Actress Gemma Craven's Lancashire Love

Paul Mackenzie meets Gemma Craven, the Irish actor brought up in Essex who has made her home in the Ribble Valley

This could be a big month for Gemma Craven. The star of West End shows, films and television series might finally get to take a holiday.

'We've been trying to get away for almost a year,' she said. 'I've just clocked up 40 years in showbusiness and I am still busy; so busy we've not been able to find the time for a holiday. It's a good problem to have, every time we thought we'd come up with a date something would come up but we're hoping that January will be the time.'

She should also find out this month if, as she hopes, her contract for top Irish drama The Clinic has been renewed. The programme is one of the reasons the holiday plans were put on hold; that and the late night Hollyoaks spin off mini-series she appeared in late last year, the Radio Four sit com Clare in the Community and the umpteen other jobs which keep her one of Britain's busiest actors.

Her CV includes appearances in some of the best loved shows in stage and screen history and it's a career path she's been set on since early childhood. 'It never crossed my mind not to act,' she said. 'This is what I was born to do and it's what I do really well, even if I do say so myself. The proof of the pudding is that I am still doing it.

'I love it, I absolutely love it. I think I realised this is what I wanted to do when I was showing off as a three-year-old.'

Gemma, who now lives in the Ribble Valley, was born in Dublin, in June 1950 into a theatrical family; her great uncle was Arthur Lucan the comic famous for playing Old Mother Riley and her mother was all-Ireland Irish Dancing champion and a magician's assistant, until she was fired for forgetting to put the birds in his pockets.

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Rather more prosaically her father was a bus conductor who won a scholarship to Oxford when he was in his late 20s and went off to study philosophy and economics.

And when Gemma was 10 she too crossed the Irish Sea to study. She moved to St Bernard's Convent High School for Girls in Essex where she was a contemporary of Helen Mirren.

She began her career in repertory theatre but was plucked from obscurity for a part in the 1970 West End production of Fiddler on the Roof. But her career was kick-started by her role in Cameron Macintosh's first solo production, Trelawny, replacing Hayley Mills when the show transferred to the West End.

'After that I was the guest on various television shows with people like Perry Como, Val Doonican and Morecambe and Wise and then I moved on to all sorts of things. I was Cinderella in The Slipper and the Rose, I was in Wagner with Richard Burton and the original production of Cats, which was very different to the one that went to the West End and I was in Loot with Leonard Rossiter, I was working with him when he died.'

Her big break in television came opposite Bob Hoskins in Dennis Potter's ground-breaking musical drama Pennies From Heaven, but although Gemma was desperate to land the role, she did have some reservations.

'It was so different from the twee type of role that I'd done so many of before. I wanted something with more meat.

'I really wanted it but there was a scene where I was in bed with my boobs out and lipstick on them. How do I tell your mum and dad that? I was 27 and it's not really the way you want your dad to see you. When I got the part there were great celebrations because it was such a massive part. I gave my mum and dad the scripts to read. They were great. My dad might have needed a whiskey or two, but they were great.

'Bob and I rehearsed the scene so many times and we had three brandies each before we actually filmed it, but it made no difference. I think when it finished the two of us burst into tears.'

And after appearances in shows as diverse as Father Ted, The Bill and Midsomer Murders she's now hoping for more television work. 'It's like starting all over again. I was in the musicals for so long because they have a long run and that's what I'm mainly known for but I'd love to do more television work.

'I have learned so much from all the people I have worked with and I have been fortunate throughout my career to work with some fantastic people.

'I was very shy, maybe acting is a way of compensating for that shyness. It's true of a lot of actors, acting allows you to be something you're not. I get to be so many different people.'

Shyness doesn't seem to be too much of a problem for Gemma's partner. Gary Womack opened his jewellery shop in Blackburn town centre in the 1970s but by the time it closed last year his name was Lord Odin, Lord of Asgaard, God of Midgaard, Ruler of Hell and Slayer of Giants.

'We were talking in the shop and I said that if I had children I'd give them unusual names. Other people said "How would you like it?" and I looked into it. The solicitor told me it would cost �28.50 to change my name so I went for it.

'At first I thought of changing it to Mickey Mouse but the joke is a bit short-lived. It'd be quite funny if the police pulled you over, but beyond that there's not much mileage in it.

'I was reading a lot of books on northern mythology at the time and chose the name Odin, but then thought I'd get people calling my Mr Odin. The solicitor suggested Odin Deus, but I didn't think people would understand that. Odin himself had about 150 names, so I've compacted it quite a bit.'

His new name caught the attention of the local newspaper and was spotted by the nationals but he added: 'A couple of the tabloids started to get silly with it and to try to take me over that fine line between eccentric and nutter.

'My own father had to check at one stage to make sure I didn't really believe I was a god. I originally thought I'd give it a year but it would seem strange if I went back to being called Gary Womack.'

His shop also had a name change, becoming Vall Hall - 'That was a hall of silver and gold in the mythology' - but it closed during the Blackburn town centre regeneration work. 'I don't know what I'll do. I may open another shop at some stage but I would also like to buy a forest. There's all sorts of things you can do with a forest.'

For now they are making do with the land around the farmhouse they share in the countryside outside Longridge and which Odin renovated. Gemma said: 'I love being here, it's such a beautiful place. I lived in London for 30 years but there comes a time when you have to get out. If only for decent service in shops.'

The pair have been together for 10 years after they were introduced by Shirley Mason who worked in the Blackburn shop before heading for London to chase her dream of a career on the stage.

'She got a part in 42nd Street which Gemma was also in,' Odin said. 'They got on well and shared digs and when the show came to York she asked me to go over and see it. We went out for a drink before the show and then met again after.'

Odin was recently divorced and Gemma was still with her second husband David Beamish - she had previously been married to actor Frazer Hines - and Odin added: 'We didn't think of getting together at that stage and when we did get together I thought it would last about 10 minutes because she was all over the place and I found myself driving all over the country to see her at all sorts of theatres but it has all worked out.

'The only problem is that whenever we're watching television she's always saying "Oh, I went out with him" or "He was my boyfriend for a while". It can really spoil a film.'