Nice piece here on Wendy Richard....
'In the early days all I ever got were crying scenes'
As EastEnders turns 21, Wendy Richard tells Emma John about Pauline Fowler, cancer and why British TV comedy is rubbish
Thursday February 16, 2006
Wendy Richard's washing machine broke down once. Forced to haul her washing to the laundrette, she discovered she didn't know how to use the machines. "There was a row of women sitting behind me and I knew their eyes were boring into the back of my head," she remembers. "Do you know, not one of them stepped forward to help me."
Not surprising, really. It would take a brave person to presume to tell Pauline Fowler, Richard's alter-ego and the high-priestess of Albert Square's coin-op, anything about a rinse cycle. It also shows, as the show celebrates its 21st anniversary, how difficult it is to separate the two women. Richard is one of only two actors to have been with the soap since day one (true 'Enders fans will know that the other is Adam Woodyatt, who plays Ian Beale) and to mark the occasion, Fowler is finally marrying again, after 10 years of widowhood.
Unlike the bride, Richard was not keen on the idea, worrying that it was betraying her husband Arthur's memory. "I thought Pauline would be like her mum Lou Beale - she'd never have remarried. I thought she would sit in her chair in the corner and watch her grandchildren grow up." Eventually convinced by the executive producer, Richard nevertheless battled - successfully - for Fowler to keep her famous surname.
Working out where Richard ends and Fowler begins is not always easy. They have the same tight smile and the same hard, London vowels. To be fair, you're unlikely to catch Fowler wearing a fur coat, smoking through a cigarette-holder or giggling "I regard champagne as a necessity, not a luxury"; but even the once-drab housewife has moved on from cardigan couture ("She's even wearing eyeshadow now," points out Richard). And, of course, Fowler can be a fearsome woman. I've been warned that Richard, too, is someone you cross at your peril. She guards the role of EastEnders' chief matriarch jealously, and directors have been known to feel her wrath if the Fowler fruit bowl is out of place.
So when we meet in her dressing room she is warmer than I expected, showing photographs from her wallet and sharing shopping tips. She jokes about her recent fan mail from the US, where Are You Being Served is still very popular. Yet there's something unavoidably steely about Richard. She has married and divorced three times, and chose not to have children for the sake of her career. She carried on working through not one but two cases of breast cancer, shooting scenes in the morning and having radiotherapy in the afternoon.
"I've always looked upon it that your work is the most important thing," she says with a shrug. "When I think of how hard my late mother worked to raise the money to send me to drama school ... she passed away in 1972 but I still feel she's watching over me and seeing a return for her hard-earned money."
While hundreds have passed through the Square on their way to TV fame or gossip-column oblivion, Richard has never seriously considered leaving. She feels too loyal to Fowler - "she's all I've thought about for a third of my life and I'm very fond of her" - and she cares, too, about the programme's educational function. Richard is particularly proud of the way the soap handled Mark Fowler's HIV, raising awareness of an illness that was still the subject of much ignorance when EastEnders tackled it in 1991. She does feel sorry for Fowler, though. "Since we started Pauline's had one problem after another but they're all problems that people have had in real life." She quickly adds: "Probably not all happening to them."
It's a natural sympathy for someone she sees, like herself, as a survivor. Richard's parents were licensees and ran a pub in Mayfair, but her father killed himself when she was only 12. Because he had been a freemason, a place was found for her at the Royal Masonic School for Girls, a "very strict" establishment. For a while she wanted to be a continuity girl, then decided on drama school. To fund her way, Richard worked as a junior in the fashion department at Fortnum & Mason. How prescient. After her breakout role in Gumshoe with Albert Finney, she was back in a department store, as the flirty Miss Brahms in Are You Being Served?
The show ran for 10 series and more than 12 years. "German Week was one of my favourite episodes because Mollie [Sugden] was so funny," she recalls. "Not only am I out of step with everyone else, I'm laughing my head off in the background. She was such a good sport, when you think of the things they used to do to her, and what she had to wear ..."
Richard is militant about the show's oft-criticised innuendo: "self-cleaning jokes," as she calls them. "Political correctness had not raised its ugly head and British humour was still funny." She is damning of the current crop of home-grown comedy, with the exception of Julia Davis's Nighty Night. "Otherwise I'm afraid it's American TV all the way. It's awful because at one time Britain led the way and the BBC made the finest comedy programmes ever but they don't seem to do that any more." What does she think the problem is? "Television companies are very ageist and they think only young people can write humour. That is not so."
Richard lives a quiet life in Marylebone with John, her partner and personal assistant. She's not a great socialiser and is in bed by 9.30pm; she does watch EastEnders sometimes to check if her any of her scenes have been cut. The only thing she wishes for at the moment is a dog, to fill the absence left by the death of her Cairn Terrier Shirley Brahms II (Shirley certainly isn't forgotten; she's cast in bronze at the top of the staircase). In the meantime, she lavishes her affection on Fowler's terrier Betty - she even bought her a ruff in New York to wear at the wedding.
With no family of her own, her EastEnders co-workers have become "very precious" to her. She has watched Woodyatt grow up from a teenager to a 36-year-old and James Alexandrou, who plays her son Martyn, has been acting alongside her since he was 10. She says she has become very protective of them all.
But there have been rumours of friction with various cast members, from Leslie Grantham (Den) and Bill Treacher (Arthur) in the grand old days of the soap, to Barbara Windsor, whose arrival as Queen of the Vic was said to have put Richard's nose out of joint. All false, says Richard. "I've known Barbara since I was 18 and I've never had a cross word with her or indeed anyone in the show at all," she says, her tone becoming flinty.
She takes criticism hard. "I do get picked on in the papers for the fact I have bags under my eyes and lines on my face. Well I'm awfully sorry but I have had cancer twice and you can't come through that without it leaving a mark on you. But I have never had a bad critique for my acting. So I think I must have handled it pretty well over the years." She admits she has had plenty of emotions to draw on, and laughs that she has always been a "good cryer", which was not always a blessing. "In the early days, when they found out, all you ever got were crying scenes."
No wonder Fowler's been so unhappy, I say. Richard counters that she has had her more light-hearted moments; she particularly enjoyed last year's holiday camp. "But of course that ended in Pauline learning that Mark had died, and that was an awful lot of crying." Doesn't all this get depressing? She nods: "You do sometimes think, I wonder how long I can keep this up for."
But the wedding, she believes, offers Fowler a real chance of happiness: "I think she has been give a new lease of life." Whether Richard will follow in her footsteps and marry again, she doesn't know. But it seems their lives will be intertwined for a while yet. And she's keen that they should both be understood. "They're not hard people. Do make that clear, they're not hard people at all. But they are survivors".