WOMAN, 25 February 1991
Poor Pauline Fowler has had more than her fair share of troubles. But the latest crisis to strike is really going to knock her for six. Her wayward son, Mark, who came back into the fold last year, has been diagnosed HIV positive. His girlfriend Diane knows. We know. But the bombshell has yet to drop on his parents.
"This time it's going to be so hard for her to understand," explains actress Wendy Richard. "Old Lou couldn't have warned her about AIDS. How could Pauline possibly put herself in Mark's position?"
As EastEnders celebrates its sixth anniversary this week, Wendy is sympathetic as always to the troubles of Albert Square's mother hen, a person she likes more and more. "Pauline was overjoyed when Mark came home. She knows there's something wrong but thinks it might be a girlfriend or a drugs problem. And not knowing what is such a strain," she says. "She'll cope though. She's not a quitter!"
But unlike this old-fashioned, muddled mum, more worldly Wendy does know something about AIDS. "I know people who are HIV positive and it's just a case of getting on with their lives. So I'll be glad if we get the message across here because HIV is so very worrying and we all need to learn about it."
Perhaps it's because Wendy likes Pauline that six years of living with Fowler worries sits so lightly on the actress. To many that's a surprise. Back in 1984, when the BBC was casting for EastEnders, their first round-the-year soap opera, their policy wasn't to hire established stars. Wendy was the exception. She was also glamorous -- which frumpy Mrs. Fowler certainly isn't.
Her friends and colleagues wondered how long she'd want to remain inside Pauline's drab wardrobe and her somewhat pokey four walls. But in Wendy Richard's mind, Albert Square is the real star. "It doesn't surprise me that I've stayed," she says. "As soon as I saw the Albert Square set, I knew it had been built to last and I knew it was going to be a hit -- which it always has been.
"I've always admired the way we've taken on controversial subjects. But on the other hand, I'm one of those people who enjoys the humour in EastEnders. I think it's so important always to include lighter scenes, and I don't always approve of the programme when it's being too serious or heavy."
These days she says it's a pleasure to go to work -- even when there are gales and the story calls for Pauline to run out of the house in her nightie.
"I was warned," says Wendy, "so I dressed appropriately -- three thermal vests, three pairs of long johns and thick socks. The trouble was I had to do a scene inside dressed like that first and, what with the candlewick dressing gown, I almost fainted from heat!" It's easy for her to laugh, she says, because, unlike Pauline's history of troublesome kids, an out-of work and depressed husband, ill health (she had a hysterectomy a year ago last Christmas), Wendy's EastEnders' years have been some of her best. An unhurried friendship with carpet-fitter Paul Glorney resulted in marriage at about this time last year, with an equally unhurried honeymoon in Australia and Singapore the following September.
Wendy's not the "star" in their partnership, she says. "We both work hard. I happen to be a working actress on a good run. We've both been hard up at times and when I'm down on my luck, he'll have to support me and pay all the bills."
The couple have happily settled into a quiet routine. They spend most evenings in, sometimes with friends from the soap -- June Brown (Dot Cotton) or Peter Dean (Pete Beale) and his wife Jean among them -- and they go out for a curry once a week. Paul might otherwise catch a bit of sport on TV while Wendy tries vainly to finish the Telegraph crossword, do tapestry work on a set of cushions or potter about the patio seeing to her plants.
"We're not night-club or party people, really, although we do like getting dressed up for a charity do now and then," she says, adding with a laugh, "I need the excuse to buy clothes, don't I?"
Work-wise, things couldn't be brighter. Her glamorous Miss Brahms in the Seventies' comedy, Are You Being Served? is now the toast of America -- it's the top British TV show there.
And radio listeners are enjoying more of Wendy's quick wit in the panel game Just A Minute -- "like joining an exclusive gentlemen's club, that is," she laughs. There's also the chance of a radio comedy series with her old friend from the Carry On days, Barbara Windsor, and she's looking forward to standing in as a guest host on a music request show some time during this year. But, best of all, she's relishing the prospect of months of acting in highly emotional scenes with Bill Treacher as her husband Arthur, Todd Carty as Mark, and her good pal Susan Tully as daughter Michelle, in the Cockney soap.
"I feel I know Bill so well now I can trust him to know his lines, understand the scene and make it work really well. And the same goes for 'my children'," she smiles. "We usually get through it in the first take. I never have any worries at all.
"Bill and I are terrible gigglers but we're also frank with each other. Mind you, I do like to pull his leg sometimes. When Pauline went to work at the paint factory, I said to him: 'Bill, I'm going to suggest to the producer that Pauline brings home some paint and Arthur does up the front of the house.'
"I knew Bill, like me, hates ladders and heights and everything. 'Are you mad?' he said, 'I'm not going up there!' For a moment he didn't know I was joking.
"I wouldn't say I feel sorry for Pauline because she has come on a lot from the way she was six years ago -- pregnant with Martin, living under Lou's domination, no money and all.
"She has learned to stick up for herself. She's very pleased that Arthur isn't doing that dodgy work for the Mitchells and his gardening business seems to be coming on well. She's enjoying it at the paint factory, but she wants the rest of her family to get on all right, too. That means brother Pete finding a nice woman and Michelle settling down, too."
One Fowler she's not worried about is her five-year-old Martin, just started school and "doing brilliantly!" Wendy exclaims, smiling.
Wendy also feels a long-range pride for husband Paul's pretty teenage daughters and 11-year-old son from his first marriage.
Wendy reckons Pauline is going to become more fulfilled as she gets older and wiser, and sees no reason for the two of them to part company. As for middle age and Wendy -- they're becoming friends, too.
"Age doesn't bother me at all. I've been going grey since I was in my twenties. When I was younger and had dyed hair, black roots used to come through. Now grey roots come through and doesn't show so much! Seriously, I think 32 is the best age for a woman. My mother was 32 for years and so was I. For a while I've been saying, 'I'm approaching 40,' but I'm not saying from which direction. And I hang on to that story for grim death!"