Dreams at bay

As a teenager in Blackpool Erin Shanagher dreamed of Hollywood but had no idea how to get there. Instead, her big break came in Morecambe where she plays a lead detective in ITV’s The Bay

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At the start of January, Erin Shanagher was in her local Tesco when she glanced across at another customer’s shopping and was amazed to see her own photo starring back at her from the front cover of a TV guide magazine.

“I had this overwhelming urge to say: ‘It’s me!’ she excitedly recalls. “But I didn’t. I stayed very cool, went to the vegetable section and had a silent cry.”

“I got to the point in my mid-thirties when I had to make a serious decision. I need to pay my bills.”

Shanagher describes it as one of several “pinch me” moments that she’s experienced following her breakout role in ITV crime drama series The Bay. The actor has played Sergeant Karen Hobson in the popular TV show, set in Morecambe, since it started in 2019, with her character’s part growing over each season. That progression takes a major leap forward in The Bay’s third series, which has seen Shanagher’s character promoted to one of the show’s main detectives, alongside Marsha Thomason, who has taken over the lead role from Morven Christie. The pair investigate the murder of a promising young Asian boxer in a six-part series that culminates next week.

“Friends have been texting me saying: ‘Gosh, you’re really in it, aren’t you? I mean, you’re really in it,’” explains the 38 year old over coffee in a Manchester pub close to her home.

She says that she very nearly missed out on the part because she was in Portugal when the initial auditions were taking place. Keen not to lose her chance, she contacted the producer and arranged to see him as soon as she returned. At the time, the role had so little dialogue that she had to read for the lead role of Detective Sergeant Lisa Armstrong (Christie) instead. Impressed by her performance, producers cast Shanagher, gradually building up her part to now rank among The Bay’s principal cast members.

“As an actor you dream of things like that happening, but they don’t really. Do a bit part in this series and, you never know, they might write your character up is just something people say to you to make you feel better. But it actually happened in The Bay.”

And there’s lots of potential for further development too, with scenes hinting towards potential storylines for DS Hobson, who they depict as one of the guys among the force and whose girlfriend appears briefly in episode three. A passionate advocate for gay rights, as a founding member of Hive North theatre company Shanagher used to deliver workshops and verbatim plays about homophobia based on interviews with young LGBTQ+ people to schools across Greater Manchester. It’s a storyline she says she’d love to explore further but the fact that it hasn’t been is part of what makes The Bay such refreshing prime time viewing. Its diversity is built in rather than tacked on.

“Some of the comments online have been along the lines of: ‘Oh, this is too woke,’” says Shanagher. “I put out a tweet where I said: ‘You’re too woke is someone else’s visibility.’”

Shanagher’s roots lie around 20 miles south of Morecambe, down the Fylde coast in Blackpool, where she was born and raised. Looking back on her upbringing as one of four children, the actor describes herself as being an attention-seeking show-off who loved to make people laugh but was far from your typical “theatre-type kid”. Inspired by watching her dad and brothers, she took up taekwondo aged nine, becoming a black belt in her teens.

“I loved the discipline of it. Every week it was like being in a martial arts film, seeing these incredible women doing spinning back kicks and fighting. There was no divide in the room between male and female. They didn’t go easy on you because you were a girl. You had to fight.”

It was in a school careers guidance class where the idea of becoming an actor crystallised.

“I remember vividly being 14 and just writing down in a book: ‘I’m going to be an actress,’” she animatedly recalls. “I had no idea. There weren’t any performers in the family. I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I didn’t have any contacts, connections or anyone I could get advice from. I just knew it was what I wanted to do.”

After leaving school, Shanagher studied drama at Blackpool and the Fylde College and then Salford University. Her first television acting job was a small part in the 2006 series Drop Dead Gorgeous playing a “horrible little vile character” for one scene in a newsagent.

For the next ten years, she steadily built up her acting résumé playing small parts in a variety of TV dramas, soaps and theatre productions, mostly set in the North. Listed on her CV are appearances in Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Scott & Bailey, The A Word, Doctors, Casualty, Holby City and Peaky Blinders, where Shanagher memorably played a grieving mother whose son was killed by Arthur Shelby in a boxing match.

“I guess success for me has come a lot later in my life,” she sanguinely reflects. “I’ve always managed to work – bits and bobs here – so my CV looks great. But within that there’s been times when I’ve had no work at all and it’s only in the last few years where I have worked more consistently. I remember very well what it’s like to have no money and be panicking over how I’m going to pay the rent. It seems like yesterday, so I’m always very grateful to be working. I don’t take it for granted.”

Prior to landing her role in The Bay, Shanagher returned to Salford University to supplement her income with work as a drama lecturer.

Marsha Thomason and Erin Shanagher in The Bay. “If I could, I would live and die in The Bay. You could wheel me out there when I’m 80.”

“I got to a point in my mid-thirties where I had to make a serious decision. If the acting doesn’t work, I need to pay my bills. I can’t survive on pockets of money here and there.”

Asked what kept her going during those lean times, Shanagher says all the sacrifices and disappointments that are part and parcel of being a professional actor instantly drift away the moment you land a role.

“There’s nothing like getting that phone call saying: ‘You’ve got the part.’ All cylinders fire – your ego, the child in you, the self-employed person. That’s an amazing phone call to get because for that moment all the plates that you’ve been spinning are forgotten and you go: ‘Yes! I got the job. They liked me.’ Everything is reset. And then you think: ‘Fuck. I’ve got to actually do it now.’”

She credits The Bay, which was created by Irish playwright Daragh Carville, with enabling her to return to the profession she loves full time. She says working on the show has been a joyful experience since day one, as well as a source of immense pride for the cast, crew and residents.

“People in Morecambe are so welcoming and they love it because it’s about their town. Growing up in Blackpool, I remember thinking, there’s no stories set here. I didn’t see northern seaside towns represented. So I absolutely get it when locals say: ‘These are our streets. These are our beautiful sunsets.’

“What’s brilliant about The Bay is that, yes, we see the deprivation, but then you see the most beautiful blue water beaches and the most remarkable skies. I know from growing up on that coast you can have 20 seasons in one day. The sunrises and skylines we get to play with are absolutely stunning. Wherever there’s water, there’s always stories and there’s something really exciting about that.”

In addition to serving up gripping primetime entertainment, the show’s third season has won plaudits for its representation of deaf characters on mainstream television, with deaf actor Nadeem Islam delivering a moving performance as Jamal, the younger brother of the murder victim. In preparation for series three, Shanagher learnt British Sign Language so that she could communicate with Islam both on and off screen, and it’s their signed conversations that form some of the show’s most touching scenes.

“It was a massive responsibility but in the best possible way. I wanted to make sure everything was accurate, and I wanted to be able to have a real on-set experience with Nadeem in between takes. We would prank each other, swear a lot and have our own secret little sign conversations.”

Mirroring the bond that builds up between DS Hobson and Jamal in The Bay, the two actors became close friends and have remained in regular contact since filming wrapped in July.

“I like to think Nadeem, his translator, Emma, and I are best friends, though they may deny it,” she jokes. “This was his first big TV role and he was just a superstar.”

Next up for Shanagher is a role in crime drama Ridley, starring Line of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar. Filmed in Lancashire over the winter, the actor plays another grieving mother in one episode of the big budget four-part series, due out later this year. “The writing is beautiful and, again, it’s in this wonderful landscape of the North.”

She also has a small part in the acclaimed psychological horror movie Censor, shot in West Yorkshire and now available to watch on digital platforms.

Looking ahead, Shanagher says resuming her role as DS Hobson in a fourth series of The Bay would be a dream. “I don’t know where Daragh will take us, but I’m sure it’ll be somewhere brilliant.”

In the meantime, her focus is on developing an original comedy-drama for TV about intergenerational trauma, which she’s co-writing with Manchester writer friend Alex Keelan.

“It touches on so many dark and difficult subjects, but it’s also funny, believe it or not,” says Shanagher, who, like her best-known character, has an instantly likeable, warm and friendly nature. She’s also great fun to chat to, full of praise for her cast mates and entirely absent of pretension or ego.

“There’s a brilliant website someone sent me, and it says something like ‘10 pictures of Erin Shanagher to make you forget your name’ and half of them aren’t me,” she says with a self-deprecating snort.

During the past two Christmas holidays, the actor has run a charity campaign that donates Secret Santa food hampers to vulnerable families across Greater Manchester. The project is something that she cares deeply about and intends to continue and hopefully expand this year.

“This is going to sound so twattish, but my dream really is to be able to continue doing great jobs and then financially have the freedom to do the food campaign and things like that. It’s a real privilege,” she states, explaining that as her acting career has progressed, her priorities and goals have shifted.

“When I was a teenager, of course, I thought of Hollywood and America because all my heroes were out there. But for me the dream has changed as I’ve gotten older and now, I just like to work. If I could, I would live and die in The Bay. You could wheel me out there when I’m 80. I would solve a case every summer. To be able to work with incredible people on lovely shows where I get to be near my family and friends – god, pinch me, I think I’m actually doing what I always wanted,” she says with a proud smile. “I’m very much a homebird and I swear a lot, so I don’t think I’d be much good on a red carpet.”

Series 3 of The Bay is on Wednesdays on ITV. All three series can be watched on the ITV Hub

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