Debra Stephenson isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, and her latest acting role, playing the ambiguous director of funding Jeni Sinclaire in Holby City, is definitely that.
Since arriving on the wards of the BBC1 medical drama in April, Jeni has provided much-needed support for fan favourite Fletch (played by Alex Walkinshaw) and has become a mother figure to his daughter Evie (Phoebe French).
However, this week, fans will discover Jeni may have ulterior motives for getting close to the teen.
Here, in an exclusive interview, Debra, 49, tells us how she overcame her reservations to take on this powerful storyline…
How would you describe your character Jeni, in Holby City?
"To everyone at Holby, Jeni is this bubbly, vivacious, generous, warm person; all of the attributes you’d look for in a woman, especially from Fletch’s point of view. She seems so friendly and extremely trustworthy when in actual fact she’s got this whole other dark side to her. We’ve already seen there’s something a bit shady about Jeni and that there’s something she’s hiding. She’s a woman living a double life."
Viewers learn more about Jeni’s dark side this week. What can you tell us?
"As Holby’s director of funding, Jeni gets a real buzz from raising lots of money for the NHS. However, it’s revealed there’s some nasty business she’s involved in away from Holby; she’s basically a facilitator, who arranges for rich men to meet young girls. The clients she has in her dirty world are the same very rich people she can use as benefactors for the hospital. It’s a case of you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. And that offsets her guilt."
Jeni’s horrified when she spots a patient, Rich (Richard Pepper), on Keller. And he soon takes a shine to Evie…
"Jeni’s annoyed when Rich turns up at the hospital; this is a secret operation and she wants to keep it that way. Jeni’s always on the lookout for a “business opportunity” but, you’d think, she knows where to draw the line. It was always in Jeni’s mind that Evie might have some friends that might get involved, not that Evie herself would do it. Jeni needs to keep her two lives separate - but can she?"
Did you have concerns about taking on the role, knowing where the storyline was headed?
"Yeah, of course I had reservations. I thought: ‘I really want to do it… but, my God, Jeni’s horrible!’ No one wants to play someone who’s harming young people, do they? They might think: ‘I don’t want people to see me as that’ and there’s huge responsibility that comes with it. But there’s an important message that needs to be conveyed and that’s that these things do happen; young girls are being snared into this world, and this story is a reminder that they need to watch out."
Are you relishing playing a ‘horrible’ character?
"I am. I certainly wouldn’t steer clear of other ‘bad’ characters just because I’m most well known for playing Shell Dockley in Bad Girls [Debra starred in ITV’s popular prison drama from 1999 to 2003]. When you play a baddie it’s so challenging and thought-provoking and it makes you feel bad inside - and like you’re delving into all those parts you might prefer to leave alone."
Speaking of Bad Girls, the drama is being shown from the very beginning on UKTV channel Drama this July. Do you have fond memories of that show?
"Absolutely! We’ve got a Bad Girls reunion coming up in September, which is a ticketed event for charity, so we’re all getting together for that, and I’m really looking forward to it. We’re pretty much all still in touch and I’m still really good friends with Simone Lahbib [who played G-wing governer Helen Stewart]. We all really bonded on that show. We were all quite young and having a lovely time. They were happy days!"
Holby City continues on Tuesdays on BBC1
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