Homes & Ideas, September 1997
Forget the baggy cardi and the laundrette overall -- Wendy Richard couldn't be more different from the drab, depressed character she plays in BBC soap EastEnders. Attractive, cheerful and with a passionate interest in her home and garden, she's the last person to put up with Pauline Fowler's gloomy taste in wallpaper.
During the past two years, Wendy has spent as much of her spare time as possible improving the pretty London terraced house that she bought six years ago. "I put in an offer as soon as I saw the living room because it had such a lovely feel to it", she recalls. "I knew almost immediately that this was the place where I wanted to live."
The house comprises a basement with a dining room, kitchen and utility rooms; the hall and living room on the ground floor; a master bedroom with en-suite bathroom on the first floor, and two smaller bedrooms above. "It was in good condition when I moved in, but there were things I wanted to do," says Wendy.
"For example, the living room looked out on to a terraced area which was reached through French windows. I have a large collection of plants, so I thought it would be much better to turn this area into a conservatory, with a spiral staircase leading down from the living room to the basement garden."
With the help of an architect, Wendy achieved the look she wanted. The living room, newly redecorated with a soft yellow sponged finish on the walls, now opens into the conservatory, where flourishing plants make a perfect background for Wendy's extensive collection of frog ornaments.
"I was already collecting china and glass when I started on the frogs," says Wendy. "I bought my first one when I was doing a summer season in Blackpool in 1976 and now I have around 3,000! Terry Wogan gave me a cushion decorated with a frog wearing a crown when I was the first person to appear on his TV show, and lots of others have come from friends and fans."
Another thing Wendy collects is photographs. She has lots of her beloved cairn terrier, Shirley Brahms the Second, named after the character Wendy plays in Are You Being Served? and Grace and Favour. Her favourite was taken by John Inman during the filming of Grace and Favour, and shows Shirley with Wendy's co-star, Mollie Sugden, clad in yellow wellies, standing in a caravan doorway. "I think we were supposed to be planting potatoes that day, which is why Mollie's wearing wellies," recalls Wendy.
"Shirley is an absolute joy," continues Wendy. "She comes to the studio with me and holds court in the costume department. Owning a dog has made me realize the problems animals can face. I am now Chair of Cairn Terrier Rescue, which finds homes for mistreated and abandoned dogs. Recently, I also raised a thousand pounds for Dogs for the Disabled by appearing on Ready, Steady, Cook with Todd Carty, who plays my son Mark in EastEnders. That was an experience! I don't think my chef was pleased with me when I ate the peach that I was supposed to be preparing!"
When she's not appearing on TV, Wendy likes to spend time enjoying her home, which she has furnished with some unique items. She loves Art Deco furniture and is proud of her five-piece suite, which provides comfortable seating in the living room and conservatory. "I was lucky to find such a large suite," she says. "It was made at the same time that Tutankhamen's tomb was found, which is why the head of Rameses is carved on the chair arms. I had the suite re-covered in yellow to match my living room walls."
Other finds include two circular cabinets which she uses to display her china collections, while above the fireplace hangs an amazing pink, Odeon-style mirror. "I could kick myself when I think how many of those I got rid of after my Mum died and I sold her B&B," says Wendy.
"Mum was a terrific person and it's thanks to her that I'm an actress. I wanted to be an archaeologist but she hoped that I would go on the stage and worked very hard to send me to drama school." Wendy's mother's determination has certainly paid off: the walls of the staircase leading to the first floor are packed with posters and pictures that catalogue her career, starting with 1960s show The Newcomers.
This is where she met the late Julia Smith, who devised EastEnders. "Julia was just out of directing school then. She was an amazing woman who gave lots of unknown actors a chance when she started EastEnders," says Wendy.
Panto posters record Wendy's annual appearances and the days when she starred as Miss Brahms of lingerie in Grace Brothers department store. "There are still stores like that tucked away in parts of the country," says Wendy. "Grace Brothers always reminded me of Bobby's of Bournemouth where my mum used to buy my clothes when I was a child."
This hall of fame leads up to Wendy's bedroom, which needed little more than a new carpet. The en-suite bathroom, however, was so badly planned that Wendy decided to change it completely. "I have a bad back, so a whirlpool bath came high on my list of priorities when designing the new scheme," she explains. "My architect planned the layout and I chose the Plaza suite from Ideal-Standard. The whirlpool bath is really relaxing. I also needed storage space for toiletries and make-up, and with one cupboard above the bath, and another near the basin, there's now plenty.
"Before, a radiator used to cover a large part of the wall, but I found a really clever bench model to replace it which fits below the window. I also recarpeted both the bedroom and the bathroom in royal blue, and chose blue and white tiles for the bathroom to link the two rooms together."
Down in the basement, Wendy has turned an unused bathroom into a tiled shower room, fitted with a state-of-the-art pumped power shower from Hansgrohe. "This used to be a horrible room," she recalls. "In fact, I disliked it so much that I used to store garden furniture in there! The tiles have transformed it though. I used plain ones on the lower half of the wall, followed by border tiles with flowers and butterflies, then handpainted frog-design tiles from Marlborough -- it looks as if they're jumping in a meadow."
Ideally, Wendy would have liked to install another bathroom on the second floor as well, but this would have meant losing a bedroom. "Then I had a brainwave -- I thought that we could build a basin and a loo into a cupboard, which would give some facilities without taking up too much space. I wasn't sure how to do it, so I asked Sharps Bedrooms, who replanned the room, to create a hidden bathroom and storage space without making it seem cluttered. I chose a Plaza basin and loo to match those in the en-suite bathroom downstairs."
Now that the work in the house is finished, Wendy hopes to concentrate on the garden, but that depends on what happens next in EastEnders. "There's never a dull moment in the Fowler household!" she smiles.