WHEREVER Sair Khan goes on set at Coronation Street these days, she is followed by someone poking a 2m stick at her.
It adds an unusual dimension to the working day, but then, these are unusual times.
In fact, as the iconic show approaches its 60th birthday, the stick – which ensures all cast and crew remain a Covid-safe distance from each other – has become as familiar to those on the Street as one of Betty’s famous hotpots.
“It was a bit weird at first, but everyone is so passionate about making the show a success, keeping it on air and doing it as safely as possible,” says Sair.
“Over the last 60 years Corrie has overcome plenty of challenges. And the way we’ve got round this one is with the stick, so we’re all physically distanced from each other.”
Filming resumed in June after a three-month lockdown-enforced break, with Sair and her colleagues returning to a very different Weatherfield from the one they left behind.
They had to get used to doing their own hair and make-up (as, indeed, Sair has done so expertly for our cover shoot today), as well as the creative uses of ironing boards and desks to keep characters apart.
On-screen family members now have conversations from opposite sides of the room – even on their wedding day Gary and Maria didn’t go anywhere near each other.
Like all the cast, Sair, 32, has had to dig deep to find imaginative new ways of keeping scenes realistic while working under such severe restrictions – particularly difficult since her character Alya Nazir has been at the heart of an emotionally charged storyline with her grandmother Yasmeen, the victim of coercive control and currently charged with the attempted murder of her abusive ex Geoff Metcalfe.
“That has been really tough,” admits Sair. “We’ve had some important scenes between Alya and Yasmeen where they needed to be close.
"Moments where Yasmeen has broken down and the normal thing to do would be to hold her and comfort her. But what can we do except get on with it? And learn some new skills along the way on how to adapt.”
It’s been six and a half years since Sair landed her dream job on the soap she’d watched her whole life.
Since then we’ve seen Alya put through the mill, first losing her father Kal in the Victoria Court fire, then having her boyfriend Luke murdered by Pat Phelan, and now playing a central role in the Yasmeen story, which is due to come to a head with the trial during the soap’s milestone birthday next month.
But Sair has also faced immense personal sadness away from the cameras, which has had a profound effect on her outlook on life.
ACHING WITH GRIEF
Last year, she lost her mum and as she talks about her death today, it’s clear she’s still aching with grief.
“I think losing my mum has made me so sensitive to how precious life is,” she says. “It’s given me a lot of drive to have the experiences that she never got to have.
“I just want to keep making her proud because I know that she was so happy for me being on Coronation Street.
"Doing the job that I do, I’m lucky to be afforded so many opportunities to live a life that she could never have dreamed of.”
I feel for anyone who has lost a parent or anyone during this time. It must be incredibly difficult
Tears well in her eyes but she declines the offer to change the subject.
“No, no, I’m really happy to talk about her because I’m so proud to be her daughter. It’s just very emotional. I feel for anyone who has lost a parent or anyone during this time. It must be incredibly difficult.
“Losing her has changed me because – and I know that it sounds clichéd – but it makes you realise what is important.
"I have an extraordinary amount of love to give and I want to give that to everyone who is important to me, my friends and my family.
“Right now it’s still so raw, but I am making my peace with it.”
In a searing Instagram post announcing her loss last September, Sair remembered her “mama”, who she prefers not to name, as “strong and fierce… the protective lioness who would never let me come to any harm.”
She added that she was “still learning to heal” and says today she thinks that process will last forever.
“I think there is a lifetime’s work ahead, but I will continue to grow. I owe it to my mum to be the best that I can be.”
Sair grew up in Leeds and is the first in her family to venture into showbiz, after falling in love with acting through drama clubs at school.
At 17, she joined the National Youth Theatre where she formed firm friendships and made key industry connections, before working as a jobbing actress and winning a small role on BBC1 drama Doctors.
To perform was a “yearning” although by the time she got the Corrie job in 2014 at the age of 26, Sair knew all about the precarious nature of the business and remains wise to its pitfalls.
“I’m under no illusions that this life will last forever for me. Life is full of highs and lows and successes, failing and everything in between. I will never take this job for granted.”
Sair is also acutely aware that as an Asian actress, her journey has been infinitely tougher in an industry where women of colour are often typecast, overlooked and under-represented.
She remembers moving to London with no job and no money and applying for jobs in bars and restaurants while trying to make ends meet, but not daring to put her real name on her CV.
“I thought people would judge me, thinking it was a foreign name,” she says, overcome at the memory.
“I would feel shameful having those thoughts going through my head, but I just knew that the world wasn’t equal and fair.”
It’s only after this year and the Black Lives Matter movement that Sair has felt empowered enough to speak out about her experiences, and since the spring she has had several discussions with friends and colleagues that have been liberating.
“The world we are in right now is opening up a lot of those conversations.
"I’m proud to be a woman of colour in this industry and this is the first time we’ve had an open dialogue without shame or judgement and been able to talk about the ways we have been treated or mistreated within any industry, not just showbusiness.
“I love that the women in this industry – women of colour – are having the spotlight shone on them now. They deserve it and we deserve our voices to be heard and I no longer feel guilty for having a seat at the table.”
She hopes that by using her voice and her platform, she can help enable other black and minority ethnic actresses to recognise and call out the micro-aggressions which, for her, became par for the course.
“I now feel I am able to lift other people up, people who feel like I did at the beginning when I felt like I had a muzzle over my mouth and couldn’t speak.
"I didn’t have the words to really decode what was happening, but I have been here long enough, I know what I want to say and I feel really powerful.
“I want to give that to women and men of colour in this industry. Now is our time.”
I love that the women in this industry – women of colour – are having the spotlight shone on them now
There are clearly many years of hurt to unravel, but now she’s started Sair intends to keep talking.
She is passionate about equality and social justice – as well as BLM, she has used Instagram to highlight mental health issues, International Women’s Day and lent her voice during lockdown along with a few of her co-stars to a moving Women’s Aid campaign promoting the Silent Solution, which allows people to press 55 during a 999 call to signal they need help but are unable to speak.
“It was so concerning during lockdown that people were trapped in their houses with their abusers,” says Sair.
“It was at the same time we were doing the Yasmeen and Geoff storyline and we knew that we wanted to do whatever we could to let victims of abuse know that there was help out there in ways that they might not have known.
“I could sit in my apartment and complain about my noisy neighbours, but I am safe. It is so upsetting to know that wasn’t the case for so many people and that the figures for domestic violence went up so drastically.”
Sair has relished being involved in such an important plot that has been carefully handled and heavily invested in, bubbling away for the last 18 months.
“At Corrie we have the luxury of it being a continuing drama so you can dig a little deeper into the characters and their complexities,” she says.
“With Geoff, we really saw that. He didn’t go from nought to 100 overnight, we saw how he needled away at Yasmeen, the things he would do to provoke her and destabilise her and I think viewers come to the realisation about what was happening almost in real time.
“Alya’s role at first was about knowing what not to do. You think you can run in there to be the saviour, pull her out of the situation and job done.
"But it’s a lot more nuanced than that and I think Alya realised that she was actually putting Yasmeen in a riskier situation.”
Actor Ian Bartholomew who has portrayed Geoff so menacingly well couldn’t be further from the monster he plays. Sair remembers the Corrie Christmas party last year.
“I was on the dance floor with Ian at 2am, throwing wild shapes, having the best time. Little did we know that would be our last crack on the dance floor for who knows how long.”
She describes the first lockdown earlier this year as a “mixed bag” for her and quickly found that she needed routine to stay sane, incorporating yoga, HIIT workouts with her Sink Or Swim coach Harry Needs and PE With Joe into her day.
She baked cakes for friends and learned to cook curries from scratch.
“I recreated some of my mum’s recipes, which was really nice. And one of my best friends is Dean Fagan, who played my boyfriend Luke, and he would do DJ sets on a Friday, which became the highlight of my week.
"I felt like I was in a rave, dancing around my kitchen on my own.
“But now, going back into all these restrictions, I have lockdown fatigue and everything feels so complicated.”
Single since splitting from Our Girl and Grantchester actor Simon Lennon, 26, last year, Sair says she’s still figuring out how to date during lockdown.
“I’ve definitely dipped my toe into the dating world in some way shape or form during lockdown. Me and Emily Atack [Sair’s 2018 I’m A Celebrity! jungle mate] were having a laugh about it over WhatsApp, talking about how to navigate it.
“I am independent and happy with everything going on with work, family and friends. Having said that, it would be a welcome addition to have someone new so, if anyone wants to slide in my DMs, then go ahead! But I’m not chasing it!”
Favourite past character?
I thought John Stape was unique. He was such a bumbling mess, but I liked the dark comedy.
Fave current character?
It has to be Evelyn. She’s got such a sharp wit and I love her put-downs.
I see Ryan Prescott [who plays Ryan Connor] the most because we’re in scenes together.
Most missed former cast member?
I’m still the best of pals with loads. Dean Fagan, Katie McGlynn, Tisha Merry, Faye Brookes, Nicola Thorp, Victoria Ekanoye, Bhavna Limbachia… the list is endless.
Which cast member have you learned most from?
Sally Dynevor who plays Sally Metcalfe. She’s a Corrie legend and I love watching her perform.
Do you have any Corrie memorabilia?
I don’t, but if I could steal anything it’d be the sign in The Kabin window that says “Weatherfield Gazette on sale here”.
For now, it is all about working towards the 60th-anniversary episodes, which will be explosive on screen even if the celebrations off it have been curtailed.
Sair has no plans to leave the show any time soon and says there’s a reason so many of the cast stay there for decades.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s the people and the bonds we create. The girls’ WhatsApp group is a constant feed of women supporting women. There is so much heart, like a warm cuddle.
“If any of us are wobbling or in a bit of a crisis, whether it is related to work or not, everyone pitches in, offering genuine support, not just a ‘hope you’re OK.’
“We are there for each other. I hope other shows have that as well because that bond is something that is so special and magical.”
Why does she think the soap has stood the test of time?
“I just feel like the work that we do is really meaningful. It’s a true and honest representation of British and northern culture. The characters have so much grit and determination, but also a lot of vulnerability.
“I remember Sarah-Lou being pregnant at 13 and we brought that reality to people’s living rooms. We are primarily there to entertain people, but these are real life issues that people are going through.”
There’s also the light and shade, which no one does better. No other soap could find the comedy in serial killing (see Richard Hillman, John Stape and even Pat Phelan) and neither can any other soap do a battleaxe quite like Corrie.
From Ena Sharples to Hilda Ogden, Blanche Hunt to Evelyn Plummer, when it comes to creating acid-tongued feisty females they are unparalleled.
It’s about humour and heart and, ultimately, people – characters who viewers fall in love with despite (and often because of) their flaws.
“The humour of Corrie is incredibly important,” agrees Sair. “It’s woven into the tapestry of the Street, having those comedic characters and finding the joy in things like putting out the wrong bin on a Wednesday or doing a games night on Zoom and it all going wrong.
“I love that every few years a new producer comes in and adds to the fabric, it’s what makes us multi-faceted and multi-layered. That’s what makes it a success.”
- ITV is celebrating Coronation Street’s 60th anniversary from December 7
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