If Michelle Keegan has a knack for making her surroundings feel like chatty northern social clubs, it’s because chatty northern social clubs are in her blood.
Her dad’s a chairman of the local Catholic Club in Irlam, Salford where she was brought up. Her nana worked there, as did her mum and her auntie Marie. She pulled pints in real life before being snapped up to play the head-on, head-strong barmaid Tina McIntyre on the world’s longest running soap opera Coronation Street between 2008 and 2014 (more on that in a mo). And a local pub forms a recurring setting for her latest role as part of Sky One comedy drama Brassic.
“What you see on screen is very similar to where I’m from,” she says, her still-thick Salford accent cutting through today’s swanky west London members club.
“It’s a small community, everyone knows everyone, everyone knows everyone’s business. So for me it was very relatable.”
Brassic sees Keegan play Erin, a young mum determined to give her son all the chances she never had. Created by and starring Joe Gilgun of This Is England fame, it’s set in the fictional town of Hawley, east Lancashire, and follows a group of friends as they attempt to beg, steal or borrow their way out of whatever scheme they find themselves in that week (episode one: the procurement of a Shetland pony). While on the surface the show could read as a simple Last of the Summer Wine meets Shameless comedy caper – co-creator Danny Brocklehurst was a lead writer on the latter – there are broader themes at play too: the thirty-something forgotten youth of New Labour, the neglect of post-industrial towns and, well – the riotous fun to be had behind the perceived doom and gloom.
“With working class northern shows, it’s always very much seen in a negative light,” says Keegan. “It’s always: ‘It’s grim up north.’ Whereas this show is set in a more positive light. Even how it’s shot; it’s beautiful, all green and rural around Lancashire. It’s not about: ‘Poor us, we’re working class.’ It’s about having a laugh and being with your mates. We had a great time growing up, me and mates.”
Of course, a lot of that growing up was done on screen when, in 2007, a 19-year-old Keegan ditched her job at the Trafford Centre and beat out 900 others for the role of Corrie new girl, Tina McIntyre, after a six month stint at the Manchester School of Acting.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says of her first acting job. “I’ll never forget the first time walking on the cobbles, that feeling. It was like being in a dream. It never got boring for me.”
And it never got boring for viewers either. Over 850 episodes, the nation watched as the blunt and brilliant Tina went from bit-part to fan favourite, with story lines ranging from (wait for it): abortion, perjury, surrogacy, the faked death of her father, the real death of her father, a couple of thrown punches, several thrown pints and more than a few broken hearts. Keegan became one of the few contemporary cast members to become as famous outside of the show as on it; her engagement (and later marriage) to The Only Way Is Essex star Mark Wright heightening her status as a regular gossip mag obsession. Then she pulled the plug.
“It was really scary,” she says of her decision to leave the comfort of the show, and an effective job for life, in 2014. “I had to be happy with myself that I might not ever work again. I had to be mentally prepared for that. I told myself, I’ve been in a really lucky position, I’ve been in Coronation Street for six and a half years and I’ve had a really good run. I’ll leave with the door open.” Only the producers had other ideas.
“They said: ‘We’ve got a really good exit storyline.’ I was like: ‘Amazing, what is it?’ And they said they were doing a whodunnit”. (The “dunnit” becoming apparent when Tina was pushed from a balcony and beaten to death with a lead pipe. Ah.)
“I remember speaking to Julie Hes [Hesmondhalgh] who played Hayley, and she said it’s the best thing that can happen to an actor because everyone always asks “when are you going back?” and it sort of rules that option out,” Keegan says today. “To be fair she was right, it does give you that kick.”
So far that kick has taken Keegan from the cobbles of Weatherfield, to South Africa where she films her role as Lance Corporal Georgie Lane in the popular BBC drama Our Girl (recently renewed for a fourth series), and back up north to play the aspirational Erin in Brassic (a second series is already well underway). She enjoys playing strong women because they, along with chatty northern social clubs, are in her blood; a 2018 episode of Who Do You Think You Are revealed Keegan’s great-great grandmother to be a women’s suffragist (one who went as far as to list her occupation as such on the 1911 census).
“I’m from a very strong line of women,” she says. “My mum’s one of four girls. My aunt’s very strong, my grandmother too. So I come from empowering women, strong women. And this character shows it, as well. You hear single mum, working class, and you think she’d be feeling sorry for herself. But she’s going to college for her and her son, she wants to give him opportunities that she never had. It’s really inspirational for young girls.”
“That’s how it was in Corrie too. From day one, 60 years ago, it was strong women taking over the street. And I just love playing strong characters like that.”
Brassic is available to watch now on Sky and Now TV.