The bleak streets of South East London, all tatty post-war housing, under-stocked corner shops, and roads choked with traffic, are not the first place you'd imagine meeting Barbara Dickson. Not unless you were confusing her with her small screen persona as the hard-bitten prostitute, Anita Braithwaite, in Kay Mellor's 'Band Of Gold'.

But an actor's life is an actor's life, and it's a life the former folkie from Dunfermline has chosen to lead - this month, at any rate. Before long, she'll be back on stage with her music-driven show, 'The Seven Ages Of Woman', and pretty soon she's sure to be thinking of a follow-up to her 1995 album, 'Dark End Of The Street'. But, for the time being, she is an actress, which means hanging out in South East London, rehearsing in a church hall-cum-community centre down a lane off the main road, round the back of a block of flats. Glamorous it ain't.

I find her sitting at a canteen table exchanging anecdotes with her fellow actors. She's starring in 'Friends Like This', a comedy by Rod Beacham about a free-thinking American feminist who perplexes a conventional British family with her liberal advice. In this afternoon rehearsal break the actors' conversation is anything except to do with the play. Dickson is recalling some mad radio phone-in programme se was on. Roy Hudd is remembering his over-worked days as a holiday camp red coat. A television goes unwatched behind them. The staff are fidgeting to shut up shop.
When the cast return to the rehearsal room, I corner Dickson to try and find out who she thinks she is these days. Last time I saw her it was on a preview night of 'Blood Brothers' at the Liverpool Playhouse, the very first time she'd played Willy Russell's luckless Mrs Johnstone. Back then it had been a big deal that a performer whose theatre work had extended no further than Russell's music-based Beatles tribute, 'John, Paul, George, Ringo...and Bert', should be taking on a major acting role. By the following year, the show had transferred to London, and her performance had won her a Society Of West End Theatre award.

That was in 1984, and it's easy to forget that it would be another decade before she would make her TV acting debut in an episode of Taggart. The success of 'Band Of Gold', in which Dickson successfully re-invented herself, is an even more recent phenomenon. Prior to the first transmission in 1995, the performer's TV experience was either in her capacity as light entertainer or as co-host on BBC's 'Afternoon Show'.

So, after starring last year in the Tim Rice/ABBA musical 'Chess' in Australia, and doing a Radio 4 comedy called 'The Dinner Ladies', Dickson is taking her first tentative step into non-musical stage acting with 'Friends Like This'. Modesty forbids her to blow any trumpets about her performance, so much that she cringes when I suggest I might come and see it. Rather, she's treating it as a chance to explore another avenue in a career that has been nothing if not varied.

"I wanted to do it because it wasn't a musical," she says, the effortless resonance of her voice betraying her parallel career as a singer who went from folk to pop and back again. "I'm doing it because I've never been in a play. It's probably a good time for me to try it. It's another aspect that I'd like to develop."

That she's reached her fifth decade only to branch out into straight acting now has a lot to do with circumstance. Had the opportunities offered to her in small-town Fife been different, she might have reached this point sooner. "When I was eight, I wanted to be an actress," she says. "I could sing, and I presumed that singing and acting went together, because I worshipped Doris Day, who could sing and act. But I didn't go into a field of music where acting was required. If there had been a theatre in Dunfermline, I might have sung and acted early on. It was quite difficult for me to see that."

Having been encouraged onto the English folk circuit in the early '70's by the late Hamish Imlach, Dickson met Willy Russell, who was moonlighting with his guitar, and from there came the part in 'John, Paul, George, Ringo...and Bert'. Despite her early ambitions, Dickson had set foot in a theatre only once before she landed that part in 1974. It took a lot of encouragement from director Chris Bond to convince her she'd be up to the acting-heavy demands of 'Blood Brothers'.

It's little surprise, then, that the music she grew up with is an abiding passion. "Folk music is a bit like a virus - it lives in your spine forever," she says. "Nothing is more inclined to make me stop in my tracks than the sound of pipes and whistles. I probably feel more Scots because of my ties with folk music. That's purely because of the time that I was growing up. Folk music underwent a fantastic boom in the early to mid-sixties, and it was right at the time that I was ripe for that. The folk music I was exposed to during that period was fantastic, and it's what's given me my love of Scots music."

Having left Scotland in 1972, she is affectionate but level-headed about the country of her birth. "Scotland is more like a safety-blanket - I like to go back, have a sniff of it, and go away again," she says. "I'm married to an Englishman, and I live in Lincolnshire, right in the middle of England. Billy Connolly used to make cynical remarks about the false Scottishness of people who'd gone abroad and would have to have Caledonian gatherings. I don't like any of that. But there is a real identity, and whenever I meet up with anyone else who's Scots, I'm always terribly pleased to see them, especially when I'm a long way away. But I haven't got boring and sentimental about it as I've got older."

With that she's whisked back into rehearsals by the company manager, and for the rest of the day, the maddening refrain of 'January February' rings endlessly round my head.

"The Herald" - February 24, 1998. Barbara is interviewed by Mark Fisher (c)