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MY WEEKLY, 11 April 1987

"I Couldn't Go On Playing Dolly Birds For Ever," Says Wendy Richard

The glamorous Miss Brahms of Are You Being Served? has grown into Pauline Fowler, EastEnders' harassed, middle-aged housewife with all the cares of the world on her shoulders. For Wendy Richard the transformation didn't come easily -- but the result says it all about her acting talent.

Wendy Richard sits down to a welcome cuppa [cup of tea] and tells me she has spent the day working in the launderette -- and worrying about husband Arthur. All of which, as she herself points out, is enough to be going on with.

But it will be an hour or two yet before she can say good-bye until tomorrow to Pauline Fowler whom she plays in television's runaway "soap" success, EastEnders.

"We won't be finished until much later this evening," Wendy says. "As a matter of fact, we're putting in over sixty hours a week, working six and sometimes seven days. There's virtually no time at all for any sort of social life.

"But I'm very proud to be in EastEnders, because it's so good. It's lovely when people stop me in the street and tell me how much they enjoy it.

"The other day in Oxford Street an elderly couple on the other side of the road spotted me, and the lady gave me such a lovely smile.

"And Paul, my boyfriend, said to me, 'When you get fed up, remember how delighted she was to see you -- that's what it's all about!' "

At the moment, Wendy is not only enjoying success and real satisfaction in her work, but a happiness and contentment in her personal life she has never known before.

In fact, so low was she at one point -- on the break-up of her second marriage -- that she very seriously contemplated suicide.

Wendy was born in Middlesbrough and traveled the country with her parents, who were in the licensed trade. As a youngster, she had visions of one day becoming a veterinary surgeon -- or an archaeologist.

In the event, she worked behind the counter at several of London's best-known department stores before going off to drama school and a career as an actress.

So she had a wealth of experience to draw on some years later when, in 1972, Are You Being Served?, her first big break in television and one of the small screen's most successful ever comedy series, came into her life. She played the very fanciable Miss Brahms in Grace Brothers' store.

"Miss Brahms certainly brought back the memories!" Wendy laughs. "One job I had was as a junior in the fashion department at Fortnum & Mason. I got three pounds eight and fourpence a week, and we worked a five-and-a-half-day week.

"In another store I lasted just one day. It was their coat sale, and the other assistants sold hundreds of pounds' worth of coats. I sold just two -- and got the sack!

"In my time I've also worked as a barmaid and as secretary to an interior designer friend of mine."

In her 25 or so years as an actress before EastEnders, the accent for Wendy was very much on comedy. Besides Are You Being Served? on television, other series in which she featured included Dad's Army, Please, Sir, On The Buses and Fenn Street Gang. In the cinema she appeared in the Carry On films, and in the full length Are You Being Served? and On the Buses feature films.

Earlier on in her career there were straight dramatic roles in such popular television series as No Hiding Place and Z Cars and, notably, in a film for the cinema, No Blade of Grass, which starred Cornel Wilde. [webmeister's note: well, not exactly. Wilde was the director of NBoG]

"Looking back on what I've done," Wendy says, "I was thrilled to be in Are You Being Served? because everyone was so lovely and it was a smashing show. And I can't tell you what a pleasure it was to work with those wonderful gentlemen in Dad's Army.

"But over the years two jobs stick out in my mind. One is a one-off play I did for television called West Country Tales, which I'll remember to my dying day as one of the happiest jobs ever, and the other is the panto 'Cinderella, which I did with the late Dickie Henderson, a lovely, lovely man."

There have been regular appearances for her, too, on such small-screen favourites as Blankety Blank and 3-2-1.

When Wendy was approached to play Pauline Fowler in EastEnders, the last series of Are You Being Served? had been completed, and she had just finished filming a play for Harlech television called Nurses Do.

"Julia Smith, the producer, asked me to go and see her and she gave me a week to think about taking on the part of Pauline Fowler.

"It was a tremendous challenge for me and anyway, I knew I couldn't kid myself that I could go on playing dolly birds for ever. Pauline was one of the best female roles to have been around the BBC for a long time, and the contrast between her and the dolly bird was too good to miss.

"I wasn't worried about being type-cast -- I knew I could hide behind Pauline and then go off and do other things like Blankety Blank, where I could put on a bit of glamour.

"I'd also just got the mortgage for the flat I'm buying, and I must say it occurred to me that if I played Pauline it would at least look after the first couple of years of the mortgage.

"But it was when I walked round the corner of the set at Elstree studios and saw Albert Square for the first time that I said to myself, "This is IT!'

"It was the most magnificent set I'd ever seen, and I knew the programme had to be a hit. You see, you get a gut feeling about something and that's what I had.

"What did surprise me, though, was how quickly EastEnders got into the ratings.. I knew it was good, but I thought it would take a little longer to take off than it did."

How much of Pauline Fowler is there in Wendy Richard?

"Pauline is a very caring person," Wendy tells me, "and I, too, try to be caring. In that respect we're the same. Also, both of us know about unemployment -- all actors and actresses are out of work at some time or the other.

"But, apart from that, our life-styles are completely different. The strange thing is that people identify so much with the way Pauline shoulders everybody else's problems, that they write to me with all sorts of problems!

"I get youngsters writing to me, and older people, too, but I'm no counsellor and so there's only a certain amount of help and advice I can give them. The letters with the more difficult problems I send on to the experts.

"Then there are the people who take EastEnders for real. They write and ask how on earth I put up with Arthur! And one little girl wrote and told me, 'Don't take any notice of Dot -- and don't you do her shift for her.' I thought that was lovely."

How difficult is it living in the sort of goldfish bowl that constantly attracts the attention of Press and public alike?

"It's not always easy," Wendy replies. "I know only too well that EastEnders could take over my life, but I'm not going to let it.

"Paul helps me tremendously in that direction. He allows me to left off steam, then he'll say, 'Are you off your high horse now?'

"He's a business man and a realist. I met him when he came into my local with his brother, whom I already knew.

"There are minuses when you're in this sort of spotlight, of course there are -- like the occasions in a restaurant when you're trying to eat your dinner and people keep coming up to ask for autographs.

"People don't understand, you see, that there are times when all I want to do is to sit quietly. Please, please, leave me alone, I think to myself when I see someone about to come over to chat.

"Now a journalist has discovered where I live, and that does annoy me. You'd think, wouldn't you, they would leave me at least one place where I can have a bit of peace and quiet?

":But it seems that certain newspapers just have to publish something about EastEnders to boost their sales. If we sneeze, then they write about it.

"There was a time I did a voice-over for a film documentary which, because there were some nude scenes in it, some people said was rude. I can tell you that if I'd thought it was rude, I'd have had nothing to do with it.

"But a reporter came to ask me about it, and I told him that what I'd seen of the film -- and that was just the part I'd been concerned with -- looked very nice.

"All I'd done was a 'voice-over.' I didn't take my clothes off!"

The delightful Richard sense of humour is quick-fire and Cockney-style, and usually bubbles away merrily not far beneath the surface. But Wendy would be the first to admit that there have been moments in her life when, if it didn't completely desert her, it came perilously close to doing so.

Her first marriage was to a man who was a music publisher. It ended in divorce.

"I married because I didn't think I could survive on my own," she says. "Later, of course, I realized I could."

Her second marriage, to an advertising executive, also ended in divorce, but in circumstances which had all the raw emotion of an episode straight out of EastEnders. Stories in the tabloid newspapers told of her "nightmare life" as a battered wife.

"I had about three hundred letters from women in similar situations after those stories were published," Wendy tells me. "I wrote back and told them they weren't as fortunate as me -- at least I only had myself to look after. Many of them had children.

"Others wrote to explain how they were re-building their lives. Quite honestly, I don't think enough is done to help battered wives.

"When my second marriage broke up I was out of work and so depressed that I really did think of topping myself. I'm not a religious fanatic, but I do go to church and I try to be a good Christian.

"I went to church and I thought to myself, you shouldn't be thinking like this, it's wrong.

"Mummy always told me that as one door closes, another one opens. I know it sounds like fantasy, but it's true. The next day there was a script on my doormat. It was for a radio series called Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful, and I went off and did it."

Wendy is wary of marrying again.

"I was quite prepared, you know, to live on my own for ever," she tells me, "but then I met this smashing bloke, who has also had his share of unhappiness, and we get on like a house on fire.

"I've made some terrible mistakes in my life but I hope they have helped to make me a better person. I think I've learned from the mistakes. For example, I don't take people at face value any more. I think I'm a pretty good judge of character now."

As the proud mum of baby Martin in EastEnders, does she sometimes regret not having children of her own in real life?

There is the slightest of pauses and then Wendy looks at me and tells me, "Yes, I do. When they put baby Martin in my arms for the first time I nearly broke down and cried.

"It was the moment I suddenly realized what I had missed in life."

Home for Wendy is a flat in London's West End. Now she's spending what little spare time she has in planning how it should be decorated and furnished.

"I'm careful to make sure that anything I buy for the flat is exactly right for it. I'd much prefer to wait rather than just go out and buy the first things I see.

"For instance, although all the wallpaper is up in the sitting-room, there's no fireplace in it at the moment -- just a hole in the wall! And that's the way it's going to stay until I find the fireplace I want.

"All the money I earn -- or rather all the money my agent allows me to have, because I've always been extravagant and, thank God, he makes me save -- I'm spending on my home.

"I wish I wasn't so extravagant!"

Is there anything else she wishes she wasn't?

"Well, I'm a bit untidy," Wendy says, "and so there's definitely room for improvement in that department. And I wish I didn't get so irritable when I'm tired. I don't say unkind things, but there are times when I wish I could hold my tongue. At least I don't get bouts of depression now, and I'm certainly not a moody person. I just get very tired.

"I constantly worry about my work, though. I look at myself on the box and never fail to think that I could have done this or that scene better than I did -- and I wish I could do it all over again!

"I have an honest critic in Paul. Mind you, there are times when he's too honest!

"I go to work out in a gym regularly, and I was really chuffed [pleased] recently when the instructor asked me if I'd been dieting.

"I went home and couldn't wait to tell Paul that the instructor had said I'd lost weight. 'Well, I don't think you have!' Paul said.

"But, for all that, it is nice to have someone you can rely on for good, honest criticism.

"Whatever success I've had, and however ambitious I may have been in the past, I am at heart a home person. I'm extremely happy in my home life, I'm in one of the best shows on television and, touch wood, I enjoy good health.

"Now, I don't think I could ask for much more than that do, you?"

Syd Gillingham

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