FEATURE: How love of theatre nurtured in Sudbury led to acting career
Isabel Ford first stepped on to a stage at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds aged 10 as a pageboy in a Shakespeare play.
Last summer, she was back – a professional actress with vast experience who has never forgotten her Suffolk roots.
Forty years after her childhood debut, she was taking a leading role in an all-female production of much-loved comedy Whisky Galore, playing a character said to be the inspiration for Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army.
“Coming to Bury was wonderful,” says Isabel, who grew up in Bures. “Lots of old school friends and my mum and brother came to the show. And it’s one of the most beautiful theatres in the country.
“Waiting in the wings, I remembered so well standing downstage left as a pageboy.”
Isabel’s family, parents Laura and Peter and brothers Piers and Julian, moved to Bures when she was two. Her mother and father were theatre fans and encouraged her interest.
“I remember sitting on the sofa, being transfixed by all those black and white movies on TV on a Sunday, and being taken to London to see shows,” she recalls.
“When I was 10, I auditioned for a part as a pageboy in a touring production of The Merchant of Venice at the Theatre Royal.
“A hundred youngsters went for it and I was lucky enough to get the part. That’s where it all started. I enjoyed working with professional actors.”
She went to Bures Primary School, then Stoke by Nayland Middle School and Great Cornard Upper School.
“My father was in Sudbury Dramatic Society and, aged about 12, I went to a drama group at the Quay Theatre and absolutely loved it.
“I thought ‘I’ve found my place’. The teacher there, Andrew Aitken, took me under his wing, encouraged me and gave me confidence.
“I remember him so fondly because, if it wasn’t for him, I might not have taken this path. He directed The Miracle Worker and I played Helen Keller.”
Isabel’s father Peter Ford, who now lives in the Orkneys, has had a long career as a writer and book editor.
He co-authored The True History of the Elephant Man and collaborated with Max Wall, the actor and comic famed for creating bizarre characters.
“Dad was a great friend of Max Wall and edited his autobiography,” explains Isabel. “When I was a child, Max would come to dinner and scare the living daylights out of me.
“I was in awe of him and petrified at the same time. He would do these big, scary characters and I would hide behind my mother.”
When Isabel left school, she followed her brothers to London and worked for a ticket agency, which meant she could see top productions for free.
At 21, she got a place at the Rose Bruford College studying physical theatre, which is a good grounding for comedy.
“I remember making people laugh at primary school by mimicking Margaret Thatcher. I think that was maybe when I first thought comedy is my thing. I’ve done a lot of serious stuff as well, but I do enjoy making people laugh.”
She met her husband, actor Richard Fletcher, at college. They have two daughters, Phoebe, 15, and Amelie, 12, and now live in a Yorkshire village at the foot of the Pennines.
“After leaving drama school, we did a lot of theatre in education, touring in a van with all our sets, putting things on in schools and village halls,” she recalls. “It’s not an easy life but I think it’s quite a good grounding.
“Then we both did quite a few different productions in rep. I also did a lot of fringe theatre in the early days.”
Some of her roles have been far from glamorous. She played the ghastly Mrs Twit in the first theatre production of the Roald Dahl children’s classic The Twits, with husband Richard completing the gruesome duo as Mr Twit.
“Our daughters were born while we were living in London. We carried on doing various rep jobs, but it was more difficult with children,” she says.
“But we made things work. When Phoebe was eight months old, I toured with a production and Richard stayed at home. Ten years ago, we moved up north, close to Richard’s parents.”
Both Isabel and Richard have strong links with the Coliseum Theatre in Oldham, but it was a chance conversation that got Isabel her first job there.
“Soon after we moved here, I was standing outside the school gates talking to another mum who was a costume designer at the Coliseum.
“She said they were looking for someone to play Rita in Brassed Off, and told me to phone for an audition. I did, and I got the part.
“I was playing a northerner, and I’d only just arrived. I had to quickly get used to saying ‘brass’d’ instead of ‘brarsed’.
Since moving north, Isabel has appeared in TV soap Emmerdale, as a counsellor helping character Priya cope with an eating disorder, and in The Body Farm with Tara Fitzgerald.
She played a mother in comedy film Nativity 2, which starred David Tennant, and was also in TV movie Worried About the Boy, the story of singer Boy George.
“I would like the opportunity to do more TV because it’s such a different medium to theatre, and the only way you get better at something is to do more of it,” she says.
“I was always told I would get more work as I got older, but I’ve noticed that, as I’ve gone into another age bracket, there aren’t so many roles for women.
“I do think it’s changing, though. There is a different attitude now. People are so aware about representing the whole of society and all ages.
“If I was young again, would I still take this path? If you love it and it’s in your heart, I’d say give it a go, but don’t expect to be a star. A lot of it is also to do with lucky breaks.
“I would class myself as a working actress, but definitely not a celebrity. You have got to be tenacious, and have a bit of a hard shell.
“It’s not easy getting rejected time and again. You have got to be a little bit stubborn. If you’re knocked down, you brush yourself off and get back in the ring.
“But you can also go to drama school and develop skills you can use in other platforms like teaching.
“If I gave advice to anyone wanting to go into acting, it would be try to have another string to your bow, because at the times you’re not employed you’ll still need to pay the bills.”