Memories of the past, ideas for the future

Off-screen drama on 'Fair City'

Claudia Carroll arrived on ‘Fair City’ in 1993 as Nicola Prendergast, a character she describes as “the horrible old cow everyone loved to hate”. In her RTÉ dressing room between scenes she was writing her first novel, ‘He Loves Me Not, He Loves Me’, which became an instant bestseller in 2004. Claudia quit acting to write full-time after her third book ‘Remind Me Again Why I Need a Man’ was published. Her latest novel ‘A Very Accidental Love Story’ hit Irish bookshelves on July 19.

“I’d been doing a kids’ TV show on RTÉ called ‘The Rimini Riddle’. The producer of ‘Fair City’ at the time, Niall Matthews, said: ‘Listen, this part is really small. It’s only just a week. Paul [Brennan] goes on a date with this one he met in work who gives him a hard time.’ So I went in for a week and stayed fourteen years.

“I had no experience of the public eye, hadn’t a clue. There was a storyline where Nicola was in a snot because Paul goes out and buys her an engagement ring and she’s not happy because it’s not big enough for her. She has a fight with him. He has no money and she makes him buy her this huge, expensive ring that he can’t afford. She didn’t care; she just wanted her big ruby. I remember being in Dunnes Stores doing my groceries, with greasy hair, no make-up, in a tracksuit, and this very concerned, elderly couple came up to me and said: ‘We just wanted to say, if you need a lend of money to get your engagement ring we’d be delighted to help.’ I just roared laughing.

“The craic on ‘Fair City’ was always when you went out on location. In studio everything was always contained and efficient but when you went out on the street there was this unknown quantity called the public. You had no idea what you were letting yourself in for. I remember filming an emotional, heavy storyline where my character was battling breast cancer. Vincent’s Hospital very kindly let us up into a chemo ward to film. I was with the lovely actress who played my mother, Kate Binchy, and it was very nerve-wracking going in there. You feel guilty going in as a healthy person and other people are there getting medication.

“We were filming a scene where we were in the waiting area, waiting to be called up. My character was obviously nervous about getting her first bout of chemo. The waiting room was packed with loads of extras but then patients and visitors started drifting in and out. We only had a very small crew and they couldn’t contain it.

"We were doing this really emotional bit where I break down, thinking that I’m going to die, and the next thing we all heard: ‘What are yis all doin’?’ We looked up and there was this auld wan with her wheelie trolley behind her, going in to visit someone. The floor manager indicated to her to be quiet and she said: ‘Are yis makin a fillum? Is it Glenroe?’ The whole room creased up but she wouldn’t shut up. We went for take two and your woman came back again and asked: ‘Can I have a part in it? I used always be very good at the acting.’ The mood was shattered.

“While Nicola was undergoing chemotherapy my then-boyfriend, played by David Heap, was having an affair with my sister, who lived under my roof. One day I was stuck in traffic, queuing to turn into RTÉ and there was a truck inching towards me as I was inching towards the RTÉ gates. The driver saw me and climbed down from the cab of the truck and hammered on my roof. I rolled the window down thinking I had a flat tyre or something, and said: ‘Is everything alright?’ He said: ‘I seen ya comin’ towards me dere Nicola and I have to tell ya, when you do be in dere gettin’ your chemo, Maher is sleepin’ with yer sister. I thought, no, I couldn’t let ya drive past without tellin ya.’

“He was deadly earnest. I had the pile of scripts sitting beside me. I just went: ‘Well thank you, I’m obviously very shocked but you’ve done me a favour. I’m going straight in there now to confront them.’ It was hilarious.

“[Writing] was always something that I’d done but never with any thoughts of publication. Anita Notaro, a very good friend, was directing ‘Fair City’ at the time. She had just published her first book to great acclaim. I remember saying to her: ‘Anita, I really envy you. We all talk about doing it but you did it.’ And she said: ‘Stop talking about it and just do it. Give me three chapters and a synopsis. Don’t make excuses. Don’t go: “Oh when I have more time I’ll do this.” You’ll never have more time.’

“It’s great advice because you can say you’ll do it when things calm down a bit but they never will. So I’m really glad I listened to her. She set me up with her agent, who is now my agent and it went from there. I owe everything to Anita. I wrote my first three books in the dressing room while I was meant to be learning my lines. How they didn’t fire me I don’t know. I would bring the laptop into work because you had so many hours to kill. I got used to working with noise and distraction and I used to get loads done.

“There was always messin’ going on on ‘Fair City’. You’d go in in the mornings and there was always somebody who’d had a fling with somebody they shouldn’t have the night before, or there was a row going on. I used to say if they just turned the cameras around and pointed them at what was going on behind the scenes it would have been a lot more entertaining than what you saw on the telly.

“It was an amazing, amazing time and I’m still friendly with the cast. Clelia Murphy, who plays Niamh, is my best friend. You miss the craic and the people, because writing is so solitary.

“My new book is called ‘A Very Accidental Love Story’. I’ve always been fascinated by the Pygmalion story and the theme of change. That by changing one simple thing about a character, like their accent, you can change their entire life for the better. I thought it might be interesting if the Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle relationship was gender-reversed.

“The heroine is a very unpopular newspaper editor. The prologue starts with her thirtieth birthday and nobody turns up. She starts thinking to herself: ‘Here I am, thirty, on my own’ and she realises she doesn’t want to lose out on the chance to have a child, so she takes the sperm-bank route.

"The story starts when her daughter has just turned three and comes home crying because she doesn’t have a dad. She becomes obsessed with finding her father. The heroine traces him through the sperm bank and it turns out he’s lied about every single thing on his application form. He’s not the perfect donor she thought she’d selected, but instead is in jail. She sees him and recognises the rough diamond he is and thinks she can mould the perfect man out of the raw materials.”

Claudia Carroll was in conversation with Jan Battles

Find out about Claudia's books here

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