Former Heidi child star Emma Blake on fame, scandal and missing coffee dates with Madonna
HAVING screen tested more than 300 children, frustrated producer John McRae was animatedly banging a desk late one night in a BBC office and wondering what he was going to do.
Then, as fate would have it, he looked up and spotted June Wyndham Davies’ picture of her young niece.
Days later and Emma Blake was whisked to a studio, read for and secured the main role of Heidi in the sitcom drama of the same name that became a mid-1970s mega hit. It featured a young Nicholas Lyndhurst of Only Fools and Horses fame, Dame Flora Robson and Hans Meyer.
The fame the show brought meant Emma became a household name at the time. Based on a popular children’s book, Heidi was the story of an orphaned girl who was raised by her Swiss aunt and paternal grandfather in a small village in the Alps.
“People still remember it and I do get the odd occasion when people find out I was Heidi. It was quite a distinctive series,” she adds. “Somebody actually put it up on Youtube recently and I had the chance to look at it and I thought, actually, this is alright. It was a sweet thing.”
Although she was barely seven years old by the time she got the role of Heidi, Emma was no stranger to the acting world.
Aunt June was a talent spotter and producer, while her father Gerald was a successful television director and her mother Sally an actress – Emma’s parents met while penniless thespians surviving the punishing schedule of repertory theatre.
As a baby Emma visited her father’s sets. “Apparently I used to love the lights they had up, I’d often be reaching up at them and trying to grab them and was fascinated by them,” she recalls.
Emma made her debut at just a few months old. “My father was directing an episode of Dixon of Dock Green and needed a baby to be snatched out of a pram. So he said ‘well I’ve got one of those’ – a baby – and, at just a few months old, I was on the television.”
When Emma was toddling Gerald was directing episodes of top shows, such as Doctor Who, Z Cars, Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Blake’s 7, Emmerdale Farm – as it was then known – and Coronation Street.
Because of his success it was normal for the family to go to the theatre regularly and casually drop by the dressing rooms of stars such as Fenella Fielding and Peter Egan.
“I remember we once went to Regent’s Park for the annual performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream. After the show our parents were at the bar and me and my brother Adam climbed up on the stage and under the moonlight played with the props and recited some of the speeches.
“It was a beautiful moment and when I think back on everything I remember that and some of the huge and rare privileges we had in our childhoods. It was magical.”
But there were darker hints of the industry. Emma was a huge tennis fan and dreamt of having a knock up with Chris Evert on Wimbledon Centre Court so wrote to the Jim’ll Fix It programme.
“I kept on and on and on and on writing and heard nothing and something in me snapped. I happened to mention this at the dinner table one night and said I thought they were discriminating against me because I had already been on television.
“Much to everybody’s surprise my dad burst out and shouted ‘I do not want you on that pervert’s show’. I was so young, I did not even know what a pervert was, but my dad clearly knew.
“People say why didn’t he say anything? But I say to that they have no idea what kind of invincibility there was around Jimmy Savile.
“The only person who would have suffered was my dad, who would have been out of work, which would have had an impact on his young wife and children – all I know was he was going to protect his own daughter from going near that guy.”
Emma goes on: “I remember at that time, certainly at the BBC, there were people that as a child performer you were advised to keep away from.
“I was told ‘make sure you never are alone with them’ – they were pointed out to you, Jimmy Savile was the only one named, but I certainly got the impression it wasn’t just Savile.”
Growing up in London, the family had a plush flat close to the BBC that was the scene of many a party. Trevor Eve was once kicked out by her mother for canoodling with Sharon Maughan on the sofa.
But family life started to unravel when her father became a front page news story after it emerged he was having an affair with Jill Gascoigne, who he directed in The Onedin Line. He walked out on them to be with her and their home was besieged by the media.
Venturing into her teenage years, Emma first encountered auditions and the casting couch and things began to happen that unnerved her.
“I started to get very leading questions. I was only 13 or 14, and I was being asked about things I was uncomfortable with. How far I had gone, what I knew about, all of which essentially was about sex. For someone like me, who hadn’t experienced any of that, it was very intrusive and scary.
“I basically came to the decision to park that area of my life for a little while, grow up and then get back into it when I was ready.”
She honed her craft at home and also got into music and developed her singing voice, since elder brother Adam had become a blues guitarist.
“One day he came into my bedroom and he said to me ‘right it’s time to stop singing in the shower and get onto the stage’. That night I made my debut as a 16-year-old singing with his band at the time at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, no less. I just remember it going really well.”
By this time her parents were back in touch and her father had moved to a flat close by, sparking the possibility of a reconciliation. However, tragedy struck when Gerald collapsed in a London street aged 62 and died of a heart attack.
That devastated Emma and her mother and also affected Emma’s thespian aspirations as she found doors previously open were closed and contacts no longer in the business.
Emma lived with her mother, and to keep the pair afloat took on a variety of jobs. One of her first was for music magazine Record Mirror, a rival to Smash Hits in the 1980s and 90s, and an early assignment involved her interviewing the queen of pop, Madonna, over the phone.
“She was in New York and was fantastic, even though I didn’t know a great deal about her music at the time. She was very helpful and engaging and interesting and we really hit it off.
“At the end she said to me, ‘I’m coming over to London soon, I’d love to meet you and hang out so let’s go for coffee’. It was very nice, but I didn’t think much of it.
“I worked from home in those days and used to pop into the office for the weekly editorial meeting and at the next one a colleague said Madonna popped in looking for me, but they hadn’t thought to ring me. I lived about a five minute walk away and remember thinking, bloody hell, why didn’t you?!”
Another memorable assignment was being sent to a press junket to interview singer and actor David Essex. “We went onto the hotel balcony and played a game of people spotting, pointing out someone at a distance and saying what we thought their name was and what they did. When it was time to leave he thanked me and of course I was treated to that wonderful smile he had.”
She was also singing in jazz bars whenever she could, while mum Sally had become a world expert on perfume after a chance encounter with legendary actress Mae West.
But in her later years Sally mostly stayed in their flat and struggled with crippling depression while Emma cared for her. After she died in 1999, it emerged Sally had suffered with an undetected brain tumour over the last eight years of her life.
“My mother had a brilliant brain – especially for facts and figures. She took on the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) when they were shutting down Marylebone Grammar School – an excellent school for underprivileged clever children.
“It went to an inquiry and at the end the lawyer for the ILEA came up to her and asked what she did – she was amazed she wasn’t a barrister.”
It was tiring juggling her daily jobs with night-time gigs, but never a chore and Emma also got to do things that were truly special. “One night at Octave, a Covent Garden jazz bar, I did my usual set and stayed on to sing for a VIP and his party, which turned out to be Harry Connick Junior.
“He came with [American saxophonist] Branford Marsalis and I sang into the wee hours of the morning for them and we all had a party and got thoroughly sozzled and it was incredible.
“Harry actually said to me ‘you are an amazing singer’ and was very complimentary. I thought that’s it, I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and there’ll be a limo and he’ll whisk me off to the studio, but alas it never came,” she wistfully adds.
In person, Emma is charming, curious, generous and jovial, but she admits she can be headstrong, critical and exacting. Those traits are partly the reason she has led an unconventional life and enjoys the challenge of acting, she believes.
“Acting is all about getting inside someone else’s skin. Someone recently said to me that it is no surprise that a lot of actors are left-wing."
“Thinking about it I can see that point, since when you are portraying someone you have to learn about and observe them since you’re advocating their position and personality to help people understand who they are. That encourages you to be empathetic towards that person.
“I’ve always been a bit different, a bit detached, and I think to be good at acting you have to be. It’s probably one of the reasons I’ve lived the type of life I have – friends have been having children and getting married but I haven’t. I’ve always done things and approached them differently.”
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman was her favourite actor, while she rates Don Corleone from The Godfather or Omar from the series The Wire among the best dramatic characters ever and harbours hopes to play Lady Macbeth – or even Macbeth – on the stage.
She is buoyed by the promotion of women in the industry, citing BBC drama Killing Eve as a “fantastic” recent female lead and written drama.
Emma welcomes the #MeToo movement. “It’s great people can finally speak up and say yes, this happened to me too. Nobody has the right to manhandle you or say anything inappropriate.
“It does seem a ludicrous thing to have to state, but I think it’s great it’s got people thinking about the whole area around boundaries.
“I think it’s perfectly reasonable for someone in a position of power to want something from someone who is asking for their favour in some way, as long as that is in a professional capacity and not something of a personal nature.”
After her jazz singing career stalled – and she survived a huge horror smash when an articulated lorry collided with the car she was driving, Emma moved to the New Forest. She has lived here for six years – including a spell on Ringwood Town Council – and “absolutely loves” the area.
She has recently been getting back into acting. For her next role she will play Dora in Poulner Players’ latest production Keeping up Appearances, which runs from the 7th to the 10th of November at Ringwood Meeting House. It is part of the town’s First World War commemorations.
She also does voice coaching, slipping in and out of a variety of accents during our con-versation, teaches acting and would like to do more local productions.
“I’ve just been acting in the Salisbury Fringe Festival and working with local companies helps in keeping the wheels oiled. I had pretty much given up on it, but I’ve got a new lease of life here.
“I love singing but have realised what I feel about acting. When I’m lined up for a gig the first question I’m always asking is ‘what’s the money?’ whereas when acting is involved my first question is always ‘what’s the role?’ I just love acting and I’d love to do more.”