The intent of this essay -- Why the wait
One of the high points of my visit this summer to the UK was meeting Ms. Richard and some of her friends amidst the settings of a cozy West London pub. I hope I won't be considered too self-indulgent if I take this opportunity to chronicle that event and reflect a bit on the experience.
Yes, I know. It's been some months since my return to the States. My delay in recording it isn't so much due to sloth (well, not much . . .) nor to any especially heavy professional work load, but mostly to an interest in ensuring I tell the story as accurately as I can recall. Too, there was the worry of excessive hyperbole, the kind one sees so often on "celebrity" websites (you know the ones I mean: the sites dedicated as "The Temple of <name here>" or "My Tribute to the Great Goddess <name here>". I mean, really now, people, let's get a grip on reality here, okay? Anyone who looks at another person like that -- no matter who they are -- has got their world-view seriously out of whack). To minimize that possibility, I wanted to give myself a little time to settle on a proper perspective for the story, to avoid overly coloring the story with the unbridled exuberance that surrounded me immediately on my return home. "Make haste slowly" I was counseled by a friend, and I've tried to take that to heart.
How the Trip Came About -- An Invitation -- Issues and Concerns -- Arriving in London -- Our First Few Days -- Speaking With John
Actually, it all started with a trip to Germany. Our church had arranged to send a group to the Year 2000 Passion Play in Oberammergau, FRG and I'd hoped my family could attend. After much consideration, though, we withdrew because there were just too many limitations that our two young children would impose on such a trip. But the damage, so to speak, was done. We'd been bitten by the vacation bug; it was now just a question of when and where. We guessed that of all the countries east of the Atlantic, family logistics would surely be simplest in the UK (Wrong-o! But that's a different story). As our deadline of late July approached, we began to lock in our plans. Naturally, I expected to do some research for this website while in country. Of salient importance to me was Wendy's new book, which at the time was due out in mid-2000. But I wondered: would it be ready by the time of our visit? It'd be much nicer to buy a copy from an established London shop than via an efficient (and yet somehow soulless) order through an on-line bookseller.
With this in mind, scarcely a week before we were scheduled to leave the US, I contacted Wendy via e-mail to ask if her upcoming book would be available for sale by late July or early August, explaining that I'd be in the UK at that time anyway. To my very great surprise I received an answer almost immediately; and it was none other than an invitation to meet up with Wendy and her partner John Burns while we were in London.
Well! The trip instantly took on a whole new character. Sure, I'd written for the Web about Wendy for a couple of years and had followed the progress of her on-screen work even longer. But to actually meet the lady any time soon just hadn't been on my radar screen. I'd expected it would probably be some years out and would likely occur here in the States during a publicity tour, with plenty of time to prepare for the event. But now, to have an invitation extended to me and not more than two weeks before the appointed time! Perhaps it was just as well, though. Questions and apprehensions, unbidden, arose. What would Ms. Richard be like in person? Would she fit my inevitable pre-conceived notion? What if we don't hit it off? What if I say something wrong? Will she be a prima donna? Gentle? Stern? Friendly? Forbidding? Should I take along a list of questions? What about a camera? What should we wear?
Then there was the other issue: I'd be traveling with my family. It didn't seem right to leave them on their own while I socialized with Wendy; but on the other hand, I didn't think it'd be polite to just show up with wife and kids in tow. In a short exchange of e-mails over the following days, I noted that I was accompanied by family, but that I didn't expect Wendy to entertain us all -- we would accommodate whatever John and she were comfortable with. As it turned out, this was no problem. John made it clear in return that my wife and even the kids would be most welcome to join them. Well, then. That was that. I now had what I needed: a phone number to call once we hit London. The rest was up to us. D-Day would be Friday, 21 July 2000.
The non-stop British Airways flight to London-Gatwick was long and confining. Traveling with small children is not unlike having to spend eight or ten hours confined to a very small box filled with nervous ferrets -- the trick to surviving it with temper intact is to keep the youngsters occupied and fed. Upon our arrival, the airport itself seemed strangely vacant (it'd been an overnight flight; so as light as it was outside, it must have only been about 0430). We changed some US currency into Sterling; bought train tickets and headed out.
The English air outside the terminal doors was gratifying cold after the long, hot summer of the American South that we'd been enduring. Still only half-awake, we did the transportation two-step of a train to Victoria, followed by a black cab ride to Notting Hill Gate. Despite the friendliness of the cabbie, the riding stretched our frazzled nerves even further.
Our lodging would be at a hotel in a white multistory building of Victorian style on Pembridge Square, a few blocks north of Kensington Gardens (which abuts the west side of Hyde Park). This accommodation was comfortable enough, though its age and decidedly Spartan features certainly spared us from any guilt that we'd pampered ourselves with the choice. But in its favor was the friendliness of the rather young staff and also its location, which was both fairly quiet at night and reasonably well-situated in regard to local grocery stores and restaurants.
For the first two days, we laid low, gradually shaking off that blur which a transatlantic flight leaves one with. Our activities were pretty much passive: walk around the bustling local neighborhood to see what's where (and to be asked by other visitors where to find the nearby Portabello market); ride one of those open-topped buses (that fairly shout: "look out, tourists approaching!") for a broad orientation toward the city (surprisingly effective and interesting, actually); a river cruise (mainly since it came along as part of the tour bus ticket price); and sit in the shadow of the London Eye Ferris wheel during a leisurely lunch on Sunday, hoping it wouldn't rain, while watching (from upwind) the spray-paint artists work their magic. In mid-afternoon, we walked west across the Thames on Bridge Street. I finally felt I could hold an intelligent conversation and we agreed it was time to give John a call before it got too much later. But my feeling of competence was quickly called into question as we spent a good ten minutes, credit card and coins in hand, puzzling over how to make a call from one of a row of BT phone booths that stood hardly a stone's throw from the front of the magnificent fašade of Westminster Abbey.
At last the call went through. A man with a warm Scottish (I guessed) accent answered the phone; it was John, who as it turns out is also Wendy's PA (personal assistant). As it so happened, he said that Wendy was entertaining a friend of hers from Spain at the time and asked us to ring back later that evening when she and he would be free to make some plans. During the subsequent conversation a couple of hours later, which we made from our hotel room, John invited us to join Wendy, him, and Shirley (Wendy's cairn terrier) on a walk on Monday morning (24 Jul) in Hyde Park which would be little Shirley's morning constitutional. I thought this would work out perfectly, since we were lodging essentially at the northwest corner of the Park and could easily stroll over to meet them. We quickly negotiated a time; I think John suggested 0730 or maybe 0800, but I asked for 0830, knowing how difficult it would be to get everyone up and out earlier than that. Finally, in a gesture both thoughtful and practical -- which I found to be quite characteristic of him -- John offered to pick us up in his car (well, his jeep) and take us over to the park, not only sparing our feet, but also providing us all with an early chance to become acquainted with each other.
The Drive to the Park -- Hyde Park -- Further Assurances
The next morning, we made it through breakfast and down to the front door of the hotel by 0830. John, dressed casually in a warm-up suit, showed up with Shirley, but not with Wendy, who he regretted to say was feeling a bit under the weather that day. Of course I was disappointed, but I was equally determined not to show it and to enjoy the walk all the same. After all, this gentleman surely knew Wendy and her career well; there was much we could talk about. And just seeing little Shirley Brahms II herself in person (um, so to speak) was a treat in itself.
As John drove expertly east on Bayswater Road through the thick morning traffic, he spoke with clear concern of Wendy's heavy shooting schedule for EastEnders, as well as about other work she had, all of which he evidently felt had taken a toll on her health. He remarked how there'd been a stretch of time when her appearances on EastEnders were few and brief, but that recently The Powers That Be on the show were giving her huge amounts of on-camera time. That plus other commitments, not to mention the difficulty of trying to move her book along to completion (he noted they'd had some problems with the initial publishers), were keeping Wendy well occupied. Even now, she was trying to find some time for a photo session to shoot the picture that would appear on the book's cover.
We soon turned to the right onto the park grounds, and left the car in the nearly-empty parking lot. Indeed, it was not far at all from the very patch of grass where one of Wendy's segments for Fighting Fit was filmed in 1999, as John pointed out to me. The sky was cloudy and threatened rain; John handed me out of the back of his truck an umbrella of brown fabric decorated with golden hearts, remarking offhandedly that it was Wendy's. Great, I thought, this is one brolly I'd better not lose or damage. Shirley did her business and scampered about as we chatted and strolled along the paved footpaths in the invigorating morning air, passing surprisingly few other people, though encountering near the end of the walk a trio of Horse Guardsmen exercising their mounts.
More than a hundred years ago, writer Henry James noted: "you don't really know the charms of London until . . . gazing along the empty vista of the Drive, in Hyde Park, [you] have beheld, for almost the first time in England, a landscape without figures." And this morning, James' observation seemed to ring true. I was certainly surprised we were almost the only ones out and about that morning, but the upside was the pleasant conversation with John about Wendy, himself, and how they met each other, while we told him about our own backgrounds. John's originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, though he spent many a year in Scotland (and, I think, picked up a bit of the accent there), where his children from a previous marriage still live. He used to work as a painter, though I got the impression that acting as Wendy's PA now is a full-time occupation. We walked and talked without serious interruption or distraction, other than for the quacking of the ducks, the activities of my kids, the rustling of the leaves under the leaden grey sky, and the occasional antics of little Shirley. The distant, faint sound of traffic from outside the park seemed but an echo from a different time and place.
We all ended up on the north bank of the Serpentine, toward its eastern end, by that little restaurant (closed at this time of the morning). Quite a few geese were there and the kids had fun feeding them some bread that John had brought along for that very purpose. It was time to call it a day. John suggested he telephone us at our hotel later to let us know if Wendy was up to a get-together the next day, the 25th. The weather being what it was, cold and very overcast, he left Wendy's umbrella with us, urging us to hang on to it in case we needed its protection. Later it occurred to me that it might well have also been intended as an unspoken assurance that we would all indeed meet again the next day.
His promised follow-up call that evening -- well-timed, since we'd gotten in from dinner (at a restaurant over on Queensway Street) just a few brief minutes earlier -- brought the good news that Wendy was feeling a bit better. She and he did indeed want to tag up with us the next evening at their neighborhood pub. I was to call him at 1600 on Tuesday to confirm all was still on schedule.
Linking Up With John Again -- Disaster -- Finding the Pub -- Meeting Wendy
Tuesday, the 25th, saw us at the Tower of London for much of the day. Since we expected the appointment with Wendy to likely be at 1700 or 1800, we took an early dinner at the Chelsea Kitchen -- an unassuming business with very good chow that we found quite by accident while exploring Sloane Road. From the pay phone near our table in the basement I called John at about the appointed time -- managing to disconnect myself once in the process -- and to my delight, he confirmed Wendy would be available at 1730 that evening. We finished dinner and took the subway back to Notting Hill Gate. At our hotel it was but a few minutes' work to tidy up after the day's trekking. All the same, we were a little late out the front door, but John was waiting patiently, assuring us no harm done. He was dressed smartly (what I'd call 'business casual'); quite differently from his very comfortable and easy-going gear of the morning before. Of course that led me to wonder if we were going to be under-dressed for the occasion. . . but, no, not at a pub; surely it wouldn't be a problem.
Unfortunately, nearly his first words were of disaster; that is, of real disaster. Just a couple of hours earlier that very afternoon an Air France Concorde had crashed on take-off from DeGaulle airport in Paris. John said it was all over the news. I told him that we never watch TV or stay up with the news while on vacation, so it was a complete surprise to us. My impression is that he was quite shocked by the accident. Perhaps it hits home more to the Briton than to the American, since the Concorde was a uniquely Anglo-French project and still the source of not a small amount of pride for both countries. But I could certainly imagine his feelings: they were no doubt very similar to those I myself had had on a certain cold, awful day in late January of 1986 . . .
As before, we all piled into his SUV and once more headed east. Still unsure of the lay of the city streets, I very quickly lost track of where we were. It was quite an education for me to see this veteran driver of London's crowded byways having just as much trouble finding a parking spot as I might have had. But he kept up the conversation all the same, calling our attention to places of interest and remarking on the changing nature of the neighborhood as we circled the block once or twice. Eventually he spotted and snagged a parking space that was, if I recall correctly, just around the corner from our destination. A short walk brought us to the front of a modest, but very well-kept pub located in the middle of the block on what seemed to be a delightfully quiet residential street.
Walking in through the doorway, I instantly noticed that appealing sense of indoors that any place in the hospitality trade must have if it's to be successful, whether it be the simplest of drinking spots or the trendiest of haute-couture restaurants. The space within the pub actually seemed rather small; certainly not as expansive as the Queen Vic set in EastEnders. After we'd all entered, I saw off to my right a seated blond woman who I recognized instantly, but my manners directed me elsewhere for the moment: the first person to greet me was a gentleman standing at the bar, Simon Leyland, who turned out to be Wendy's official webmaster. I assumed he'd just come from work, both by the time (a bit after 1730 by then) and his business attire. Briefly we chatted about HTML and other technical matters. Friendly and inquisitive, Simon was also quite complementary of my "fan" web site (it's always nice to hear from other folks that one's efforts are on the right track . . .).
As much as I enjoyed our technical discussion, after a few minutes I felt it would be proper to introduce myself to Ms. Richard without further delay. I excused myself to walk over and greet the lady who'd graciously made this evening happen in the first place. By accident or intent, Wendy was sitting with her back to a set of large windows into which poured the golden rays of the western sun; it struck me that this juxtaposition highlighted from behind her silky blonde hair almost as if with a halo -- a striking start to the meeting, I thought. She greeted me and bade me sit. I took the chair across the table from her, first ensuring I wasn't usurping someone else's place at the soon-to-be crowded table.
Clearly a woman of style, Wendy was impeccably dressed and groomed. With what I thought of as her usual casual elegance, she wore a dark leather jacket over a white blouse/sweater that set off nicely her modest yellow gold necklace and pendant. A glass of MoŰt & Chandon champagne sat before her on the table and a stylish cigarette holder rarely left her hand.
To be sure, Wendy seemed a little reserved at first, though as the minutes went by, she warmed to our chat. Indeed, she did so faster than I. My part of the conversation must have started out too timidly, for when I was up getting another round from the bar, John joined me and encouraged me to ask her more, noting that Wendy didn't mind at all talking about her career. I took his advice and our chat became a bit more specific and animated.
All in all, we had nine people clustered around the table at times. I, my wife, our two kids (who occupied themselves with the coloring books and dolls that John had thought to bring for them), Wendy, John, and Simon, to begin with. By and by, two other folks joined us: first, Peter (a lively older gentleman friend of John and Wendy's, whose last name I'm afraid has escaped me) and then Liz Wiggins, a pretty, very articulate, dark-haired woman who dropped in a little while later. I was delighted to learn that it was she who was helping Wendy with the editing for her upcoming book.
Talk and More Talk -- Our Farewell
What did we talk about? Everything, I suppose. Our conversation covered a wide array of topics, and the minutes all too quickly turned to hours (confirming once again Einstein's whimsical observation about relativity and pretty girls). I took no notes, of course; I'm not a journalist and it certainly wasn't a formal interview. What follows here are remembered fragments, impressions, and subjects which may or may not be in the actual order they occurred.
One of the first topics was her book, and the progress she was making on that. I recall we spoke mostly about her career. I did avoid EastEnders-specific issues and questions for the most part, choosing to not risk putting her in a bind in regard to what to say or not say about the show. Likewise, I tried to avoid questions about her personal life, unless she or John brought up the subject first. Wendy and her friends had quite an interest in my own background, and I was a bit more honest with them than with most folks I meet for the first time. I was somewhat amused by the fact that a couple of the folks seemed a little surprised that the only thing I was drinking that evening was orange juice on the rocks. I think I offered my congratulations on her MBE, and there was some good-natured banter by her friends of hopefully being able someday to address her as "Dame Wendy". Though she modestly didn't say anything in response to that, it was clear from her broad smile she was very pleased by the whole business.
At one point during the evening, the pub's television, tuned to BBC1, was showing an excerpt from EE; one of Pauline's very recent scenes. I noticed Wendy was paying close attention to it. I asked her if she always watched her work, and she replied that she was interested in how she did in that particular scene, but that she never watched EastEnders simply because she was too busy. We talked about her Fighting Fit and Heaven and Earth appearances (the latter of which was taped in a Chinese restaurant right in that area). I learned she really doesn't hold the BBC's canteen in especially high regard -- which is why she said in Fighting Fit that she tends to bring her lunch into work. Politics only entered into the evening's discussion once, briefly; yet it was enough to leave me with the impression that Wendy has strong opinions on the subject, and that Anthony Slide's remark about her being politically conservative is evidently right on the mark.
What else? We talked about Shirley -- a favorite subject of Wendy's, I think -- and how she'd done the day before during the walk; about Wendy's panto work; about her musical career, and how many songs she'd really cut. Despite numerous rumors to the contrary, she said she really didn't do more than those pieces documented elsewhere on this site. I complemented her on her 1986 remake of Come Outside. She dismissed it firmly and modestly as "awful". No, I protested (quite sincerely), it was cute, which gave her quite a laugh. Other topics of discussion ranged from Wendy's general dislike of reporters (clearly because of the many unkind -- and, worse, untrue -- things said about her in print over the years), to traveling about the US, and to making telethon appearances at American PBS stations. I was glad to hear she is always open to offers to come to the States, though she clearly and prudently indicated that any such offers should go through her business manager first.
I even received some useful pointers from Wendy and her friends on where to visit during our stay in the UK; and Liz and I chatted a little about her work with Wendy on the book.. To my surprise, she said she'd visited this web site of mine more than once, at which point I noted, probably unnecessarily, that not everything on this site is guaranteed to be correct, to which she replied with a matter-of-fact "oh, yes, I know." At some point, I seem to recall Liz or John telling me that John was going to have a bit of his own say about Wendy in her book, and that she didn't know it yet (and sure enough, he has! See Chapter 26. . .). I'm honored to note that Wendy even shared with us some of her anecdotes which would later appear in her book -- such as her Pretty Woman experience in Beverly Hills.
At one point the subject turned to Hollywood, and I think it was then that I caused the only really awkward moment of the evening. Wendy's not worked there yet, though she has been to Los Angeles on vacation once or twice and, I gather, made some professional inquiries while in the area. Well, she remarked about considering some opportunities there in California, and without thinking I responded with genuine dismay about that possibility. She didn't say anything further on the subject, and I feared I might have given offense and that I'd better explain myself, pronto. Whether I did so adequately or not, I still don't know. What it really all came down to is that, like most Americans, I deeply distrust and dislike the Hollywood "culture", because of its all-too-well-known corrosive effect on individuals and, worse, society in general. That's what'd come to mind; and I was alarmed at the thought of our Wendy at the mercy of such an environment.
On later reflection I wondered if my concern was groundless. As a forty-year veteran of the British TV and film industry -- and all the good and bad that has gone along with that distinction -- Wendy is surely well prepared to handle anything the American "entertainment" industry can dish out. And come to think of it, there's a good precedent, too: her countryman Sean Bean has done extensive, commendable (and successful) television and movie work for Hollywood, yet still maintains his roots (and residence) in the UK -- indeed, even to the point of turning down lucrative work in order to keep his British ties. If he can do it, why couldn't our Wendy?
We talked a bit too about other fans we both knew. The late Robin Fluinn, of Minnesota, for one (her picture is in one of the galleries on Wendy's web site). She and Wendy had gotten along quite well in the mid-Nineties. I've always felt indebted to Robin, for it was she who, at my request, provided spare but sound advice to me about what to include on this website and what to leave out. Another fan we discussed was Anneloes Fickweiler, a bright and quite devoted Pauline fan from the Netherlands. She was known by name to John and Wendy, and they asked me what I knew about Ms. Fickweiler. I think one of the evening's last topics of discussion returned to the subject of web pages; specifically how one goes about registering one's site with the various portals and search engines out on the Web. Though I was very reluctant to criticize work already done, I did try to make it clear that I considered registration services generally superfluous. The important portals and search engines are really few enough that they can be contacted individually without too much trouble -- though if one has engaged with a service, they should certain be able to carry out their tasks within a month or two.
As all good things must, this get-together eventually came to an end. Throughout the conversation, I'd kept one eye, so to speak, on the kids. At around eight o'clock, when they seemed to have fully and finally run out of runway for the evening, I asked to take my leave. From somewhere, John produced a small 35mm camera and we did a short photo session: one shot with me, the family, and Wendy; another of Simon, Wendy, and me; and a third of just us two. I excused myself then for a last visit to no-woman's-land, and upon my return, found most everyone was already moving outside. John had taken the liberty of calling a minicab for us, and he was helping my wife get the kids rounded up and in the cab. Wendy, in that lovely way she has, offered her thanks again, gave me a big smile, a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Yes, I was quite touched by that, so much so I'm not sure whether I was able to manage much more than a mumbled farewell. I shook hands with her friends and asked Peter if it was going to rain in Shropshire when we got up there. He said yes (and he was right!). Finally, across the street at the minicab, John and I shook hands and I thanked him for all his efforts.
As our minicab took off down the street, I remember Wendy, John, Peter, Liz, and Simon standing there, a couple of them waving good-bye. Soon we were out of sight and dodging traffic as we made our way westward through the dusk toward our hotel. Looking at the Arabic script on the plaque above the rear-view mirror, but not really seeing it, I thought back on Wendy and her friends and how London suddenly seemed a bit warmer and a bit more like home that it had before.
Our Journey Continues -- Final Reflections on Wendy
The next day was our last in town. We rented a small sedan from Hertz, loaded it up, and headed west out of London by the shortest route I could find. Late afternoon found us in rural Shropshire, a near idyllic region where, in marked contrast to the bustle of the city, we enjoyed a heavenly week of peace and quiet as guests at The Firs, a few miles northeast of Craven Arms. Then it was up and out to the Vale of Pickering, where we settled down into Thornton-le-Dale for a few more days. Finally, we wrapped up the trip with a drive back down to London, dinner with a friend in Uckfield, and an early flight out the next morning.
I suppose, dear reader, one is tempted to ask: so, what is she really like then? But I can't presume to answer that question fully; not in a few glib sentences after a single, relatively short meeting. I can only offer my own limited observation and experience: that Wendy was friendly, warm, cordial, and funny; that she seemed to possess a quiet dignity and self-confidence that I found somehow reassuring; that she was unafraid to speak her mind and holds strong and well-considered opinions; that she doesn't suffer fools gladly, but will cut someone some slack if a mistake is honest; that she's loyal and open to her friends; and that she's traditional in many ways, but is willing to try new things.
And I suppose above all: how wonderfully Wendy and John treated my family and me, extending the hand of friendship to strangers they'd never met before, but yet with whom they were willing spend many hours of their own precious time. I've always respected Wendy for her achievements, but this evening gave me amble reason to respect her as a person as well.
In closing I'll simply note that a Zen master once said: "Write, and enjoy twice . . ." Recounting this journey of last summer has certainly been pleasant and edifying for me. I hope you the reader will have found it the same.
"The Wendy Richard Appreciation Page"
26 November 2000