Anita Dobson’s breathtaking new look for BBC Two’s part-dramatised documentary Armada: 12 Days To Save England, was as much of a shock to the actress as it will surely be for her fans, who, of course, know her best as EastEnders’ troubled landlady Angie Watts.
Temporarily laying her nipped-in waists and trademark curly do to rest (“I still like big hair,” she says with a laugh), the actress spent hours in the make-up chair being made-under to play the ageing and pockmarked Queen Elizabeth I.
Set in 1588, the three-part series tells the story of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, with historian Dan Snow explaining the battle and Dobson re-enacting key scenes. “I had false teeth,” says the 66-year-old, who starred in EastEnders from 1985-1988.
In fact, transforming her into the Virgin Queen was a four-hour process. “They put this substance on my face and skin, dried it gently with a hairdryer so the skin would stick into wrinkles, and then the make-up artist painted leather spots and pockmarks. There’s a shot of me sitting in a dressing gown with the script in my hand, and I look about 111.”
Ageing so dramatically may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Dobson relished the chance to learn more about the Tudor monarch, who she says she came to admire greatly.
“As a woman, and a single woman, she managed to stay on the throne for 50 years,” explains the actress. “For half a century, she ruled England, and England thrived under her. What an amazing achievement. She gave up having children, a marriage, because to her, the most important thing was ruling her country.
“She didn’t want to lose the power, share it and fight over decisions with another person – i.e. a husband, a man – and so she made that decision to stay the Virgin Queen, and I think that’s fantastic.”
Born and brought up in London’s East End, Dobson had a strong sense of self as a young woman, and despite going to a “very academic school” where opportunities to act were scarce, she followed her own path to amateur dramatics aged 16.
And while many in the biz are divided over a lack of opportunity for working-class actors, Dobson is philosophical.
“When I was at drama school, everybody said, ‘It’s a really tough year’, but it’s always been tough,” she says. “Each year brings different problems, different economies, different requirements. I think you’ve just got to make the best of what you’ve got. It’s no good thinking, ‘This is worse, I’m a victim of a time where it’s more difficult’.
“Life is difficult, whatever career you choose is going to be difficult – I don’t think I know anyone who has had a really easy time. There are always times where you question yourself; ‘I’m not getting anywhere, the work’s drying up’, and then somewhere out of the blue, something comes in and off you go again.”
* Armada: 12 Days To Save England, BBC Two, Sunday, 9pm