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Interview: Coronation Street's Norris Cole, Malcolm Hebden
MALCOLM Hebden's life could have turned out very differently.
A slow starter at school (he later discovered he suffered from dyslexia), Malcolm drifted from job to job as a shop assistant, and later worked as a window dresser in Burnley until his late 20s — a far cry from his present career as one of the nation's favourite soap actors.
“I went to Barden Secondary Modern, in Burnley, and was extremely slow because I'm severely dyslexic,” said Malcolm, 69, who was born in Chester and moved to Burnley before his first birthday.
“Of course, they didn't know about dyslexia then. You were just dim.
“People from my background simply didn't go to drama schools. It wasn't an option. It’s not like it is today when there's a drama school in every town. There were just a few and getting into those was not easy."
Although Malcolm was a keen amateur actor with Accrington Arts Club, the Highcliffe Players and Burnley Garrick Club before taking the plunge into professional acting, it was seeing one of his contemporaries, actor and former press photographer Richard Moore, go to Bristol Old Vic drama school that gave him the push he needed.
"I knew Richard Moore and I watched him do it, and I thought, 'Well, if he can do it, why shouldn't I?'"
"I didn't have any O-levels or A-levels and so I had to go back to Accrington College to get the qualifications before the drama school would accept me."
Malcolm's gamble paid off and he has acted on stage in theatres all over Europe, and has a long association with Sir Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where he has appeared in more than 10 world premieres and was an associate director.
He has also had roles in many television programmes, including Heartbeat, Juliet Bravo, Band of Gold and two series of A Bit Of A Do. On top of all that, he has appeared in more than 100 radio plays.
But, of course, Malcolm — who now lives in the Ribble Valley — is best-known as Coronation Street's nosiest neighbour Norris Cole. It's not widely known, however, that this is his second role in the soap. Malcolm first appeared in 1974 as Carlos, Mavis Riley's Spanish lover.
He is currently enjoying an exciting storyline, as Norris's half brother Ramsay Clegg (played by Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs) has turned up and set the cat among the pigeons.
"The whole story of this half brother is actually something very different for Norris," said Malcolm.
"It's not all comedy, ultimately. I'm looking forward to that challenge, doing some emotional stuff and getting involved, but it's a slow burn. The storyline is starting very slowly and at the moment I'm just being very vile to him, and I remain so until much later on when the true story comes out."
Malcolm is partly responsible for getting Sachs the role in the soap, after he mentioned the idea to Corrie producer Kim Crowther.
"Andrew Sachs had shown an interest in wanting to play my half brother a few years ago," explained Malcolm. "But the idea got lost because we've had two different producers since then.
"I happened to be at a charity dinner with our current producer Kim Crowther and I mentioned it to her. She picked up on it immediately and said: 'Ooh, we must make that happen.' She approached Andrew and he said he would be happy to do it and I'm very lucky to have got him to work with."
Outside Coronation Street, Malcolm values his privacy — you'll never see him falling out of a nightclub or in the pages of Hello magazine.
"I am a private person. I live alone and I quite like it like that," he said.
"I don't hide away, though, and I've been filmed shopping in Sainsbury's on someone's mobile phone once — it was on Youtube. You do have to be careful though. I don't go out clubbing at night. For one thing I'm too old, but I don't anyway because when people have had a few drinks their attitude can be slightly different.
"Norris is a very popular character in general, though, and he's also very popular with children, which surprises me. I would have thought he'd get on our nerves, but he doesn't."
So are there any similarities between the man and the character?
"Well, I suppose I look like Norris for a start," said Malcolm.
"But other than that I'm not like him at all. Norris has never moved away from the one area and I've worked all over England and in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and France, so I suppose I'm more sophisticated than he is. I can be a bit obsessive, but I don't have Norris's nosy streak. I don't peep around net curtains and things. I would hope I'm not as annoying as Norris. He can be infuriating. I'm amazed he gets away with what he does. People are very forgiving."
"We never know from one week to the next what days we're going to be working or what times, so it's very difficult to plan ahead," he said.
"My house is taking up a lot of time and a lot of money but when that's finished I will start working on the garden, which is new to me, so I'm rather looking forward to getting into that.
"It's an enormous privilege and it certainly keeps you grounded.
"When I do charity work I always come away thinking how lucky I am not to be in that position, and if I can do anything to make life easier for those people I'm more than happy to do it."