Preview: Aladdin

Former Coronation Street star Steve Arnold tells Gary Ryan why he’d like to play the bad boy for once

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Usually when a beloved actor leaves a soap, it’s in a taxi with a sat-nav programmed to “Destination panto”. While some may haughtily sneer, it’s easy to see why it’s such an alluring offer. For starters, it can be highly lucrative – with a wage of £200,000, for instance, ex-EastEnder Steve McFadden (aka Phil Mitchell) tops the pay scale this year as Captain Hook in Woking. Also pantomime is arguably the only time of the year that children under the age of ten are actively encouraged to visit the theatre. (That is, until somebody casts Big Chef, Little Chef in Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and F***king or devises reworking of the long-running Agatha Christie West End murder mystery – The Rastamousetrap).

Certainly, Steven Arnold, who left Coronation Street last December after 15 years service playing butcher Ashley Peacock, can see the appeal – for the Warrington-born and based actor is appearing in The Grand Opera House’s production of Aladdin, furiously rubbing his lamp like an OCD sufferer, and providing the perfect introduction to the arts for restless young ones.

“Onstage, there’s no better feeling than looking out and seeing entire families enjoying the show,” enthuses the 37-year-old . “I think it’s the reason actors like Sir Ian McKellen [who went from slaying dragons to starring as one when he gave us his Widow Twankey at the Old Vic in 2004] have put their name to it in the past. There’s nothing else that’s as much fun.”

Ashley Peacock, the character he had portrayed since 1996, was written out as part of “Corriegeddon week”, marking the 50th anniversary of the continuing drama with an explosive tram crash and a live episode. As exits go, Arnold couldn’t have requested better. “We filmed it in a totally different studio to what we normally shoot The Street in, because of the dust,” he remembers. “We did about three scenes a day, whereas we usually do 18, so they really took their time with it and made it look like a Hollywood action film.”

Suffice to say, joining the cast of Corrie – with a diverse fanbase ranging from Julie Walters to Snoop Dogg – changed his life overnight. “You’d end up constantly surprised by where you would be recognised,” he laughs. “I was in a Maasai Warrior Camp in Kenya once, on safari with my brother and dad. And somebody started yelling ‘Ashley!”That was a bit shocking.”

Arnold lost his panto virginity last winter in the title role in Jack And The Beanstalk, opposite Britt Ekland. At the same time, he was lacing up his skates on ITV1 reality juggernaut Dancing On Ice, the gruelling schedule of which perhaps proves that hell really does freeze over. “I was skeptical at first but I’ve got the upmost respect for figure skaters now,” he says. “Especially the positions they can get themselves into. What they can do on two blades is amazing. I wasn’t the best there, but I gave it a go. It was tiring but it’s better to be busy than the alternative.”

His big break arrived when he was plucked out of obscurity for the lead in a BAFTA-winning short film, The Boy’s Story, alongside his younger brother Kevin. The two siblings later landed parts in Children’s Ward, an ITV kids’ drama conceived by future writing heavyweights Paul Abbott and Kay Mellor, and featuring Russell T Davies (Doctor Who, Queer as Folk) as script-editor.

Having been known as hen-pecked Ashley, Arnold admits he’s craving a role in a Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels style film; after all, growing up, he toyed with the idea of becoming a professional boxer.

“I’d love the opportunity to play a hardcase. Someone really nasty,” he smiles “I’m not sure whether a casting director would ever think of hiring me as a gangster, but I think I’d be really good at it given the opportunity.”

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