Michelle Keegan

Michelle Keegan and Tina Moore have a lot in common. They’re both women from ordinary, suburban backgrounds who found themselves thrust into the public arena at a young age. Both married famous men – Moore the captain of the England football team, Keegan a reality star-turned-TV presenter – and had to conduct their marriages in the full glare of the media spotlight. And both had to share their husbands with another abiding love: West Ham United FC (Bobby Moore captained the team for more than a decade, while Mark Wright is a lifelong Hammer who was scouted by the club at the age of seven).

Even so, when Keegan arrived at the readthrough for Tina & Bobby, ITV’s new three-part adaptation of Moore’s memoir of life with a sporting legend, she was daunted to find the woman she’d be playing sitting in the room.

‘I forgot she was going to be there,’ Keegan tells Weekend. ‘But she was so lovely – really welcoming. We chatted quite a lot. It must have been hard for her to hear this story; to relive her life through strangers. I know she had a few tears by the end. It was three decades of her life in front of her eyes.’

And what decades. When 15-year-old Tina Dean met Bobby Moore (played in the drama by Lorne McFadyen), the future national hero had yet to win a first team place with West Ham. As his career flourished, Tina found herself cast in the role of the original WAG; then, in 1964, Bobby was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and faced an uphill struggle to get fit for the 1966 World Cup. We all know how that bit of the story ended, but England’s victory brought new pressures, as it pushed the couple to a whole new level of fame.

Did Moore offer Keegan any advice on how to approach the part? ‘Not really advice,’ says the 29-year-old. ‘She did say she was the breadwinner for a lot of the years, before Bobby was this icon. Football wasn’t paid that well, back in the day. She was a very strong woman – Bobby always asked for her opinion. Behind closed doors, I think she drove the relationship.’

Keegan knows all about playing strong women, having spent six-and-a-half years as a different Tina – Rovers barmaid Tina McIntyre – on Coronation Street, surely Britain’s finest rep company when it comes to producing tough, gutsy female performances.

‘All the women in that show are so strong and independent, and I think they carry that when they leave,’ says Keegan. ‘It becomes part of the job. I look up to people like Suranne Jones, Sarah Lancashire and Kate Kelly so much. They’re my inspirations.’

Keegan won the role, aged 20, on only her second ever audition. Born in Stockport and raised in Irlam, Salford, she’d worked on the check-in desk at Manchester Airport and the make-up counter at Selfridge’s in the Trafford Centre before enrolling at the Manchester School of Acting. ‘Six months later I got an agent, and a month after that I got Corrie,’ she recalls. ‘It just happened.’

She’ll never forget walking onto those famous Weatherfield cobbles for the first time. ‘I grew up watching Corrie. It’s a massive show in Manchester. That first day on set, I’d never even seen what a television camera looked like before. I was so nervous. It was just surreal. I remember seeing Bill Roach walking towards me and thinking, “Oh my god it’s Ken Barlow!” I was so starstruck.’

How long did it take to stop being starstruck? ‘Oh you never get used to it,’ she says. ‘When I worked in the Rovers, I was still like, “I wonder who’s touched this pump before?” Even when I left, I took beermats with me. It’s such an iconic place.’

The show made her very famous, very quickly. ‘It happened overnight,’ she says. ‘As soon as I went on Corrie, I was in magazines, people were taking pictures… It was very hard to get used to.’ Is she used to it now? ‘I don’t think you ever fully get used to it. When I see someone look at me, I still think, “Why are they…? Oh, yeah.”’

She is also one of those actors who, for better or worse, is constantly on the tabloids’ radar. What does that feel like? ‘Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s frustrating,’ she says. ‘But anything negative now, I just don’t read. It’s not worth it. Like when I was in South Africa, and it went really mad. I was working away, and all of a sudden there are reports of marriage problems… I literally don’t know where that came from. But you just have to ride it out.’

She’s referring to last year’s press speculation prompted by pictures of her filming the BBC drama Our Girl without her wedding ring. ‘People wondered why I wasn’t wearing a ring – it was because my character isn’t married!’ She looks bemused. ‘People couldn’t get their heads around what’s reality and what’s not.’

In Tina & Bobby, Keegan plays a woman whose celebrity marriage begins to fracture – including a scene in which she throws her wedding ring out of a car window. Is she worried…

‘Am I worried it’s going to fuel it? Not really, no. You’re playing a character, you’re telling a story. If people want to try and twist it and make it into a non-story…’ She gives a resigned shrug.

In person, Keegan is warm, earthy, tactile. At one point, she breaks off mid-flow to stir Weekend’s tea. Was it distressing her? ‘Yeah, it was all clouding up,’ she says, making a face. If prompted, she’ll admit to a sneaking pride at being named Sexiest Woman in the World by FHM readers (‘It’s very flattering – something to tell the grandkids about’), and doesn’t see why you can’t combine having your own fashion range (for Lipsy) with playing a battle-hardened Army medic in Our Girl.

‘People said I was too small and too glamorous to play a soldier, but I met some of the female medics and they were smaller than me, and really feminine,’ she insists. ‘They’re normal girls at the end of the day, who just happen to do an amazing job.’

Off-duty, she lives with Wright in his native Essex, literally round the corner from Tina and Bobby Moore’s marital home. ‘I drive past their house nearly every day,’ she says.

So the parallels keep on coming – but could Keegan ever have settled for the life of a WAG?

‘No,’ she says firmly. ‘Because, if I’m honest, I couldn’t be bothered with watching football every week.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, January 12, 2017

(c) Waitrose Weekend