A Leeds casting agency which discovered Mel B and Kimberley Walsh is still going strong after 45 years. Neil Hudson reports
The story of how Beverley Coles took over a small-time model agency in the 1960s is nothing short of inspirational. At the time, she had only a handful of people on her books and work was piecemeal. Winning business was difficult, competition was rife and agencies could dwindle and die just as quickly as they were born.
But Beverley, now in her 80s, had other ideas.
She changed the name to Regency Agency (the original name still rankles and she is loathe to reveal what it was) and set about dragging it out of the shadows of the sometimes dubious world casting agencies of the 1960 often occupied. That meant moving into the relatively new world and bright lights of television. It meant schmoozing television executives and other industry players. It was a smart move.
The new medium came into its own in July 1968, with the opening of Yorkshire Television and four short years later the first episode of Emmerdale (then Emmerdale Farm), which proved fortuitous for Beverley.
“One of the things I’m proud of is that I had two of my people in the very first episode [of Emmerdale Farm] and they are still working on the show today.”
Despite her advancing years, Beverley displays no lack of energy and passion.
“When I bought the agency, the industry had a bit of a reputation. It was the Sixties, so certain people would take advantage. Girls would get booked out on jobs and then they would get booked out again while they were on them. It’s something we moved away from as fast as possible.
“When I first got the chance to do TV work, I jumped at it and in the end, we ended up taking the business more toward that side. Emmerdale became my bread and butter. I was well known on the set and you get to know the directors and what they are looking for in people. One of the things I prided myself on was supplying people who knew what they were doing - that’s very important to the director, because it saves them time.”
And if you thought her work was limited to catalogue shoots and soap operas, it’s not. She supplied ‘extras’ for advertisements, even films. And you’ll raise an eyebrow at some of her alumni.
Mel B, of Spice Girl fame and Kimerley Walsh, from Girls Aloud were both on her books before they became famous.
Beverley recalls: “I remember Melanie very well. She was very..” she pauses, searching for the right word. “Lively,” she says eventually with the composure of a true diplomat.
“She worked for me as a model and then one day she saw an advert for a girl group in The Stage magazine. She saw it, I saw it. She went for it, the rest is history.
She was on our books as a model, along with her sister, who did a bit of work on Emmerdale. Mel was a teenager when she came to me, she was with me for a number of years. She was lovely.”
Now, after more than 40 years at the helm, she has handed over the reins to long-term friend (and former employee) Janet Tiller.
Janet, 57, is a retired primary school teacher who remembers working for Beverley as a child.
“I was friendly with her mother,” recalls Beverley, fondly. “That’s when we used to do Kays catalogue.”
No stranger to TV work, she’s appeared on dramas such as A Touch of Frost, The Royal and Heartbeat but her first appearance, as a 12-year-old, was in the TV series Hadleigh, which ran from 1969-1976 and was made by Yorkshire Television. It starred Gerald Harper as the perfect country gent.
“I played the teenage daughter of a hippy family and I was reading a book as he pulled up in his Jag.”
The former Pudsey Grammar School pupil took on other roles too but then went to university to study to become a teacher, but she still kept her hand in. When Emmerdale was filmed in Farsley, some of the actors often stayed in her family home. “I remember one year when it snowed really bad, everyone ended up in The Fleece and we all became rather merry.”
But perhaps her biggest scene to date was getting her hair done while chatting to Blanche Hunt in Coronation Street.
“We were on set for a very long time and I was just a walk-on but I was meant to be getting my hair done with Blanche. In between the takes I remember they ended up singing songs and all sorts. When we eventually did the scene, afterwards, the director came up to me and said, ‘did you realise you just did that in front of 13 million people?’ At the time, you just don’t think about it.
“I was still teaching at the time and it must have been about six weeks before that episode went out. When it aired, I went into school the next day and all the Year 2 children thought I’d had my hair done the previous night, sitting next to Blanche on the TV.”
Janet shares Beverley’s ethos and, since taking over the reins, she’s been working hard to introduce herself to as many people in the business as possible. During our interview, she has stop several times to take calls from clients. One is from someone in wardrobe on Emmerdale, another from the director and another from an agent in relation to a forthcoming TV advert.
She explains: “I’ve got eight people on Emmerdale tomorrow and it’s just to check what they’re all wearing.”
This, it turns out, is more of an issue than you’d think.
“Because everyone’s got HDTV now, you can’t wear things like checked shirts, because it just messes with your eyes. The other thing we have to watch is that none of the walk-ons have the same clothes as the main actors. They also have to kind of blend in but wearing browns and beige is also a no-no.
“It’s just one thing, there are others. Nowadays, we’re doing things like 3D picture profiles for people’s auditions. Directors want to know what they look like from the side as well as the front. It’s the direction technology is taking the industry.”
She goes on: “The main thing about being a walk-on is you have to have patience. There can be a lot of waiting around on set and then all of a sudden, you’re needed and you have to be ready to go. Artistes who are on the books regularly attend auditions for commercials, small television parts and music videos.
“I’m proud to continue the good work Bev has done for so many artistes over the years. It can be quite challenging too, as administration is so different now.
“Regency Agency has a good reputation, because we take the time to talk to directors and our walk-ons know their stuff. It’s hectic, the phone never stops but it’s also the most fun I’ve had.”