Shirley Stelfox talks to TV Times magazine about the challenge of playing proud but destitute pensioner Edna Birch in Emmerdale

Edna Birch is having a tough time at the moment. Are you finding it hard to act the role currently?
“The only way I can work is to be deeply involved in what Edna is going through and that can be very tiring. I am completely worn out at the moment. Sometimes it can take me days to come out of it.”

Do you often get really emotionally involved with storylines?
“When Batley the dog died, I would find myself weeping days later. Stupid isn’t it? But I am not the sort of person who can play it off the top of my head.”

Edna is broke, she cannot afford Tootsie the dog’s vet’s bills and she is giving the animal all her food and can’t heat her house…
“Pride is stopping her from asking for help and I can identify with that because I think I am from that generation that doesn’t ask for help. I am determined to get this right because I want people to see that pride can kill. To watch her and think: ‘This is happening to me.’ It’s very topical.”

Had you ever intended to stay in the soap for so long?
“For most of my career I would never agree to do anything long term, because that is not why I agreed to become an actress. I wanted to do every medium and every role from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare through to farce and everything in-between. But with Edna, I liked the role and I like the people I am working with.”

What’s your favourite thing about her?
“I love the fact that she is an old bat and says things to people’s faces if she has something to say. But you have to remember, I am only on
a year’s contract and you must never expect to be picked up for the next one, as you might be very disappointed. However, I am always delighted when they ask me again because they are totally brilliant here.”

Would you ever consider retirement?
“Edna doesn’t swear, but I am disgusting. I would consider retiring if I couldn’t remember my lines. Or if they didn’t want to pick up my contract and I didn’t get any other work – although that is not retiring, it is being out of work. I hate that expression: ‘Oh she is resting.’ It’s rubbish!”

You have some problems with your eyesight. Is work more difficult for you?
“I do my rehearsals with glasses on so that I know what people are thinking in their eyes. As Edna, I don’t wear them so God help me if the other actors change what they are thinking!”

Where would we be most likely to find you?
“It is always on in the background, but you won’t find me on a computer, or Facebook. I find all of that intrusive and even if I could see to use a computer I wouldn’t do anything online as I am very aware of all the scams and things.”