do for you.’ Frankly, how dare they!”
While Cole won’t be drawn on specific programmes, she says that, “If all you offer people is white sliced bread then that’s all they will eat. It doesn’t mean that they don’t like other kinds of bread.”
She also says that the likes of Tenko wouldn’t be made today, because it would be too expensive, because it was a drama entirely about women, and because “there were no stars in it and instead just some bloody good actors”.
Though she berates unimaginative and patronising channel executives, Cole’s fiercest ire is reserved for the Government and the cuts to public services.
“They are cutting things for ideological reasons under the cover of the budget deficit and it’s absolutely disgraceful,” says Cole, who is a patron of Age Concern and the mental health charity Rethink. “Like so many people, I am so angry. All this chat about the Big Society is absolute balls. It’s a way of the Government abdicating responsibility.”
A passionate Cole all fired up? Delightfully, that’s something that will never get old.