The Stepney actress and former queen of the Queen Vic tells us about her experiences with the musical London Road
In 2006, over six weeks, five prostitutes were murdered in Ipswich. The story of the Suffolk Strangler gripped the nation. Then, on December 19, an unremarkable forklift truck driver was arrested and charged with their murder.
It was one of those stories that came and went. No protracted manhunt like the Yorkshire Ripper, no apparent glamour, like The Krays, just a grim tale of grim lives – both the tale and the lives, swiftly ended.
Steve Wright had lived on London Road for just a few weeks. His neighbours, who had lived on the street longer, battled constantly with the kerb crawlers and “The Girls” – prostitutes, mostly addicts.
For Anita Dobson, the much-loved Stepney actress, famously Angie, the landlady of the Queen Vic in EastEnders, the murders were more than a collection of lurid headlines.
She was in the city, working, trying to put a smile on the city’s face.
The former Strictly contestant told The Wharf: “I happened to be in Ipswich at the time. I was – believe it or not – in pantomime so trying to get people to come along was so difficult.
“I remember the city was very subdued. There wasn’t much else to talk about and all this was happening to people they knew.
“Mothers of the girls didn’t even know they were on the streets till they found they had been murdered. It was a very tragic time.”
From that tragic time emerged an artistic project that was, nearly a decade later, to bring Anita back to the story. “In a way it was closure for me,” she said of London Road.
Before the film, though, there was the stage production. The National Theatre was working with writer Alecky Blythe who specialised in verbatim theatre – taking people’s everyday words and turning them into drama to Adam Cork’s music.
Faithfully, every “um” and “arr” and the everyday cadences of normal speech became the rhythm of song with a result that is a blend of the mundane and the hyper-real.
(Olivia Colman, who plays Julie, recalls: “There isn’t any room for improvisation. Occasionally I’ve said ‘er’ and Alecky says, ‘There isn’t an er, there. Sorry!”’)
Alecky recorded dozens of hours of thoughts and fears focussing on Julie, a resident who looked to rebuild the shattered street, with Wright’s house, boarded-up, a constant reminder of the tragedy.
London Road was a five-star hit at the Cottesloe in 2011 leaving one American visitor in tears. “I’ve never seen acting like that. How did you do that?” Dustin Hoffman put £10 in a collection bucket for a charity working with Ipswich prostitutes. He returned moments later with another tenner, still stunned. “That was the greatest ensemble acting I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Eleven of the stage cast have returned for the £3million film but this was Anita’s first experience with London Road, in which she plays the character of June.
She said: “When I heard they were making a musical I thought, is it too soon? How will people feel?
“But residents came along to a day of filming so they always felt they were part of it; that it wasn’t something done about them in an isolated manner.
“I am sure when they go to see the film they will be proud that such a tribute has been paid to those young girls and that something good has come out of that event. It’s a very important film on so many levels.”
And not a grim film, as the subject matter may suggest. Picking up the pieces after the trial, Julie spearheads a London Road In Bloom competition, bringing together the neighbours who had only known each other through mutual fear, suspicion and outrage.
Anita said: “I was thrilled with what [director Rufus Norris] has done with the film. There’s something kind of wonderful about the project – everyone whose been involved feels the same way – because it’s about the best of people.
“There was this situation where a person had done the most appalling things and girls were living lives that no girls should ever have to live yet what came out of it was the message that if you show people a better way, things can change.”
For the purposes of the film a real London road (in Bexley) stood in for the Ipswich street.
“We had a wonderful time. It was a very happy shoot even though we were dealing with a really difficult subject. And the people of Ipswich will be proud that those girls did not die in vain. Instead, they created a tsunami causing a lot of nice people to help.”
Community is a social structure that Anita recalls from her own East End upbringing.
The 66-year-old, married to guitarist Brian May, said: “When I was young people would leave their children with the neighbours.
“The kids would come home from school, knock on the neighbour’s door, have their tea and then Mum would come and collect them.
“In my father’s time, people would leave their keys on a piece of string and pop them through the letterbox so they were just hanging there. The neighbour would come along, get the key, open the door, let in the kids, tidy up, feed the dog.
“There were strong communities everywhere in the East End. They’re still there but because there’s so much technology you never need to leave the house.
“There’s a danger it could break down so I would just say to people – get out of the house, go for a walk, meet people, socialise, talk. We have to help each other and the only way we can do that is keep talking.”
London Road (15, 92mins) is out on June 12
June And Me
■ I did meet [the real] June. Sadly she died this year but last year she came on the set and she met us all. We had photographs and we had tea.
■ I was playing June, looking at June. It was a very surreal moment. But I’m so grateful I shared that with her and I can still see her as clear as day.
■ She was a warm-hearted person, someone you would meet in the supermarket, have a little chat with, wave to across the street. She loved her clothes, nail varnish, jewellery – just an ordinary, good person.
■ Every person has a story. No-one’s life is untouched by tragedy or happiness. Everybody has a remarkable life.