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WRAP > Career > Radio > This Interview

Appearance on Michael Parkinson (2005)

Interviewer:
Michael Parkinson

Broadcast by:
BBC Radio 2
Probably from BBC Broadcast House, London

"[??]" is used to indicate uncertain transcription phrases.

MP : "We're talking about Ronnie Barker earlier today, and we're talking about the days in television when 20 million people would watch a television show, and my special guest today remembers those days very well indeed.  Because in the Seventies, in Are You Being Served?, again, it was a huge, huge audience, she was Shirley Brahms in that, and then of course into EastEnders, Pauline Fowler; a stalwart of that series -- still going strong.  And also she's here today to talk as much about that as anything else, but also about being a part of the Carry On team -- this is an actress who doesn't play to small audiences.  And she was in a couple of the Carry On films.  And also there's a special DVD out on Carry On Christmas specials, which were made in the, sort of, Sixties, Seventies, Wendy?"

WR : "I think it was late Sixties, yeah."

MP : "Late Sixties; that's right.  Wendy Richard, anyway, is here.  Welcome!"

WR : "Thank you, Michael."

MP : "I'd forgotten about the Carry On stuff that you did.  Of course, you've done so much in your career.  I mean, it's extraordinary.  And these TV specials too that were made, their themes were on about . . . one was called Get Stuffed At Christmas.  It's some indication of the kind of lack of political correctness that was around in those days.  They were very refreshing, weren't they?"

WR : "Yes, it was all seaside postcard humor, really.  You could take it whichever way you like."

MP : "[??]"

WR : "Unfortunately, I think political correctness has done so much damage to British humor."

MP : "I agree with you."

WR : "We should just go back to the old days."

MP : "Mother-in-law jokes.  Absolutely."

WR : "Yeah.  Les Dawson and his mother-in-law jokes.  He was just wonderful."

MP : "Mother-in-law jackboot rash all over his chest . . . "

WR (laughing): "Yeah."

MP : ". . . But do you have any happy memories when you looked back at that series by looking at these DVDs?  Did it bring back very happy memories for you?"

WR : "Oh, yes!  I mean, the Carry On Christmas, I think that was the first time that I met Barbara Windsor, so . . . we have a lot of history together.  . . . And I was very young and naive -- this is when I was doing Carry On Christmas -- and Barbara was so great to me, you know.  She really sort of took me under her wing, which was very good of her, and now it was reversed, because when she joined EastEnders, it was me had to show her how to dissect her script and what bit to learn first, and what have you.  You know, because she was very nervous, but she's part of our team now."

MP : "It was very interesting, wasn't it, because we were talking about Ronnie Barker, and we were talking earlier off the air, and you were saying how you were objecting to the way that people described him as a comic, because he's not, he's a very fine actor . . ."

WR : "No, he was a brilliant actor."

MP : "Yeah, and also too, one of the strengths of the Carry On series was that there were some very fine actors there . . ."

WR : "Yes!"

MP : "I mean they weren't comedians --- one or two were . . ."

WR : "One or two were, yes . . ."

MP : "The mainstay of it was based on the fundamentals of being a very good actor."

WR : "Absolutely, yeah."

MP : "And what about at that particular time in your life, when you were doing those things, were you still thinking in terms of . . . a huge career?  What were your ambitions at that time?"

WR : "Well, I started off most of my early work was in light entertainment, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  And I think that if you can make people laugh -- I mean, to hear people laugh . . . with you, I suppose, in a way, not so much at you -- it gives you such a high, it's such a great kick, and that's what I enjoyed about doing light entertainment.  But it's funny, 'cause that Carry On Christmas that I did, was at the old ATV studios, which is now owned by the BBC, where I'm doing EastEnders, so I've sort of gone full circle 'round."

MP : "Yeah.  I didn't realize in fact, until I'd read the research, that you're a Yorkshire person."

WR : "Me?  Middlesbrough!"

MP : "Oh?  Just made it, didn't you?"

WR : "Just made it, yes."

MP : "Just made it into the county.  And you came down to London with your parents . . ."

WR : "Parents, yes, when I was a baby . . ."

MP : ". . . probably a nipper . . ."

WR : "That's right."

MP : "But you've also had -- when you read your life -- you had a life that reads like a soap opera, haven't you?"

WR : "I suppose so, yes."

MP : "I mean, your dad committed suicide, and your mum died . . . "

WR : "1972."

MP : "That's right.  And she was an alcoholic . . ."

WR (firmly): "Well . . . you see, I don't like it described as 'an alcoholic', because my mother had cancer; and she used to drink to kill the pain of the cancer, and the drink aggravated the cancer."

MP : "But I mean, nonetheless, a difficult childhood; a difficult time growing up."

WR : "Well . . . no, I had a very happy childhood.  I really did.  And then when we lost Daddy, I went away to boarding school, and . . "

MP : "I can't imagine you at boarding school."

WR : "Oh, well . . . I'm afraid that, yes, I was there, at Royal Masonic school in Rickmansworth."

MP : "What was it like?  Was it very awful?"

WR : "It was very strict, but I don't think that does you any harm, because I think it teaches you discipline; it teaches you to get up in the morning, and it teaches you to live in a community with other people, and to be helpful to other people, because as you got older you had to help the new girls, the younger ones as they were coming in."

MP : "But where did the ambition to be actress start from . . . that background?"

WR : "Well, I don't know, you see.  Although I work very hard now, I can remember I was a bit lazy at school, because I used to gaze out the window and daydream. And I always thought . . . I wished I was like Doris Day; that's what I wanted to be, because she was just so lovely.  And I wasn't too bright at school; I'm not academic at all.   So, when my mother worked very hard to raise -- since I had no grants or anything, though the Freemasons did help my mother with my drama school fees.  And I think it was sort of a last resort, because my French mistress -- I went back to a school reunion once, and I had to apologize to my French mistress.  I said, 'Uh-oh, Miss Vicarage, after all your hard work, I still can't speak a word of French.  I can order a round of drinks, but I can't hold a long conversion.'  Anyway, she said, 'It doesn't matter, Wendy.  The thing is you have the gift to make people laugh, and that is far more important.'  So I thought, oh, well, good; I've been forgiven then for wasting their time."

MP : "Were you very ambitious; I mean, were you driven, in a sense?"

WR : "I was in a way, I suppose, you know, to succeed.  And also I felt duty-bound, to show my mother that her hard work and efforts to give me this opportunity to go to drama school hadn't been wasted."

MP : "Yeah, yeah, you couldn't afford to be a failure, could you?"

WR : "Not really, no; and just before she passed away, I did a film with Albert Finley, called Gumshoe.  I only had one scene, but I got rave reviews for it, and I was able to take Mummy to Leicester Square and see outside the cinema a great big color picture of me all lit up and everything, so I think she saw some return."

MP : "I'm talking to Wendy Richard.  Let's take some music now.  This is Bryan Ferry."

(musical interlude)

MP : "Bryan Ferry, "The Way You Look Tonight".  My guest is Wendy Richard.  Looking back at your career, it's amazing how long you've been around.  Forty-six years, did you say?. . ."

WR : "Yes, forty-six, next year."

MP : "Truly?  And you're only fifty-two . . ."

WR (laughs): "I wish!"

MP : "You wish, yeah.  I remember you in the Sixties, when you kind of represented that girl, that figure in the Sixties; the legs, and the miniskirt, and the blond hair, and the blue-eyes, and all that sort of thing.  And that's how you started, wasn't it, in that sort of role, the dolly bird role.  And of course that is how you were established in Are You Being Served?."

WR : "Yes."

MP : "The sex symbol."

WR : "Yes, except I remember saying to  John Inman one day and referring to myself as a sex symbol, he said, 'no, I'm the sex symbol in this show' and I believed him!  I never realized what a sex symbol Miss Brahms was.  And I still get loads of fan mail from America -- because it's on in New York three times a day -- and the Americans love Are You Being Served?.  They really do."

MP : "Was it -- again, was it a happier time, working on that show?"

WR : "Oh, it was absolutely brilliant.  I mean, we were like a family, because apart from John, I'd worked with everyone else before, anyway.  We just all . . . gelled.  This is the clever casting of David Croft.   And Jimmy Perry, because of course they did Dad's Army, which I was also in . . ."

MP : "You played Private Walker's girlfriend.  I remember that."

WR : "I played Private Walker's girlfriend, who was also called Shirley."

MP : "That's right."

WR : "And you know, he had this wonderful gift.  And we were part of his own private repertory company, as it were.  And the same as Peter and Gerald Thomas had with the Carry On things.  They got their team right; it was the winning formula, so stick with it."

MP : "They got an ensemble together . . . [??] . . . It's like a good team; a good sports team:  people pulling for each other . . . . 

WR : "Absolutely!"

MP : ". . . So then that finished, and that lasted a long time.  And then 1985, came EastEnders."

WR :  "That's right."

MP : "Then again, you were right at the very beginning of it.  It wasn't established -- it was just starting; embryonic, when you were there.  What was it like being -- the planning stage of it?  And how much did you have to do with the way it looked and the way you looked?"

WR : "Well, we worked on it six months before it started to go out, and Julia Smith, whom I had worked with in the Sixties in The Newcomers, which was one of the BBC's first soaps . . . "

MP : "You're a walking history of television . . . "

WR (laughs): "Thank you!  And she [and] Anna Wing, who played my mother, Lou Beale; we arranged the house as we wanted it:  where the cutlery went, everything.  And we had costume tests, to make sure we were exactly right, and we were dressed as we should be and everything.  And so -- I mean, I know they laugh at me . . . well, Design don't laugh at me, but when I try to move things back in Pauline's house -- after all, I've lived in her house longer than any other in my entire life -- but it's got to stay the same.  And of course, then there's the dreaded fruit bowl.  I was answering my fan mail this morning, and there was one chap who'd written to me for a signed picture, blah-de-blah, 'and by the way, what's with the fruit bowl?'  I've just got it now, that in in my head, it has to stay there; it has to be in that room somewhere.   And I remember being off on holiday once and I was watching EastEnders.  There was Todd Carty, who played my son, and John Altman, who played Nick Cotton, for some reason he was in our house, and they put a frying pan down on my table, and I was sitting at home.  I went ballistic.  And when I got back to work, I said "You put a frying pan on my table!", and Todd said "well, we were debating about it, and I more or less said:  . . . 'she's not here; she won't find out until it's too late.'  I went potty!"

MP (laughing): "It's amazing that you had total association with it.  Because as you said, you lived in that house a long time, you'd lived in it for twenty years . . ."

WR : "Yeah."

MP : ". . . In the Seventies, . . . the attention paid to stars wasn't like what it became in the Eighties.  Particularly in soaps, because of the rivalry between the two big soaps, and because of the way the media changed, too.  The  entire spotlight -- I mean, soap stardom is a very particular kind of stardom.  Something that is very difficult to deal with, I imagine."

WR : "I don't  . . .  I don't regard myself as a star; I am a working actress.  And . . . I thank God everyday, (a) that right now I have got good health, and (b) that I have one of the best jobs in television.  And love or hate Pauline, she's a good character and she's strong.  And she's a fighter.  And she's fighting every inch of the way for her family."

MP : "She does, certainly.  And that's why she's lasted."

WR : "And she does smile!"

MP : "Well, I mean she's not a miserable old git."

WR : "No, no; she does smiles.  And she hasn't worn a cardigan for about fifteen years."

MP : "No, but the point I'm making is that you might perceive yourself as something, and that's what you are, in your heart and soul. But the way the media perceives soaps is: 'ah, it's front-page fodder'.  And you've been through all that . . "

WR : "Yeah. . ."

MP : "You've had stuff written about you, and look at the cast around you . . .  And it's very particular kind of focus that's on you; it's different from ordinary people."

WR : "I think sometimes it's very unfair; it doesn't give you much of a chance.  Especially the youngsters.  I mean, they do work very hard, and if they want to go out to a club, and kick their heels up, and have a few bevvies, so what?  They've earned a bit of playtime; because, you know, you do work very hard.  People say how long does it take to film an episode -- well, you can't describe that, because we're working twelve different scripts a week . . "

MP : "As many as that?"

WR : "Yes!  A lot of pressure.  I mean, I've got on  . . . Tuesday, I shall be up at five-thirty to leave for work about half-six, and I've got over twenty scenes to do in that day.  Alright, you think, twenty scenes.  But you do them more than once.  You know, it's not often that you get a scene right in one take.  Because there might be a [microphone] boom in and especially . . .  I hate it when we're filming outside and there's cars involved, because you always know -- we have this lovely first assistant, Phillip, and he was posh -- we don't often have posh firsts, but he was posh, and he used to stand there out in the lot and you'd . . .  hear 'kill the car'.  So that's what we called him now, we just call him 'kill the car', because he was always saying that first and then give you the hand-wave to get on with what you're doing."

MP : "I'm talking to Wendy Richard, and let's take some more music now; we'll be back in just a moment.  Do you like Frank Sinatra?"

WR : "Oh, yes!"

MP : "Of course you do.  [??] our generation today."

WR : "Um-hmm."

(musical interlude)

MP : "You've got a bloke now; Pauline's got a bloke."

WR : "Yes."

MP : ". . . And brings smiles to her face; I watched the other day, and she had a big smile across her face.  This bodes well for the future, does it?"

WR : "I think so, yes, yes.  I'm not giving anything away."

MP : "Nothing looming?  Nothing nasty around the corner looming?"

WR : "No, but we are coming up to a 21st anniversary, so watch this space."

MP : "And also Christmas too, when . . . traditionally, all hell is let loose in the square."

WR : "Yes."

MP : "Did you had any regrets at all looking back at the kind of career you've had in the long run?  it seems like a silly question, I know; but you talk to people who have been in a long time . . . [??] . . . could have done lot more different work.  You don't feel that?"

WR : "No, I would have liked to perhaps done a couple more movies; I think I've only done about six, all told.  But I would have liked, as I say, to have been more big-screen.  But television is obviously my media, so here I am.  I'm obviously a small-screen person."

MP : "I noticed that you mentioned before the Sinatra record, that you touched on the question of your health.  You said you've got your health, but of course it's not always been that way.  You've had a couple of skirmishes with cancer, haven't you?"

WR : "Yes, twice."

MP : "Twice, in 1996 and 2002."

WR : "That's it."

MP : "What's the situation?  What exactly was it?  What was wrong?"

WR : "Well, I had breast cancer.  The first lump I found was in my left breast -- and that gave me a nasty turn, I can tell you!  But I was fortunate enough that I do have private health . . . what do you call it?  Insurance.  And I have the most wonderful surgeon, Mr. Gilmore; he has saved so many peoples' lives.  His whole countenance, everything, you know as soon as you see him; 'I can trust you', you know; he's a good man.  And so anyway, I just had the lumpectomy and then I had several weeks of radiotherapy.  I was lucky I didn't have to have chemo.  Radiotherapy and then on Tamoxifen.  And then when you think you're up and running and everything . . . we were on a cruise, and I was rubbing the after-sun in -- after-sun cream in, in the evening -- and I found this lump in my neck, and I thought 'Oh, please, God, not again', but unfortunately it was.  So, Mr. Gilmore again to the rescue, and he couldn't understand why it had come back.  So, anyway, that was that.  But they wanted me to have chemo, and I knocked it back, I said, no, since I won't be able to work.  So I had seven weeks of really intensive radiotherapy, and that did the trick.  My oncologist, Karmel Coultier, she's a wonderful, wonderful woman; extremely clever . . .  and so I'm now on this new drug called Arimidex, which is supposed to be the new wonder drug for breast cancer sufferers . . ."

MP : ". . . Yes, that's had remarkable talk about it.  Very, very successful drug indeed."

WR : "Yeah."

MP : "And you're fine?  You go for regular check-ups, of course?"

WR : "I go twice a year.  I mean I still get terribly tired; my energy level is still very low, because unless  -- and I hope you never do have to experience radiotherapy, I mean it's not painful as such -- but it gives you a tiredness which is so difficult to explain, it's unlike any other tiredness I've ever experienced.  And I do have to have an afternoon nap, I'm afraid; otherwise I won't last through the afternoon."

MP : "I do that in any case.  I've been doing that for about ten years; nothing like it.  It's the best thing invented.  We were talking earlier:  do you remember the only time that we worked together?"

WR : "Ooh, yes, on your TV show . . ."

MP : "It was called All-Star Secrets."

WR : "It was . . ."

MP : "[??]"

WR : "Henry Cooper, Roy Canier, and Brian Johnson, and  . . .  then, ooooh, Oliver Reed had to make an entrance, and he made it by punching his way through the set . . ."

MP : "Instead of walking down the stairs."

WR : ". . .  And I thought it was part of the act, and then I saw your face, and realized that it wasn't . . ."

MP : "No, it was not."

WR : "But then Oliver took a swipe at Henry Cooper, Henry ducked, and his fist was so close to my face that my false eyelashes fluttered.  I mean, it was that close; he could have killed me!"

MP : "Oh, dear, he was a problem in drink, wasn't he?"

WR : "Oh . . "

MP : "He really was.  Henry Cooper told me a story after that.  It was during Flashman together - Oliver was playing Flashman, and they had to fight in the film . . . [??] . . .  and they choreographed the routine . . ."

[Webmeister's note:   I suspect that Parkinson is referring to the 1975 movie "Royal Flash", based on the exploits of fictional Victorian hero, Harry Flashman.  Both Reed and Cooper appeared in the film, and there is in fact a fight scene that involves their two characters.  However, Reed played Otto von Bismarck, and it was Malcolm McDowell who had the role of Flashman.]

MP : ". . . Everything went fine and they went to lunch, to shoot in the afternoon. Oliver came back and he'd had a taste, and of course the choreography goes out the window.  So, Henry stands up, dances around, and he just hits Henry with a right-on haymaker that wasn't in the script, and I said to Henry, 'what did you do?' and he said 'I gently chastised him.' "

WR (laughing): "Right . . . .  Henry's such a lovely gentleman, isn't he?  I suppose it must be awful; see, when you're a boxer, people always think that you're fair game; they want to have a  pop at you, but I think it was Henry that was telling me: your fists are classed as lethal weapons; you can't . . . lash out."

MP : "You'd have to be fairly drunk to have a swing at Henry Cooper in those days."

WR : "Yeah, absolutely.  Dear me."

MP : "[??] . . .  Let's just finish off by talking about this DVD that you're doing.  It's the DVDs that were done for the Carry On Christmas series.  Was it Thames Television that did them?  It was, wasn't it?"

WR : "ATV.  I know we were ATV  . . . It was Thames."

MP : "It was Thames Television, that's right.  The Carry On gang.  Unseen for thirty years.  So, looking back at yourself thirty years ago."

WR : "Oh, right . . ."

MP : "You got Carry on Christmas, 1969; Carry On Again Christmas; this is my favourite:  Carry on Christmas, also known as Carry On Stuffing, made in 1972.  I won't go on any further than that!  But you get the flavor of it, though."

WR : "Yeah."

MP : "Does that bring back any happy memories for you?"

WR : "You'll have a good laugh, anyway.  They're few and far between, these days."

MP : "That's absolutely right.  And the extras; you've got lots of extras [??] . . . and program notes.  If you're a fan of Carry On, that's an ideal Christmas gift.  It's available next week sometime. . . or week after next.  Okay, it's been lovely talking to you, Wendy."

WR : "And to you, Michael."

MP : "All the best to you, love, and take care . . ."

(a musical finale to the interview -- Arethea Franklin's "Respect".)


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