Essex's answer to Sophia Loren tells Paul Simpson how she made a portly middle-aged man into a sex symbol and how to get a discount in shops
Vicki Michelle is flexing her throat muscles. There's a distant rumble of the kind which normally signifies an imminent avalanche followed by a cry of 'Ohhh Rrrennnnnnn-ayyy!' The growl is pure sex tigress. Lesser dramatic performers like Dustin Hoffman would have had to spend two years sharing a cage with tigers at London Zoo to perfect that growl. But for Vicki Michelle (aka Yvette Carte Blanche in 'Allo 'Allo!) this is easy peasy. But then, as she says, no one can doubt her credentials as a drama queen: 'I must be a great actress, I made Rene believable as a sex symbol.' So top that Mr Hoffman.
She is talking about believability in the front room of her ample residence in one of the discreeter suburbs in the controversial county of Essex. The room is packed with the kind of furniture which Mrs Bucket would want to own if she only had taste. Half hidden behind the TV set lurks a shiny, golden, Gotcha. Michelle is in civvies: white shirt, jeans and black boots. There are two parts of her anatomy which, as a visitor, I find it impossible to ignore. I'm talking, of course, about her eyes. When she's coming over all theatrical, darling, her pale blue eyes treble in size as if they're a pair of saucers.
Making Rene believable as anything was a triumph. After all, this was a cafe owner who, when he wasn't worrying about the stick of dynamite down his trousers, was discussing the theft of the painting of the fallen Madonna with ze big boobies or tumbling into cupboards to snatch hasty embraces with admiring waitresses. With its running gags (some ran, others just limped), catchphrases, rhyming dialogue and daft plots, 'Allo 'Allo! was as close to panto as a sitcom could get without sticking Frank Bruno and Harry Carpenter in dresses and calling them The Ugly Sisters.
Some critics found it offensive. Understandably, Vicki Michelle didn't. 'It had a go at everybody. The French were randy, the Germans were kinky and the English were stupid.' Others found its very success offensive but the French and Germans bought it as did, possibly more remarkably, the Zambians. 'It went on for longer than the war,' says Michelle with a giggle.
She giggles a lot, particularly when she's telling some embarrassing truth ( like: ''Oh Rene' was a way of making the camera stay on me longer') or retelling an anecdote. 'When I was on Noel's show I was working on his ear and he said to me: 'What are you on?' I said: 'Nothing, I'm just acting darling'.'
Acting, darling, is what she was born for. As a girl she pretended to be Sophia Loren in The Millionairess but she had qualified as a secretary when her dad asked if she wouldn't rather go to stage school like her sister. She tried stage school for a year and before the year was up she was getting parts in series like Softly Softly in which she was variously a murder victim, an informant and a girl skinhead. Her film career peaked with a minor role in The Greek Tycoon, starring Anthony Quinn. She had a few lines of dialogue and she was supposed to walk past in the background of one of his scenes but after rehearsal he vetoed her walk, fearing audiences would be distracted. 'It was very flattering in a way'.
In the mid-1970s, Dick Emery gave her a part in one of his shows. The rest, as they say, is comedy. She's worked with the greats like Les Dawson ('Wonderful man. Very intelligent. Could talk on any subject and often did') and the Two Ronnies (she still speaks reverently of the 'brilliant but humble' Barker). In the less politically correct 1970s, she had the ideal physique to be an eye-catching extra in sketches but she says: 'You can't just look good, you have to have timing and you have to be able to convince the audience you are the character.' But by the early 1980s, she had given up showbiz, accepting a job selling ads for Pearl and Dean, when she was sent a script for a pilot called 'Allo 'Allo!.
She read for two parts: the 'I weel say zees only wance' resistance worker and Yvette. Producer David Croft probably had her in mind as Yvette because she'd played a robot-cum-French maid in one of his earlier sitcoms called Come Back Mrs Noah. She based her accent on an au pair from her childhood. The growl was an ad lib. 'I didn't have a catchphrase and I thought 'Hang on, I'm not getting enough dialogue.'
'We were waiting for shooting to start in Norfolk once. All the men were dressed as women and the women were dressed as men and I just thought 'What must we all look like?' Some of the fun went out of it after Gordon's car crash [a paparazzi broke into the hospital and photographed the stricken actor while he was unconscious]. He became very wary of the press and all that it could do.'
The underside of her fame wasn't as bad. 'Before I used to think that men chatted me up because I was glamorous. Suddenly they were chatting me up because they wanted to talk to Yvette. That can make you a little insecure but you get over it.'
Since 'Allo 'Allo! she has made irregular appearances on Noel's House Party. The premise for her guest role is that a femme fatale a la Yvette has moved into Crinkley Bottom and fallen in love with the owner of the big house. Gordon Kaye and Noel Edmunds aren't exactly Colin Firth, are they? 'Well Rene was such an unlikely sex symbol he gave men hope everywhere. And Noel, well, I'd always thought Noel was rather good looking.'
She still watches 'Allo 'Allo!. 'Even now it just creases me up. Mind you, I sometimes think 'God, that lighting makes me look a hundred.'' She accepts that to some people she'll always be Yvette but doesn't mind. 'People always ask: 'Would you like to change anything?' and I say: 'Why? I can't.'' Not that she'd change that much anyway. 'It'd be nice to be taken a little more seriously,' she says with a laugh. 'But you get typecast in this business and there's nothing you can do about it, so you might as well get the most out of it. I'm not averse to talking a beeeet like zees [cue phoney French accent and multiple hand gestures]. I do it in shops all the time. It's good for a discount.'
'Allo 'Allo! The Duel is now available on BBC Video