The Bad Girls actor on the enduring impact of Nikki and Helen
BY ROXY BOURDILLON
Bad Girls will always hold a special place in my lady-loving heart. The ITV drama about Larkhall women’s prison was the first programme I ever saw which showed same-sex relationships, the most iconic being between wing governor Helen Stewart and lesbian lifer Nikki Wade. Ten years after the series finished, in 2016, Simone Lahbib, aka Helen, organised the first Bad Girls Reunion to raise money for The Eilidh Brown Memorial Fund. I was lucky enough to attend the event and speak to the wonderful Mandana Jones, who played Nikki. Closeted teenage me would have been beyond excited and out adult me was pretty thrilled too.
How’s the Bad Girls reunion going for you?
MANDANA JONES: I’m really blown away meeting all the people. I met this amazing couple yesterday. They’d met on a website called something like Married And Trapped. One was from America and one was from England. They had their families, their husbands, their kids. They’d both had this identical experience of watching the relationship between Nikki and Helen and suddenly accessing how they really felt about themselves, their real authentic selves, suddenly realising they couldn’t continue the panto even they’d bought into. When they finally met up, one thing led to another and now they’re together. It’s remarkable.
How does it feel to have played such an important role in so many women’s lives?
I’m deeply proud. In moments where I feel underused by this profession and frustrated, this work lives on. I do feel that somewhere I’ve done something with my life. It’s such a privilege to feel that we got it right. We were positive role models and we helped people to live more authentic, happier lives. I can’t get over that they’re all saying it’s as relevant as ever. Yes, now it looks a bit tired, a bit dated, but the trail of love is just as potent as it was.
What do you think was so special about the Helen-Nikki relationship?
I don’t think any [same-sex] relationships had been represented in that slow-burn, in-depth way before. A lot of portrayals had been quite irritatingly tokenistic, whereas this was so integral to the structure. We had the head of the prison and one of the top dogs, the lifers. They were both pillars that came together.
You had such great chemistry too.
We didn’t just go in and do it. We spent a lot of time talking about, “In the scene I think I feel like this. Where are you at in this? What do you want?” We talked it out to try to find where the tensions and drama were because you don’t have a lot of time on set to do that. We went through every scene, especially if there wasn’t a lot on the page, so that it felt charged. You always have subtextual conversation. It’s all silences.
The hard work definitely paid off.
We both knew that this was a primetime TV series. It was progressive and pushing boundaries. Funnily enough when I got cast my then-agent got a call from another agent, who was gay. He said, “I had a client who went up for Nikki Wade and she’s actually a lesbian. She didn’t get it and I think it’s awful that Mandana got the part.” I was thinking, “That’s what acting is, isn’t it?” I might be playing Henry VIII tomorrow. I might be playing royalty. Have I got to be royalty? No. You actually hopefully cast someone you think might carry the story well. So I went into it with a sense of, “Fuck, some people are really angry that I’m not gay and I’ve got this part”.
That must have put a lot of pressure on you.
I did feel a responsibility to portray it right. I felt like I had no experience or knowledge of it. Some people are actually in prison and that’s actually their life so there was a double sense of having to get it right. You wanted it to be true and representational for women in prison and for the gay community and particularly for the crossover people in between.
One of the great things about Helen and Nikki was that they had a happy ending. Where do you think they would be now, all these years later?
In a chip shop. I’d be on the deep fryer.
I’m joking! I just don’t know. Some people have said they’d have a tea shop, but I can’t see me coming out with the scones. I can’t see anything too normal for them. I don’t think they’d have settled down, got married, “What’s for supper?” I’d rather think they went and did something big. Nikki would probably find it difficult to come back to the workplace after her experience. I could see her working in prisons with angry kids. They’d maybe even be doing that together. They could set something up, and then they’d do crazy travelling together I would imagine.
So you definitely think they’d still be a couple after all this time?
Oh, I’ve no idea. I think they’d be more likely to be together if they weren’t in a domestic kiss of death. I just think when you live with one person, however splendiferous they are, they’ve only got a limited repertoire. Particularly nowadays, we’re always questing for something new. I would see them being a bit adventure-lusty. If they were still together, they would have times apart. Nikki, if she had been banged up in prison for a very long time, would probably have a sense of be wanting to get out and see the world, but then would also want to give something back from her experiences.
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