Amanda Holden On Mad About Alice

We’ve seen her out for revenge in Cutting It, playing for laughs in The Grimleys and hunting for a husband on the West End stage, but never before as a mother figure.Yet Amanda Holden’s latest TV role is the one she’d most like to tackle off screen – if only she could find the time, writes Nicola Hicks. When Amanda Holden trills,“Everything today is thoroughly modern!” in tonight’s West End performance of Thoroughly Modern Millie, she could quite easily be singing the theme tune for BBC One’s Mad About Alice. In the new family sitcom, starting this Friday,Amanda and co-star Jamie Theakston play Alice and Doug, a couple who split up long before their marriage was over and who, because of their nine-year-old son, Joe, are still very much a part of each other’s lives. “It’s a good reflection of family life as it is now. Something like one in three families have parents who are separated these days and there’s no such thing as the ‘2.4 kids’ family anymore – modern families are a lot more confusing,” says Amanda of the series, which also stars Gregory’s Girl favourite John Gordon Sinclair.

Alice and Doug’s relationship certainly has its fair share of confusion – not least because, though both are seeing other people, there are still times when they’re forced to think and behave like a couple again: when organising Joe’s birthday surprises, for example, or answering his awkward questions about why a woman might be impressed by the size of a man’s lunchbox…

“It was a completely different thing for me because I’ve never played a mother before,” says the 32-year-old blonde.“To play somebody who has a kid and is quite chaotic and disorganised really appealed to me. I always seem to get either very nice girl-next door roles or very glamorous, rich girls, so it was lovely for me to play that part.” Amanda speaks warmly of her fellow cast members, in particular Jamie, whom she describes as a gifted performer, but she reserves her highest praise for the show’s youngest stars.

“The kids were just fabulous,” she laughs. “Billy, who plays my son, Joe, is cute as hell and the little girl, Jessica, was just adorable. For me, she has the best lines and she steals the whole show – though I think she was basing her character on the Addams Family. “I was very fond of both the children – they were very grown up and adult … and when they weren’t, it was even better because it meant that Jamie and I had someone to play with!” Amanda’s first experience of being a mum has also confirmed something that she already had a good inkling about – especially now that she’s armed with an answer to the inevitable lunchbox question (something to do with the size of his sarnies, apparently): “I definitely know that children are in my future – definitely,” she smiles. “Though I’ve probably got a bit too much on at the moment…”

She’s got a good point; back in October, Amanda returned to the West End stage for the first time in 10 years, wowing critics in the starring role of the jazz-age American musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, and, as the actress points out, a baby bump could hardly be hidden behind a string of flapper beads. Nor is it particularly compatible with the rigorous exercise regime Amanda has embarked upon to keep on top of the role. There’s more to this part than the Louise Brooks bob, you know.

“Literally since last June, I’ve had tap dancing lessons, ballet lessons, I’ve been in the gym, I’ve had tennis lessons to get my stamina up. It’s really demanding but it’s such a challenge. I’m so exposed, I’m so out there every single night,” says Amanda, clearly delighted to be treading – or rather tapping – the boards again. “It’s such a fluffy, feel good show that even if I were in the most miserable of moods, I’d cheer up after the first number. Without sounding like Miss World, the company I’m working with are just the nicest bunch of people ever and I’m having a really good time.”

Amanda has grown particularly close to co-star Maureen Lipman.“She’s fabulous, she’s a real woman’s woman – very strong, very feisty and really supportive of me. It’s great to work with someone you’ve admired for so long, to see how she does it … and to find out she’s as neurotic as the rest of us.”

Like her Mad About Alice playmates Billy and Jessica,Amanda caught the entertainment bug young. Growing up in Bishops Waltham, near Winchester, she would treat her mum, sister and stepdad to regular shows – making her diva-style entrances wrapped in a pink blanket emblazoned with the words “Dancing Queen”.

“I used to rush down on a Sunday, turn the telly off – even if they were watching it – and make up song-and-dance routines,” says the actress, who had also perfected her Oscar acceptance speech by the age of nine. Fortunately,Amanda’s ever-patient family encouraged her blossoming talent, and were hugely supportive when, aged 17, she left home to join London’s Mountview Drama School. “It was strange being in a room full of people just like me and trying to get my voice heard,” Amanda once said – but that didn’t hold her back for long. After roles in The Bill, Goodness Gracious Me! and Jonathan Creek, she landed her first major TV part in the BBC’s Kiss Me Kate, and was soon on her way to juicier roles in the dramas Hearts And Bones and Cutting It. But there is, she reveals, yet more excitement to come – and Mrs Holden had better dig out that Dancing Queen blanket.

“We’re going to be making the cast album of Thoroughly Modern Millie at Abbey Road Studios in the New Year, so I’m really excited! I’m going to pretend I’m a pop star!” she giggles. While we’re on the subject of pop stars, there is,Amanda confirms, absolutely no truth in the rumour that she’s lined up to appear in a celebrity version of a certain reality TV music show. “No! Absolutely one hundred per cent no way! Simon Cowell can go away – he can come and see Millie and he can judge me on that performance but that’s the only performance he can judge me on! I definitely wouldn’t do one of those programmes – I have enough people scrutinising me without that…” she laughs, ruefully. Amanda does reveal, however, that she hopes to make a splash in Australia in 2004. “I’ll finish in Millie next summer and I really want to go to Australia because I’m a keen diver,” she says. “I just want to see the world, but I think I’ll have to do it gradually. My sister lives in Thailand, so I think my boyfriend, Chris, and I will go there too, then come back and do a bit of work to pay for the next trip.” And though for years Amanda has laughed off suggestions that she could “do a Catherine Zeta-Jones” and hot foot it over to Hollywood, it has not escaped her attention that LA might make an ideal stopover…

“It would be fantastic [to work in LA] – I have a great manager out there who’s constantly begging me to go over and is getting lots of people to come and see me in the show over here. But I’m not brave enough to sit and wait for it to happen and turn down work in England. “I’m also not sure I’d like to live there … though since I’ve gone on a big health regime and I’m not drinking, I’m eating healthily and I’m keeping fit, I practically am Mrs LA at the moment!”

Hmmm … this, coupled with Amanda’s admission that her ideal next role would be a musical film – “I would have loved to have done Chicago” – can only mean one thing. Watch out Catherine – it can’t be long before they’re mad about Amanda over there, too.