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Dressing Room Q and A with Lorna Laidlaw aka Mrs Tembe

12 February 2013

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It’s a rainy Thursday in Birmingham, but I’ve headed down to the BBC Drama Village in Selly Oak to interview Lorna Laidlaw aka Mrs Tembe. It’s her birthday tomorrow, so as we grab a coffee and head for her dressing room, colleagues keep popping up to say Happy Birthday; one even came in to sing her a jazz version! She is friendly, striking and a real hoot. Her dressing room is a home from home and you get a real sense of her bold personality.

Do you get recognised around Birmingham?

People are shocked that I’m from Birmingham because of the accent, and if they see me without the Mrs Tembe wig, they are shocked that I have a big blonde afro. People do not recognise me. Let me tell you a real story about the woman who owns the house that we use as Mrs Tembe’s house, she’s a gorgeous woman, we would sit and chat like this, have a cup of tea and laugh. Then, one day I saw her in Sainsbury’s as Lorna and I said ‘Hiya’ and she just nodded and walked away (Lorna and I laugh) so approached her and said ‘It’s me . . . it’s Mrs Tembe’ she just leaned in and whispered ‘Do you know Mrs Tembe?’ she just couldn’t get it!

So your hair is an important part of your autonomy as Lorna?

When I started this they suggested that I dye my hair black. And I said ‘have you seen my hair? Nobody is changing my hair!’ I discussed the character that they had created for Mrs Tembe and I suggested that she would probably wear wigs. A lot of women wear wigs and hair extensions and pretend that they don’t! I thought it would be a great aspect to her character if she wore different wigs in different episodes!

 How long have you worked for Doctors and how did you get the job?

I’ve been a regular in Doctors now for nearly three years. I got the job because the producers came and saw me at the Birmingham Rep in These Four Streets and they asked me to audition for it. These Four Streets was a fantastic collaborative piece of writing, written by six female writers and was about the Lozells riots. We were a very small cast with lots of characters, so we all had to play three or four different characters within the piece. After that I got offered a part as a hairdresser in a one off episode, and then a year and a bit later they asked me to audition for Mrs Tembe. So people shouldn’t think that they can’t audition. Even if they’ve played a character this year, there’s no reason why they can’t come back as somebody else next year. So it’s good.

Have you always found work locally?

Yes. I have also worked in other places: London, Bristol, Manchester and I have toured nationally and internationally but I have always found work in the Midlands and I think it’s important to stay put. That way people see you and hear about you and it gets to the point where people will say ‘Are you free? Can you do this?’ My commitment is to this area. When I had the kids I thought that things were going to be harder but then I think you have to be a bit more resourceful and confident about what you want. When you have children it’s a different thing. I didn’t want to go up to Scotland and do a six month gig there, I wanted to be where my children were which somehow meant that I had to find work which would provide for me and two children. So I honed different skills. I think there’s a lot of actors who improvise shows and have been working in companies for many years, now that’s a skill that you could actually hone in. That’s what I did; I thought I would write children’s shows. Specifically for my children, shows that I knew my own children would like.

 Did you approach anyone about your idea?

I went to the Midlands Art Centre, I had just seen a show there that was terrible and as a parent there was nothing in it for me, it didn’t mesmerise me and it didn’t engage with the little people either. If the parents are buying the tickets then the parents should be saying ‘That was fantastic, we have to come back’ and I thought ‘I can do better than that’ and I did. I wrote about four or five shows for them, one of which went off to Pentabus and toured.

Did you perform in your own shows?

I did. I employed another actor too. It was always a two hander. They have a lovely little cinema there and they always put on schools performances. When my youngest was six months (and I was still breast feeding) I negotiated with the crèche that was there at the time. I would feed my son and he would fall asleep and go to the crèche, I would do the first show then set up for the second show then I would pick my baby up, feed him again, have lunch and take him back to the crèche whilst I did the second show. After that, I would collect him and go and pick up my eldest from school. I had been working all day but was still there to meet him at the school gates. I was the master of my own destiny.

There are a lot of actors in the Midlands who find it hard to get work locally

I think it’s hard. But you can take control of the situation and make your own work. What’s good about Midland’s actors is that they will just get on with it. People think if you scarper that things will be better, and maybe they will but you could try to make a commitment to your area; it is the second city after all and work will generally lead to more work if you stay here.

I have spoken to people who have moved to London to find acting work, but have family here. Generally speaking they are dissatisfied with a complete relocation

People forget that the rail links from Birmingham to London are fantastic and we can get to London in the same time that it takes a lot of people from commuter London to get into the centre. People should think about that and then weigh up the fact that the cost of living is cheaper here. If you get a contract in a West End Theatre then why not just go there for the duration of the contract and then come back to your real life. I think there’s ways and means of looking at it and it shouldn’t all be London driven.

What was your route into acting?

I didn’t train as an actor in drama school. I got into acting through my Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award. I’d always been in school plays and I went to the Birmingham Youth Theatre to support a friend who was going there to audition. They said to me ‘you can’t just sit at the sides, you have to do it’. So because I needed to do something to get my award I did it. Whilst I was at Birmingham Youth Theatre, somebody asked me to join another theatre company. Then I went to work for lots of good local theatre’s like Big Brum, Women and Theatre, Language Alive and a company from the Rep. Since then I have worked at the Birmingham Rep every year: Education, transmissions, and the main house. That’s because I have honed my skills.

What are your future ambitions?

I would love to direct on Doctors in the future, but we will just have to wait and see! I’ve directed before, I directed three one woman shows last year. I’ve done the ground work and it all flourishes at different points.

You won an MVSA Best Black Theatre production award in 2011 for directing ‘Mr Soon Come’

I did! It was brilliant to be recognised as a director, I also won the Royal Television Society award for Best Actress in 2012. It’s always a great feeling when your work is recognised. It just fires me up to do more, I’m genuinely excited about 2013, there’s so many great things going on in Birmingham.

Do you think there’s an air of excitement around Birmingham?

Yes. I think it’s easy to think about what we haven’t got instead of focussing on what we have got. We’ve got is lots of great theatre companies. The Rep’s going to be opening another 500 seat venue, where they are going to be doing new plays. There is a new studio theatre opening. I think Roxanna is going to be amazing for that theatre because she is really committed to Birmingham and she really wants to get good local actors into that building. The fact that we’re placed where we are is something to shout about and not be embarrassed about. Blue Orange Theatre in the Jewellery Quarter is doing great work and is employing loads of local people. Let’s shout about it. Let’s be proud of it.

Do you think a skill sharing element to our branch meetings would be positive?

Absolutely, and I think people will be very willing to share skills. Say for example if someone had an audition for Doctor’s and you got in touch with me. I would be happy to go through their audition speech or give them advice and help. Those are the kind of things that would be useful. A pool of creative’s willing to help each other out. There are great factions in Birmingham, there’s Performance Art, Dance, Theatre and it seems that never the twain shall meet. It’s a shame and it’s a missed opportunity.

Maybe we could do with a networking type of event?

Yes. I went up to Manchester to something similar, where there were actors, writers and people from other disciplines and it was a fantastic skills sharing. I think collectively it could be a massive voice. The Midlands voice is bigger than just the actors, its Midlands Arts. That’s the big picture.

Do you think it’s about positivity and cross discipline networking?

Yes. We need to start thinking positively about where we are positioned. Why would it be important for a TV programme to be filmed here? What makes this a great area for a new theatre company to open up in? People forget that this Country is like a spider and we are the body of that spider. They don’t call it the heart of the Midlands for nothing; we are at the centre! Theatre Cuppa is great, it’s informal and you can just go along and get a drink. There are business cards flying around. There might be a philosophical conversation going on at one table and informal chit chat at another. You could get involved by networking or you could just go along for the social aspect. As actors when we’re working on a project, we tend to stick together and go out together, but sometimes, if a meeting is informal then people are more likely to go along. When you’ve been working all week, sometimes you just want to go along to socialise. I think different elements would be great.

How do you feel about actors/writers/directors joining up and doing collaborative work voluntarily?

I think it’s something that actors and creative’s have been doing for years. I think it’s important and pro-active. I think you have to say to yourself ‘what am I going to get out of this’ you have to invite people to see your work. It can develop your skills, you can think ‘if I conquer this then I’ll conquer the next project’ you might meet a director at events like that and then they might be doing a massive project next year. We have to think about ways to get work and that’s something we’ve always done. I’ve heard about Theatre Exchange at the Old Joint Stock Theatre and it sounds fantastic. There are a lot of actors/writers/directors who are being positive and pro-active. Let’s be proud of our area and shout about the great work we’re doing here.

Feature by Rachel Dealtry:

 © Rachel Dealtry, Lorna Laidlaw.


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