As introductions go, arriving in a hearse and calling yourself ‘The Undertaker’ is quite the first impression. From the moment Hollyoaks’ newest baddie, Norma Crow, steps out of a funeral car clad in black and delivering threats, it’s clear this is a woman not to be messed with.
In finding the right actor to play the crime boss, the soap has scored a genuine casting coup – they needed someone with presence, gravitas and a dash of dangerous glamour. In other words, they needed TV legend Glynis Barber…
“I wasn’t expecting to end up in Hollyoaks,” admits the star, speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com about her new role, following stints in rival shows EastEnders and Emmerdale. “They’d approached me in the past about other parts, none of which grabbed me enough that I’d want to commit. Then Norma came along, I read the scripts and absolutely loved the character. I’m very pleased I signed up, I’m really enjoying being evil. Being driven around in a hearse isn’t my favourite mode of transport, but if I don’t look behind me I can pretend I’m in an Uber!”
Barber found fame as a cop in hit 1980s drama Dempsey and Makepeace, but nasty Norma firmly operates on the other side of the law. The head of a local organised crime network, she is revealed as the big boss of Ethan Williams and Sienna Blake’s money-laundering activities, disguised as a legitimate tanning salon business. Someone has been skimming off her profits so Norma comes to the village to expose the traitor, and regain control of her territory. The place is notoriously full of incorrigible gangsters like Warren Fox and Grace Black, but Barber promises her alter ego is in a different league.
“There are quite a few bad boys and girls in Hollyoaks who think they’re a big deal but everyone is scared of Norma,” she grins. “She is quite terrifying and they’re all small fry to her. She runs a huge criminal empire with contacts and informers everywhere: the police, in prisons. Nothing gets past her and she will spot a weakness and exploit it. Norma is very smart and never wings it. Something she says early on is: ‘Always do your research,’ if you cross her, she’ll find out everything there is to know about you and use it to her advantage.
“I’ve yet to see a soft side and I’m not sure there is one. In her business she can’t afford to drop her guard for a second or she’ll be killed. The reasons she chose this path will become apparent and people will be shocked at the decisions she’s made.
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“I understand why a woman of her age in her profession has to be ruthless, when I started acting in my 20s I had to deal with a lot of challenging behaviours which I would not tolerate now. I’m older and have been around the block, and people don’t speak to me as they did when I was in my youth. All women have to toughen up as they get older in order to survive.”
Survival is something Barber knows a thing or two about. She’s worked consistently since her big break back in 1981 as sultry intergalactic sniper Soolin in sci-fi cult classic Blake’s 7, shortly after she graduated from drama school. “We’d go to the old BBC rehearsal rooms in Acton which looked like a classroom,” she recalls. “Just like you do in school the cast would be talking and laughing, until the director got angry with a few of us and said: ‘If you two don’t stop giggling I’m going to give you separate seats in the space ship!’ It was great fun but I probably didn’t take it seriously enough to be honest.”
Her most famous role was as haughty English rose Harriet Makepeace, one half of a crime-fighting duo with aggressive American Jim Dempsey in the aforementioned Dempsey and Makepeace, an instant hit when it started in 1985. Not only did it change Barber’s career, it also had a big impact on her personal life as Dempsey was played by her future husband, Michael Brandon.
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“The dynamic was very ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ There was an obvious chemistry from the start but we didn’t actually get together until we were working on the second series,” reflects the actor. “We didn’t really want to discuss it publicly at first which made the press even more interested in our relationship, on and off screen. I wasn’t prepared for all the attention. During those four years if I sneezed it would be in the papers!
“The programme is still popular which I find absolutely amazing, we had no idea it would be so big. My theory is it made a deep impression on a generation of viewers who watched it in their childhood, and it brings back nostalgic memories.”
After The Gentle Touch but before Prime Suspect, Sergeant Makepeace was a woman in a man’s world which was mirrored behind the camera as Barber candidly remembers: “I was one of the leads but the rest of the regular cast were all men, we never had any female directors or executives and in production meetings I was the only woman in the room. It was difficult to get heard and I had to fight against that.”
The cult status of Dempsey and Makepeace and Blake’s 7 endures, and fan power has posited the possibility of a reboot for both shows in the decades since they ended. Is Barber open to revisiting Harry and Soolin?
“Clearly Makepeace is now the head of MI5, I’m convinced of that! Maybe she’s the new ‘M’ in the James Bond films? Dempsey and Makepeace was great fun but very physical, I was thrown around and battered and bruised the whole time so that part I’m in no hurry to repeat. It could be interesting to see how the characters have evolved then have a younger team come in alongside them.
“As for Blake’s 7 I’ve done some audio books but weren’t they meant to redo it? What happened to that? Maybe I could be Servalan if they bring it back, the big villain. Especially after playing Norma!”
Another character in Barber’s repertoire ripe for recreation is EastEnders’ Glenda Mitchell, mother of sassy sisters Ronnie and Roxy who spent an eventful year in Walford from 2010 and was last seen in 2017 after her daughters were unceremoniously killed off.
“That was one of the toughest jobs I’ve done in terms of workload, though I was very fond of Glenda. She was naughty and blunt with no moral compass. The door is open in theory but would they want her? Her girls are gone, there are grandchildren she barely has anything to do with, but you never know.
“I loved working with the late Barbara Windsor, and Sam Womack and Rita Simons were such good actors. Doing scenes with them I’d marvel at how authentic they were. The Mitchell sisters were iconic.”
But enough about the past, Barber’s future is looking extremely interesting thanks to the nefarious Norma. Her enthusiasm for the role and respect for the notoriously fast-paced genre of continuing drama is infectious – she is having the time of her life. “It’s honestly the nicest bunch of people to work with which makes a huge difference, as I’m up in Liverpool away from my home in London. I’ve been eased in with the schedule but I’m getting into the flow of it now. Once you start doing eight scenes a day, five days a week it’s relentless.”
Might she tempt her husband to join the cast, giving Dempsey and Makepeace fans the reunion they’re craving? “I hadn’t thought of that!” laughs Barber. “Michael and I haven’t actually worked together that much since Dempsey and Makepeace, it would be fun to collaborate on something.
“Maybe he could play a rival gangster, although Norma would probably dispense with him quite quickly. Or he could be one of her henchman – but I’m not sure he’d like having to work for me!”