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Cheryl & me

Robyn Malcolm explains the outrageousness of fortune.

It began more with a hiss of suspicion than a roar of critical acclaim. We'd been burnt so many times before. "Outrageous Fortune is not another great leap forward for local television drama," pontificated this magazine's television critic back in 2005. The email that arrived from the show's director, Mark Beesley, wasn't the usual inventively abusive tirade. Just a suggestion: "Keep watching. I hope we'll demonstrate how much potential the series has." So I did and they have. It's been heartening, if a little worrying, to see our household's younger demographics settling into the show's casually criminal, bonk-happy version of Kiwi family life as into a warm bath.

There's jailbird Wolf, selectively demented Grandpa, assorted semiferal children of uncertain IQ - and, holding the West family together, Cheryl West.

Outrageous Fortune is now into a 22-episode third season on TV3, having successfully negotiated even the often ill-advised Christmas special. This year's Listener readers' poll saw it edge out Prime Suspect as the programme most would like to see repeated. In the UK, ITV is making its own version, Honest. It stars, appropriately enough - Outrageous always had a touch of the Braithwaites about it - Amanda Redman.

The show has so many nominations in this year's Screen Awards that, in some categories, cast and crew are forced to compete against each other. If there's any justice, Robyn Malcolm will collect another award for Cheryl West, the most convincing local small-screen diva since Ilona Rodgers's Maxine in Gloss.

She gobbles the scenery doing almost nothing the day I visit the Outrageous Fortune set. They're shooting a flashback sequence set in 1998. Part of the show's charm is the way it evokes less anxious times. The 90s Cheryl sits tapping her foot to fiddle-dee-dee music at her daughters' Irish dancing class, blowing clouds of cigarette smoke over the other mums and tapping the ash into her handbag. Those were the days.

In a break, Malcolm, preceded by Cheryl's dangerously canti-levered cleavage, comes over to say hello. In person, she's tiny, an expert at making you feel like her new best friend on impact, and a fount of obscure expressions. "I go on like a pork chop," she warns.

Which she does, despite a late night before at the Screen Awards nominations, when we meet again at her place in Devonport. Talk about drama. Malcolm has trodden the boards at the Globe Theatre, named for Shakespeare's old stamping ground, where she did a residency. Outrageous Fortune borrows its name and episode titles from Shakespeare.

As we chat in her living room, the weather seems to have blown in directly from some particularly blasted heath. The sky blackens, the wind cracks its cheeks, sounds of thunder, off. Malcolm abandons a soliloquy on the effects of going whale watching - "I thought, what the hell am I doing in this frivolous, ridiculous industry? I must quit and become an eco-terrorist immediately!" - to run and bring son Charlie to admire the special effects.

The forces of nature prove nothing compared to the shock and awe wreaked by the presence in a household of two small boys. "Would you like to see my triceratops?" offers Charlie, three. Pete, 18 months, busies himself taking things out of the fridge and putting them back. "Cold," he observes.

Malcolm has a live-in nanny, who takes over while we retreat to the living room to talk. She's been a solo mum since the break up of her marriage to musician Allan Clark. "My relationship with chaos," she says, above the uproar, "is a healthy one."

Watching her calmly improvising flat whites with Pete on her hip, sidestepping Charlie as he hurtles around the kitchen on his bike, it's clear why Malcolm does "embattled matriarch" so well. These days, she is so at home in Cheryl West's unrepentant animal prints that she must scare herself. The only role she doesn't seem comfortable in is that of Robyn Malcolm, star. "I need a Sherpa," she'd said at the photo shoot the day before, mortified by her entourage. They managed to get her into an elegant frock, but good luck trying to pry her out of her ugg boots. "Move your hands, so you don't look so much like you're protecting yourself," pleaded the photographer.

"With Cheryl I go, 'There's the lipstick-wearing Taurean. I know her. Bang, let's go,'" says Malcolm. "Whereas Robyn - I looked at some of those shots afterwards and I just came across as looking slightly confused and worried."

A question about the possibility of her appearing on that apotheosis of celebrity culture, Dancing with the Stars (I was only joking) has her at an uncharacteristic loss for words.

"Well. I think raising money for charity is fantastic but ... Hmm. I, um ... Nah. Am I just being a wanker?" In the end she decides, gesturing helplessly in the direction of the bedlam raging beyond the door, that she wouldn't have time.

As for the awards, "I'm always in two minds about it, the show-pony nature of it." On the other hand, what's wrong with some mutual backslapping? "I don't think we do enough of it. We're such a self-deprecating nation, so terrified of our own success. You don't want to get above yourself or blow your own trumpet." She even allows herself an Oprah moment: "One of my life's journeys is actually to learn to accept and appreciate what I'm good at."

If she's a bit worried and confused about the baubles of stardom, it's no doubt down to 20-odd years of struggling to live the creative life in this country. "You've got to be able to do everything. So many actors I know here, they sing, they dance." She's a survivor of the thespian equivalent of running up naughty knickers. "We've done the street theatre, the clown workshops. We've all sung at some mad thing."

The nadir: a Lord of the Rings convention (she played, briefly, Morwen). Craig Parker, local elf, made her do it. "It was awful. They're like pimps. They charge like £15 for an autograph and we might get £3 of that." The fans? "Lovely and obsessive. I still get letters." Some got hold of footage of Parker and Malcolm having sex on Mercy Peak. "All the women are desperately in love with Craig. I was treated with a great deal of suspicion. Oooh, yeah. I got elbowed out of the food line at one point by this chick who wanted to get in behind him." Yikes. All very Extras. "I've got a friend who's writing a play about it."

There have been other serious low points, such as the collapse of the New Zealand Actors' Company, which she formed with Tim Balme, Katie Wolfe and Simon Bennett. The initially successful troupe floundered on Leah, a gender-reversal version of King Lear. Malcolm is philosophical.

"I had a wonderful conversation with Mark Rylance, who was artistic director for Globe Theatre in London. He said, 'Bless you for taking those risks.'" He also recalled his own failed venture. "They did a production of Macbeth. Jane Horrocks played Lady Macbeth. She wanted to pee on stage in the sleepwalking scene. That production destroyed the company."

Out, damned spot, indeed. Imagine the cleaning bill. I think Malcolm means this as an inspirational story. She's the woman who was once dubbed "the foghorn" by director Colin McColl. "When I first got out of drama school, I was such a show-off." You imagine she'd do just about anything, short of peeing on stage, for a laugh or her art.

She's possibly a bit of a stirrer. "We were Presbyterians. I remember - I don't know why we did it, my parents are hugely liberal - we used to sit in the plum tree and drop stones on the Catholics as they went to Mass."

Malcolm spoke out when Serial Killers, a nice little comedy about soap writers behaving badly, died after TVNZ put it in a demographically unfriendly slot. "Somebody needs to charge through that very large building across the water there on a big horse with a sword of courage and a sword of risk and do something," she says, in LOTR mode, glowering in the direction of the Death Star.

She's fronted up in the women's magazines, where she's talked about smacking, having a miscarriage, having an abortion. Her celebrity baby stories include the haemorrhoids and hernias. "I don't think I'm a media whore... I always know my reasons for doing that stuff. Why not talk about haemorrhoids? Why not talk about the fact that the first six weeks are hard and you stay in your pyjamas? Why do we need to be these perfect creatures? Because we know we're not."

The only no-go area is the marriage breakup. "The machinations of whatever love life I might or might not have is nobody's business. That's just gossip. As my sisters used to say, 'Who cares? It's just smelly old Rob.'"

Back in 2001, Malcolm allowed herself a Woman's Weekly story about nothing more weighty than having found the love of her life. Whatever happened to end that must have been devastating. Do they share the parenting? "No, not really." The boys' dad spends time with them every week. "But I'm pretty much it. Which is cool. We have a good relationship, he and I. This is where my ex and I have got it right. We're both able to put all our own personal stuff aside. The worst thing you can do is use your children punitively against each other. I know that when they have a great relationship with both of us, they have a better day."

They're lovely kids. For all her valiant positivity, Malcolm won't downplay the difficulties. "I went quite mad last year. The good thing is that when you go mad, you don't know you're going mad. You only know that you were mad when you're not any more. You come out the other end going, 'Whoa, good, I'm back to myself again.' And everyone else has fallen over."

There's a disarming openness to Malcolm. It could make her seem vulnerable but, as with Cheryl West, there's a sense of steel at the core. On screen, she's one of the best we've seen, whether she's playing Cheryl West or, as she refers to her former incarnation, Nurse Ellen Crozier, "the old slut in the cardie on Shortland Street".

"I think as an actress she has the ability to be an everywoman on screen, with a huge amount of craft and skill behind it,' says Simon Bennett. He's head of drama at South Pacific Pictures, where Outrageous Fortune is made, and a long-time co-conspirator. They went through university and drama school together. "Simon once told me that I sounded like a sick parrot," recalls Malcolm fondly.

The show also benefits from a terrific ensemble cast, sharp writing and a damn-the-torpedoes attitude to matters of taste. Bennett recalls with still-palpable wonder a note from TV3 in the early days. "This is a bit safe. Can you take more risks?"

"There's a kind of good, old-fashioned sexism," beams Malcolm. "I feel like I can say that, because I feel like I'm probably of the first generation of women who have really reaped the rewards of the battles and the conversations and the protesting. On Outrageous Fortune, testosterone is not a dirty word."

Cheryl is fairly over the top, though, even for West Auckland. "Well, you know I met a Cheryl, a real Cheryl. If I was to put her on screen I would be torn apart for playing a caricature. She was a cross between Lynn of Tawa, Pammy Anderson and - who was that gorgeous creature from Wainuiomata? Chloe. I'm pegging it back."

There were initial criticisms that the Wests didn't talk like real bogans. This didn't go down well with Brian Sergent, who played Wolf's sidekick, Eric. "We had a review where a character was criticised for using the word 'meanwhile' because no one in the west would say 'meanwhile'. And Brian, bless him, came on set the next day and he went: '"Meanwhile? Meanwhile?!" I grew up in Naenae. I've been using the word f---ing "meanwhile" since I was three.'"

So what if the Wests sometimes talk like television writers? Like the best television, they've created their own strange, oddly appealing world. Outrageous Fortune may not be The Sopranos, but it is a product of the HBO age, where you can get away with murder if you have enough style. Even if that style sometimes makes your eyes bleed. "The whole point of any creative endeavour is to get that lightning in the bottle and to have fun with it," says Malcolm. "The moment you're no longer walking on that tightrope, you might as well not be there. You might as well be doing some other job."

Daddy's here," says Malcolm, as sounds of the children's dinnertime filter in. It's a cosy scene when we head back out to the kitchen. The children, the nanny, the ex around the table. And the award-winning actress, holding it all together. "I think one of the things that must drive you with separation is a happy ending," she said earlier. "For them."

As for her own future, there's a play, The Cut, with Outrageous co-star Frank Whitten, in October. And, very possibly, more Outrageous Fortune . "I really just want to keep working in good work, as anybody does, and see some more of the world. Raise my boys."

She's inspired by Helen Mirren, Judi Dench. "Or, in New Zealand, Elizabeth Hawthorne and Catherine Wilkin. They're really international. They should be having their own TV shows, the Jane Tennisons, these complex, fabulous women." She hopes, cautiously - "I don't want to jinx anything" - that there's a trend to write strong parts for women over 35. "The way I look at it is that it would be a shame to waste me soon. Because I think in 10 years' time I'm going to get quite bloody good."