FAR BE it from actress Anne Charleston to speak ill of the dead, but you get the feeling she's glad the producers killed off her character Madge Bishop in BBC1's soap Neighbours.

The Australian-born actress, currently starring in pantomime in York, was happy to part company with the long-standing Ramsay Street resident earlier this year.

This was her second spell in the Aussie soap. The first time she left, in 1992, she was allowed to live. This time Madge wasn't so lucky, she died of cancer.

"I wasn't expecting to stay four years when I went back. It was just habit I suppose," she says. "I was more and more disenchanted with the character because, to me, they had destroyed her completely. I didn't want to play her any more towards the end, so the decision to leave wasn't that hard." She does miss her friends among the cast and crew, and occasionally watches the series "to see what my mates are up to".

One reason she left the first time was to spend more time at the home she'd bought in Ireland. But Charleston, who is now a UK citizen, has found herself on the road much of the time in plays such as The Cemetery Club and Love Julia.

After she finishes her run as Queen Rat in Dick Whittington at the Grand Opera House, she has a month off before a 16-week tour in a new play Five Blue Haired Ladies Sitting On A Green Park Bench, alongside her Good Fairy panto rival Jean Fergusson. She'll also be seen in the New Year in a new BBC-TV comedy series, written and directed by The Royle Family's Caroline Aherne. She filmed the show, Dossa And Joe, in Australia before starting panto rehearsals in York. "I flew from Sydney to Galway, unpacked my summer clothes, packed my winter ones and came here," she says.

In the series, made by Granada for the BBC, she plays the wife of an irascible man who's recently retired. "He makes her life misery and doesn't know what to do with himself," she says. "I haven't seen a lot of the finished series because I had to leave immediately I'd finished working on it, and there's a lot of post-production to be done. It's layers of comedy, both gentle and broad. There's a group of boys who do scenes together which are very broad comedy. Our stuff is a little gentler."

The offer from Aherne, who had gone to Australia to recuperate after a series of personal problems, came out of the blue. Charleston was appearing in a play in Weston-Super-Mare when asked if she was interested in the TV role.

"I knew if Caroline was doing it, it would be good," she says. "It's very quirky, very real. The humour arises out of the characters and situations. It's not one-liners."

How is Aherne as a director, I wonder. "Interesting," replies Charleston. "She knows exactly what she wants and as she's the writer, you have to accept that. She did say she was thrilled to get the three people she wanted for the main roles. Maybe she liked Madge, although the character of Dossa is totally different to Madge."

Charleston hadn't expected to be on TV again so soon after Madge's tearful exit. Even during the break she had away from Neighbours the first time, she was unable to "escape" Madge. People continued to associate her with the role. "I was so grateful to Granada, the BBC and Caroline this happened because it may have taken off the curse of Madge a bit," she says.

The last time she played in a Christmas show at the York theatre she was the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. Now she's changed sides. Queen Rat - "she wails and screams and sinks the ship" - is not her first panto villain as she's played wicked queens before.

Her favourite character when she saw pantos as a child in Australia was always the dame. Her memories of Cinderella at the Grand Opera House revolve around the ponies that pulled the coach taking the heroine to the ball.

"I remember the ponies coming into my dressing room and eating my water crackers. They knew I had food so they came up the ramp and into my room," she recalls.

l Dick Whittington is at the Grand Opera House, York, until January 6. Tickets 01904 671818.