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Actor Ann Mitchell returns to east London roots to receive honorary doctorate from UEL

Star of stage and screen tells students to hold their heads high

By Kiera Hay
Actor and East Ender Ann Mitchell’s advice to arts students at the University of East London (UEL) on their graduation day included not waiting for the phone to ring, to create their own work and to always hold their heads high.
“My family and many others in the East End believed passionately in education as a way out of poverty and a weapon again the cruelty of a system stacked against them,” she said. 
“They fought tirelessly to bring about a fairer society for their children and grandchildren, for us. And they did.”
Ann received an honorary Doctorate of Arts on Thursday for a body of work ranging from Cora Cross on EastEnders to Dolly Rawlins in Widows to Hecuba on stage. 
She accepted her degree during a graduation ceremony at indigo at The O2 for students belonging to UEL’s School of Arts and Digital Industries.
Ann said she was honoured to receive her doctorate from such an “exceptional university”.
Born in Whitechapel, Ann said she was part of the first generation of east Londoners to really have an opportunity to gain an education. Her grandmother never learned to read and write and her mother left school at 13.
Awarded the first ever scholarship given by the acclaimed East 15 Acting School, Ann still had to overcome prejudice and stereotyping because she was a young woman from east London.
She said, “When I first started out as an actor, because I was from the East End, I was offered really quite demeaning roles – or they could have been. I tried to invest them with a complexity – and in a way that went on for some time."
But she fought hard for the opportunity to play classical roles. She achieved this first with the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and later went on to play great roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as at every other major theatre in the country.
Over the last few decades, Ann has proved herself a master actor, as well as a talented writer, director and teacher. 
She has been recognised with Laurence Olivier and Evening Standard award nominations for her stage performance as Martha in Through the Leaves, as well as by The Independent on Sunday, which gave her its ‘Performance of the Year’ theatre award for her work as Hecuba. She also won a Pye Award for ‘Female to Make the Greatest Impact on Television’ for her much-loved screen role as Dolly Rawlins in the television series Widows.
She continues to win fans today with her portrayal of Cora Cross in EastEnders, in which she has appeared since 2011. 
“My parents supported me through thick and thin," she said. "They always believed I had the talent to succeed. I never dreamed I would one day receive such an honour and it belongs as much to my parents as it does to me.”