FOR someone so friendly and cheerful, it’s hard to imagine Anita Dobson making the lives of those around her totally miserable.

But for the next three months she’ll be doing just that as Miss Hannigan in the hit musical Annie which begins a UK tour in Manchester.

Set in the Great Depression of the 1930s, Annie is the heartwarming story of the little girl living in the orphanage run by the terrible Miss H who is determined to find out about her real parents.

Anita has been loving every minute of getting the show ready to go out on the road.

“What’s lovely about it is that when they asked me to do it they allowed me to do the first three months of the run (Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood will play Miss Hannigan for the second half o the tour) so that I could get the rehearsal time too. Unlike Craig I haven’t played Hannigan before and it’s lovely to be able to create something rather than just slotting into a production.”

Miss Hannigan is very much the villain of the piece but Anita is determined to to make her some pantomime-style baddie.

“I wanted her to come from a very real place. She’s a woman who is behaving the way she is because she’s unhappy with her life and bitter that it’s not worked out better,” said Anita. “Even though you don’t like what she’s doing you understand how it’s come about.

“She is a dark character but she’s also funny, I think with all good villains you should be able to laugh at them so that they are not really that terrifying.”

And Anita says that audiences will get a bit of a shock when they see her take to the stage.

“I won’t look like I do on the posters, I think that’s a bit too Cruella de Ville,” she laughed. “I might have the wig and the dress on but she’ll be much scruffier, more run down.”

In Annie, Anita is going against conventional theatre wisdom but she doesn’t care.

“They always say never work with children and animals but in my experience they are the best to work with in the world,” she said.

For Annie there will be three teams of young actors rotating during the course of the run.

“In rehearsal, they are the best audience to play to because if they laugh then you know you’ve got it.”

Anita is no stranger to big hit musicals. She’s starred in Wicked, Frozen, Chicago and Calendar Girls. But this role offered her something different.

“For me the most joyful part of this job is the creation of it,” she said. “I’ve done other shows like Wicked which are fabulous but where you just step in – it’s a train that’s rolling so you just jump on at one stop and then get off at another.

“But with this they have pulled that train into the station and allowed me to make my own little impact on it.”

For many people Anita will forever be associated with the part of Angie Watts, the feisty landlady in EastEnders even though it is more than 30 years since she left Albert Square.

“I was actually only in the show for three and three-quarter years,” she said.

“I’m really proud to have been part of something so special. It was the thing that changed my career and my life and so I can only look upon it with affection.

A memorable Christmas Day episode featuring Angie and husband Dirty Den attracted over 20million viewers.

“Angie was a cracking character to play,” said Anita. “I feel very privileged that it was me who got to play Angie. I loved playing Angie, I loved her.”

But she still walked away from the show.

“I just felt when I left things were changing within the soap as it had become. There are only so many ways you can play drunk before you start to go around again.

“Also once they separated Den and Angie it kind of broke the chain in a way.

“It would have been easy to just carry on but that’s not me.

“Always a part of me was thinking ‘what a springboard this is’. I owed it to myself to see where it could take me.”

It’s a brave step to walk away from such a successful role but Anita has never once regretted it.

“Life is so precarious,particularly in this profession,” she said.”But you just don’t know what’s round the corner. Life could change in a second. It could be for the worse or be something wonderful - you just have to keep believing.”

Taking Annie on the road will mean that Anita, who will be 70 in April, will have to spend time away from husband, Queen guitarist Brian May.

“I did pantomime in Hull at Christmas and he hated me being away,” she said. “He said it was awful being the one at home having to run everything. I just laughed and said ‘now you know how I feel when you’re on tour!’”

Annie, Manchester Opera House, until Saturday, February 16. Details from 0844 871 3018 or