Born in Cullercoats, actor and presenter Denise Welch has a long history with the North East. She has starred in some of the region’s most iconic shows such as Byker Grove, Spender and Soldier Soldier, and is a regular panellist on the ITV chat show Loose Women.

Last year, she took some time out of her busy schedule to take the road less travelled with Robson Green for his hit BBC Two show Robson Green’s Weekend Escapes. We spoke to Denise to find out more about her career, the region, and the future of the North East screen industry.

How did you get your start in the industry?

When I was about 15 at school in Consett, I discovered the drama group and school plays. It was like in cartoons when a light bulb goes off above someone’s head.

Then once I’d finished school, I went to drama school on my Dad’s encouragement. I didn’t think it could be a career, but I went anyway. For about the first 10 years after drama school, I did mostly theatre. Some of my first shows were with the Live Theatre company in the North East. They are absolutely brilliant, and they of course spawned my ex-husband’s [Tim Healy] career as well. It was also through them that I first met Robson. When I was in my mid-twenties, I saw Robson in a play by CP Taylor and I said to Max the director “Oh my God, he’s amazing!”

After that time, I worked all over the place, but the Live theatre was very important to my formative years career-wise.

What inspired you to consider a career in the screen industry?

Well, I struggled in school, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t capable, it was just because I was quite lazy academically and nothing ever inspired me. I loved school, I loved all the boys and chatting with my mates on the radiators and all of that, but I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do. Then my drama teacher, for some reason, saw something in me and asked me to be in the school play. It was like a revelation that I was actually good at something! You know, when the headmaster calls you into his room to congratulate you on a performance rather than telling you off for being naughty! So that’s when I first became inspired, but I was still considering going to a teacher training college at that point. I would have been a terrible teacher! But as I say, it was my Dad and my drama teacher who encouraged me to go to drama school. And when I eventually got there, I was in the complete minority as a lot of parents had said don’t go to drama school, be a teacher. I was lucky to be encouraged.

What’s your favourite memory from working on set in the North East?

That’s quite a big question as I’ve done a lot in the North East. I think one of my most prevalent memories is trying to teach Ant and Dec maths on the set of Byker Grove. And I can’t do maths. So subsequently, in the late nineties when they came on as surprise guests for my episode of This Is Your Life, they said that the reason they had to keep going as entertainers was because they were going to fail their exams as I’d taught them! They did have chaperones on the show, but because there were so many kids on that show, sometimes if some of the other actors had downtime, we would help the kids with their homework. So, Donna Air, Jill Halfpenny and Ant and Dec can all blame me for failing maths!

This time filming Weekend Escapes with Robson was lovely as I hadn’t been to that part of the North East for many years, and I also hadn’t seen Robson for a long time as well. Simply because lives just happen and take you apart from each other for no other reason than geography. As I say at the end of the programme, I never thought I’d be lying on a grassy nell having a sound bath with Robson Green!

It was lovely to reconnect. We forgot we were going to be on the telly. It was such a lovely day and a great reminder that a day out in the country with a friend can be medicine if you’re feeling a bit low.

What’s your favourite part of the region and why?

I would have to say Cullercoats and Tynemouth because that’s where I was born. My family had a house on Beverly Terrace looking over Cullercoats Bay and that’s where my earliest memories are.

Whenever I feel low or if I’ve not been very well, I’ll just go and spend time in that area. It’s incredibly soothing for me.

When Dad was poorly, a couple of years before we lost him, Lincoln would drive me to the coast when we were up visiting him, and I would just spend time having fish and chips in the cafes and walking along the coast. There’s just something about that part of the region that evokes incredibly happy childhood memories for me.

In Weekend Escapes, Robson takes the road less travelled and shines a light on some of the region’s hidden gems. What’s your North East hidden gem?

Where my sister lives in Headly on the Hill, there’s a pub called The Feathers Inn. I’m not a pub person, especially not in the last 11 years as I’ve been sober, but it’s the best pub. You know the phrase it takes a village? The way that village rally around each other, to me it’s how a community in the North East should be. It’s the way that they looked after my sister when my Dad died, the way that the pub has the best food and the best people. If they know you’re struggling, someone will put a casserole on your doorstep. It’s a wonderful North East community. It’s an absolutely gorgeous area. It’s basically the pub and that’s it, but the walks around there are great and it’s a lovely place to visit.

What do you think makes the North East unique?

The people. Without a shadow of a doubt. Our region is beautiful but there are a lot of beautiful areas in the United Kingdom. Whenever anyone I know goes to the North East for work or pleasure or just passing through, everyone says that it’s the people. It’s only when you live away that you realise there’s nobody like the people from the North East, there just aren’t. They’re a breed apart. That’s what makes it the most special place on Earth.

What are your aspirations for the future of the North East screen industry? What kind of content would you like to see being made here?

Stories from new voices. Years and years ago there was a project at Tyne Tees, I think it was called New Voices, and it was basically like what Live Theatre do to develop new writers, and I think we need something like that again in our region. This is a really hard industry and it’s particularly hard for young actors, playwrights, and musicians to get their start. There are some brilliant people out there but now sadly I feel it’s all about Instagram followings and the number of views on TikTok. I do understand and if I was a commercial boss, I would think the same, but I fear we’re losing talent because of it. I think there’s a real importance in developing new voices and new talent and giving them somewhere to grow.

On the other side of this, we also need to look at some of our more mature talent and give a voice to those stories, especially for women. You’re not invisible when you’re over fifty and older women still have sex lives. They don’t have to play grandmas and great grandmas.

Series 2 of Robson Green’s Weekend Escapes is available to stream on BBC iPlayer

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