Attempted suicide, three failed marriages, shock therapy: the life and times of Beverley Callard are far more dramatic than any soap storyline. Donal O’Donoghue meets the Coronation Street star.
Long after her last session of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) Beverley Callard still remembers the acrid smell of burning. "You’re in the middle of this black fog, because you’re so ill, and I can remember thinking: ‘they’re going to electrocute me today, because of the smell’." She concedes it was probably her imagination playing tricks (as she lay on the trolley awaiting treatment, her brain was addled by memories of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) but the 'Coronation Street' star believes that one year later she is lucky to count herself among the living. "ECT did make me better", she says of her recovery from severe depression. "It’s not as barbaric as you might think but it is a last resort treatment."
Callard, best known as Weatherfield’s feisty Liz McDonald, previously made her name as a fitness instructor, with a clutch of best-selling DVDs to prove it. Now, here she is in a posh hotel, sending up smoke signals like an Apache in a western. It is somewhat unexpected, but then Callard has lived no ordinary life. More used to talking about her character than herself, the actress admits to being nervous. "Up to now, I have never discussed my private life at all", she says, sucking hard on a cigarette. "But I just did it with the book and that’s quite liberating because it’s all out there now."
'Unbroken: A Story of Survival' chronicles a litany of hard knocks, personal tragedy and just plain bad luck. Between the covers we read of a grandfather who died in jail, three broken marriages, a life-threatening medical condition, severe clinical depression that left her suicidal, a son who is a recovering alcoholic and a mother now lost to Alzheimer’s disease. If even half this was to befall a Coronation Street character, you wouldn’t believe it. Not only did it happen, but Callard is here to tell the tale. "I didn’t really see my story as a story of survival at first", she says. "I just saw it as my story. Then throughout my recovery I kept saying to my doctor and my counsellors: ‘Hopefully I’m mended or maybe unbroken’. And that’s how the title came to me."
Warm and engaging, and still true to her West Yorkshire working-class roots, there is a fragility to Beverley Callard (53) that makes you fear that another jolt might shatter her into a million tiny pieces. On occasion, her eyes tear over and she is still uncertain of what tomorrow might bring. "I’m not one hundred per cent better yet", she says (she’s still on medication). At the other end of the room her partner – and "soulmate" – Jon McEwan sits quietly and smokes.
Callard wrote Unbroken, which was born in counselling sessions, to help others. And ultimately to help herself. The book ends on a cautiously optimistic note: ‘After all, I’m unbroken. I hope’. Now she shakes her head, wondering how she survived. "I look back and think, ‘f***ing hell, how did I do that?" She looks at McEwan. "But we did it."
Growing up in Leeds, Beverley Callard’s childhood was largely unexceptional. She watched The Sound of Music (still her favourite film) umpteen times with her mum and dreamed of becoming a star. But an early family tragedy cast a shadow on the happy times. Following a row with another man, her grandfather was charged with manslaughter, imprisoned and died while inside. Beverley ("I was very headstrong") was already going her own way. Just two weeks shy of her 17th birthday, she married her childhood sweetheart. Her disapproving parents were heartbroken but Callard was very much in love and very much pregnant (she miscarried).
When she became pregnant again she was diagnosed with a rare medical condition called hyperemesis. At one point during the pregnancy, Callard had lost so much weight that it was feared both mother and child might die. But all went well and she gave birth to baby Rebecca in June 1975. By then Callard’s marriage was already crumbling: punctuated with violent rows when her drunken husband would arrive home late at night. After a couple of beatings she fought back, bashing him with the vacuum cleaner. "I’m a strong person and I’m still a feisty person", she says.
She was to marry twice more: first to a college lecturer called David with whom she was unfaithful once with her first husband ("David never knew about that before the book was published", she admits, "but he and I are still friends") and then to a younger man, Steve Callard, with whom she had her son Josh. That marriage foundered too (in this interview she rarely refers to him by name) as Callard strove to keep the family together. After being cheated on a number of times the final break-up hit her hard. By then her confidence and self-esteem were rock bottom.
Following a few ill-fated relationships ("all men are bastards" she writes after yet another betrayal) Callard had had enough. Living in Spain, travelling to the UK for film and TV work (including her return to Coronation Street), she was determined to devote herself to her children. Then in January 2003, she met McEwan on a blind date. For both it was an instant attraction (he was also the first man to get the thumbs up from Callard’s mother) and they have been together ever since: through business disasters (a public house they jointly owned failed spectacularly), rehabilitation at the Priory Clinic and bankruptcy.
When she discovered that her son, Joshua, was an alcoholic and abusing drugs, Callard was distraught. "We knew that he wasn’t himself but we thought initially that it might because he hasn’t found out what his dream is yet or maybe he’s hanging around with the wrong people." Did she feel guilty? "Absolutely. But guilt is a self-indulgent feeling isn’t it? So you have to get over that", she says. "But the divorce [from Steve Callard] was very painful, more to Josh than to anyone. So you do look back and think, ‘oh God, I’ve done this all wrong’. But he has got through it."
Today her son hasn’t had a drink in more than 18 months and is training to be a counsellor. Her mother, Mavis, is still alive but has Alzheimer’s disease and hasn’t recognised either of her daughters for years. "It’s awful because you do your grieving while your mother is still alive", she says. "The person that you knew and loved is no longer there but she’s still there physically. I’ve said to my children that if I’m in that situation they should pull the plug. I personally would pull the plug, yeah. And I know that my sister would as well."
Twice, when she was in the Priory Clinic, Callard considered suicide. The first time, clutching a fistful of pills, she told McEwan that she wanted to die. Some days later, uttering her thoughts aloud, she revealed that she was planning to use the broken glass from the lights to slash her wrists. Staff promptly removed the bulbs. "I was suicidal and it wasn’t a cry for help", she says. "I was so heavily medicated that I wasn’t talking to anyone, I was just rambling. I wanted it to stop. People ask me now if I was scared of the ECT (there were 12 sessions in total), but the more frightening thing was not getting well and having to stay in that state of torment."
After a long recovery, life is becoming normal again. Callard hopes to kickstart her fitness routine again this month while Liz McDonald remains a key character in Coronation Street. In the next few weeks, Liz scores a new boyfriend ("a completely new character") and she’s pencilled in for some major action in the soap’s 50th anniversary episode on December 9. Although she never watches Corrie (she can’t bear to see herself on screen), Callard guiltily confesses to being an avid fan of EastEnders. She also counts some of the Corrie cast (Jim Lawson who played her TV hubby and Denise Welch who also suffers from depression) among her closest friends. "As long as the buzz is still there I will stay with The Street", she says, "but I still consider myself a jobbing actor."
This jobbing actor hopes to keep on working and living life to the full. Does she believe in the old adage that, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’?
Callard shakes her head. "People say that the bad times make you stronger but I don’t think that they do at all", she says. "Some also say that you get wiser as you get older. Well I bloody well didn’t. I think that I know less now than I did years ago. But hopefully from now on life will be a little less dramatic."
And her smile, when it comes, is unbroken.
Unbroken: A Story of Survival by Beverley Callard, is published by Hodder & Stoughton.