WHEN Dame Helen Mirren stepped up to collect the Oscar for her portrayal of the Queen, it was a world away from her first job at a Southend fairground.

The Academy Award-winning actress began her working life as a hustler on the Skid, a ride owned by Grecourt Amusement, in the early Sixties.

She spent many days pulling in the punters at the Kursaal amusement complex on the seafront, using her skills to encourage people to go on the rides.

Henri Grecourt, 63, who arranged the job for her, says the high-flying actress was "pretty good".

He said: "She wanted to experience the public.

"She was bubbly and was quite ambitious.

"She always had a nice, posh talking voice and I still remember the way she spoke to me."

Dame Helen, 61, was born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff, and, though born in Chiswick, appropriately enough, grew up in Queens Road, Leigh.

Henri first met the woman who was to play Queen Elizabeth, both the first and second, at the Shrubbery cafe in Royal Terrace, Southend.

She was a pupil at St Bernard's School in Westcliff and part of a group who used to meet at the cafe after school.

Henri, of Eastern Esplanade, said: "I went to Southend Art School when I was 15 or 16. There was a crowd of us singers and artists and we used to go down to the Shrubbery.

"We met a lot of girls from St Bernard's School and it was there I met Helen Mirren.

"The schoolgirls always hung around art school students and I remember them turning up with their dark blue and yellow school scarves.

"A lot of people knew we had rides at the Kursaal and Helen said she was looking for a job.

"Working on a fairground attracts people and they think it is a glamorous job."

Henri asked his father, Jean, and uncle, Robert, about getting Helen a position and they hired the bubbly blonde who worked at the amusement complex for nearly a season.

The Grecourt family's involvement with Southend amusements began when Henri's grandfather, who lived in France, came to England to put his newest fairground attraction, the Airsport, at the Kursaal. Next up was the Children's Racer and the family stayed in the town for the summer season while travelling back to northern France, about 40 miles north of Paris in a town called Noyon, as they had travelling fairs in winter.

Grecourt Amusement eventually had four different rides at the Kursaal including the Flying Coaster and Mont Blanc, but with the closure of the fairground, the parts were shipped off to new homes.

One went to Southport, another to Surrey and the model airplanes followed the famous former hustler, Dame Helen, as they were flown to America.

Dame Helen is now considered one of the country's most admired actresses and has her pick of parts after being awarded an Oscar, but Henri still remembers her as the schoolgirl who started her career on his fairground.

Henri says fondly: "I was brought up with the fairground and it makes you a different person to others.

"They were fun times.

"I did try to get in touch with her when she was in London some time ago and send her a congratulations card on her success, but I couldn't get hold of her."

On her recent award, with a shrug, he added: "I suppose she's done all right."