VALERIE COWAN talks to former Coronation Street actor MALCOLM HEBDEN

LIFE could have been very different for Malcolm Hebden. He started his working life as a window dresser in Burnley - a far cry from his career now as an actor and director.

Malcolm - best known for his role as salesman Norris Cole in Coronation Street - was born in Chester but moved to Burnley with his family when he was just three weeks old.

He was educated at West Gate High School and, although he was involved with several local drama groups, he did not think of turning his love of the theatre into a career until his 20s.

He said: "It was the sad thing that if you came from Burnley you didn't think it was a possibility. You didn't have very high expectations."

Instead he worked as a window dresser and had jobs at John Collier's tailors and at JH Hesketh and Son in St James Street.

Then one of his contemporaries, the actor and former press photographer Richard Moore, went to the Bristol Old Vic drama school.

Malcolm said: "I thought, if he can do it why can't I? But I was several years behind him." Malcolm was accepted on a combined acting and teaching course at the Rose Bruford Drama School in London when he was 28. He never used his teaching skills, going straight into rep when he left.

His credits as a stage actor include The Crucible at Leeds Playhouse, What the Butler Saw at the Dukes Playhouse, Lancaster, The Rivals and Endgame at Liverpool Playhouse and The Birthday Party, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Fool For Love at Contact Manchester.

He has also had 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 been an associate director.

He has had roles in many television programmes, including Heartbeat, Juliet Bravo, Band of Gold and two series of A Bit Of A Do.

And on top of all that, he has appeared in more than 100 radio plays.

But perhaps he is best known for his performance as Norris Cole in Coronation Street - his second role in the soap. He had appeared as Mavis Riley's Spanish boyfriend, Carlos, in 1974.

Malcolm's stint as salesman and Square Dealer Norris ended last April, when his on-screen pal Derek Wilton suffered a heart attack after a road rage incident.

Without Derek - or Dirk, as he always called him - to wind up, Norris had little to do and disappeared from our screens.

For Malcolm, the period immediately after that was the most difficult he had ever had finding work.

"Norris was never actually written out. He was very popular and very established and people tend to think that you are still in it so the offers don't come in. "But I had done a lot of television before that and fortunately I was able to pick up the threads."

At the moment, he is directing The Cemetery Club at the Oldham Coliseum, a Golden Girls-style play about three widows living in New York. He has no plans beyond that.

"I don't know what I'll be doing, but there is nothing unusual in that. You very rarely leave one job with another lined up," he said.

Malcolm, 58, has never had to worry about "resting" for too long.

"The fact that I direct and act has been very useful but I have been very lucky. I have never had to do another job, but then I have not always been that proud. If someone rings up and says they want me, I go. Maybe I should have said no sometimes but I can't. It must be the northern work ethic."

Malcolm had a base in Burnley until 1988. He has now settled in Cheshire but returns to Burnley regularly to visit friends.

And he has not ruled out returning to East Lancashire to live.

"As soon as I get onto the motorway and see Pendle Hill I feel at home. I feel more relaxed there than anywhere else and I wouldn't be surprised if I return to the area at some point in the future. Maybe not Burnley, but somewhere else, like the Ribble Valley. The countryside is terrific."

The Cemetery Club runs until March 21 at the Oldham Coliseum.

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