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The EastEnders star has no children and admits a family tragedy may be one reason . . .

Heartbreak Behind Wendy's TV Role

She's becoming TV's favourite mum. On screen in EastEnders she's jolly, cheerful and caring as 40-year-old mother-of-two Pauline Fowler, with another baby due at the beginning of September.

Off-screen she's chatty, very good company and likes to laugh a lot.

Yet behind the smiles, there's been a lot of sadness in Wendy Richard's life. She has two failed marriages behind her and there's the memory of losing her father when she was 11. He took his own life after becoming depressed over an illness.

"He was a smashing, lovely man, though a lot older than my mother. My parents ran a pub in Streatham (South London) at the time. I remember a lot about him. He was cheerful and very popular with customers.

"After his death my mother and I went through his desk and found papers and letters from a Harley Street doctor telling my father he was going to be very ill and unable to do very much. I think that pushed him into taking his life."

Wendy says life became much harder for her widowed mother and she feels that has something to do with her own decision not to have children.

"My mother struggled to bring me up on her own. With two failed marriages behind me, if I'd had kids, I'd be in the same situation. Some people manage to combine a career and having a family, but I think I've just been working too solidly in my 25 years as an actress.

"Also, living on your own you tend to get into a selfish way of doing things. I couldn't bear getting up to feed babies in the middle of the night. But that doesn't mean I can't play the part of a mum in EastEnders.

"It's not something which hurts me on the set, being a mother one moment, and not the next. I'm not wailing about missing something in life.

"My career comes first, and as far as children are concerned, the opportunity never presented itself."

The decision not to have a family but to play a mother in EastEnders is just one of many differences between the real Wendy and the screen image. For example, she's famous as a cockney, but really she's a Northerner.


"People often think I was born in the East End. In fact I came from Middlesbrough, but my parents moved down South when I was a babe in arms," she says. "They moved around a lot because they were in hotel and pub work.

"They chose three seaside locations -- Bournemouth, Southend and somewhere on the Isle of Wight -- because they thought it would be good for me to grow up by the sea. But most of the time we lived in London and I just picked up the accent."

The first time she used the abrasive cockney sound was on a record. Robert Stigwood wanted a grating female voice for a record by pop singer Mike Sarne called Come Outside, which went to number one in the charts.

Wendy was hired to ad-lib the part of a reluctant girl being wooed by the crooning Sarne. Her debut included such delicate phrases as "leave orf" and "gerroffawtovit!"

"I can't even remember if I was putting the accent on then. I was a bit green. They just put me in a studio and told me to say what came into my head.

"Since then I've done very nicely out of that way of speaking. I do put it on a bit, make it a bit more loud and raucous for the part of Pauline Fowler. But if I'm making a living at it, there's no need to change it, is there? Eh?

"In fact you're the first person I've told this to -- because I'm very modest really -- but the part of Pauline in EastEnders was created specially for me.

"Producer Julia Smith worked with me 18 or 19 years ago on the BBC soap opera The Newcomers. I was a supermarket manageress. I didn't think Julia had really noticed me. Obviously I was wrong.

"She'd discussed the part with my agent before anyone spoke to me about it. Apparently she rang up and said: 'Would Wendy take this, or has she got a bit grand?' John said: 'Of course not, I'll send her round.'

"When I arrived to talk about it, I realised Julia had got an image of how I could be, but it conflicted with everyone else's image of me so far.

"I first saw one of the young directors, Matthew Robinson -- who I now think is one of the best I've worked with -- and he looked at my CV and he said: 'You've only done bits and pieces in comedy'. I fixed him with an icy stare, and he went all flustered and went on '. . . and I'm not sure about your glamorous image.' "


"At the time I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans and thought, what's he going on about? Then Julia came in and said: 'Allo, Wendy!' and we got down to business about the part.

"The cast signed up for the series last October, so we had quite a few weeks to get to know each other. It's only when you're trying the parts in rehearsal with the others that you suddenly know how you're going to be.

"I get on very well with my two 'children', Mark and Michelle, played by David Scarborough and Susan Tully. Susan's from Grange Hill, and is very good. We're like a family unit now, but for the first few days everyone was a bit shy."

The EastEnders part came along just at the right time for Wendy when last year Are You Being Served? was ending its 12-year run. "I was at a bit of a low ebb and this series fitted the bill nicely.

"Having my hair cut was the most traumatic aspect of joining EastEnders. I'd worn it long for 19 years. I was hysterical when I came out of the hairdresser's. Then someone said I looked like Judith Chalmers!"

Yet another contrast between the on and off-screen Wendy is where accommodation is concerned. She's recently moved home in central London - just 500 yards or so, "to buy my own place with a mortgage". In the TV series she lives in her mother's house.

In her own place, she has space for her belongings -- including a collection of 400 model frogs of different shapes, sizes, and materials.


"It's all John Inman's fault, my frog obsession. We were doing a summer season in 1976 and he told me a joke about a frog.

"Well, I brought him a joke frog, and while looking for some antique glassware -- which I also collect -- I realised what beautiful creatures frogs are, as I saw them depicted in glass.

"Now friends send me them from all over the world. I've got a horrible one from the Canaries, with a great big red chest on it. There are also some rude ones which don't go on show!"

What are her ambitions? "I'll stay as Pauline for as long as they want me, though it's been so hectic getting it underway, I haven't had time to think about the future.

"Time is something I need more of. We do a six-day week here at Elstree. I don't even have time to do laundry, so I've wondered about bringing it in here -- as Pauline works in the launderette -- and doing it during recording."

Geoffrey Milton

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