Sunday 24 January 2016

Before Pauline


The late Wendy Richard spent a lifetime in the acting profession but will always be best remembered for spending 21 years playing the downtrodden, outspoken matriarch to end all matriarchs: the one and only Pauline Fowler in EastEnders. Given the extent of Pauline's notoriety and the superb performances from Wendy, it is hard to get past this iconic character and see beyond her years in Walford. 

However Wendy Richard had a long and successful acting career many years before she signed up for the BBC soap opera. What may be surprising for young viewers is that before the misery of Pauline, her dreadful family and those dreadful cardigans, Wendy was best known for playing rather more glamorous parts in comedies. Indeed when EastEnders kicked off in early 1985, Wendy Richard was the only real star name to appear, the rest being unknown yet still hard working actors. 


For over a decade before the advent of Pauline, Wendy had played the glam Miss Shirley Brahms in the classic BBC situation comedy Are You Being Served? This series was a huge success, still popular to this day, boasting a cast of well known and beloved comedy actors and spawning a feature film in 1977. Such was Wendy's talent as an actress that the two roles actually dovetailed, with Are You Being Served only coming to an end in 1985 with the final episodes broadcast after EastEnders started. The two roles could not have been more different. For an actress of Wendy's experience, this must have been an exciting challenge.

Away from these two famous roles, Wendy appeared in a vast array of other comedy films and shows. She had her first brush with the Carry On phenomenon in 1970 when she took on the featured role of Kate in the Carry On Again Christmas special for Thames Television. She shared scenes with the legendary Sid James. By the Autumn of the following year she had also filmed a brief role in the classic Carry On Matron. Wendy played Miss Willing, a new mother who shared scenes at the beginning of the film with Hattie Jacques' Matron and Kenneth Williams' Sir Bernard Cutting. In 1972 Wendy again worked for Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas in the big screen version of the Sid James sitcom Bless This House. Richard played Carol, a rather gobby waitress at the cafe where Robin Askwith's Mike Abbott first meets Carol Hawkins' character Kate. 


Wendy would return to Pinewood for her second and final Carry On in 1973 with a more substantial role as Ida Downes in Carry On Girls. Wendy provided glamorous support as one of the contestants in Sidney Fiddler's beauty competition. Sadly Wendy did not return for further adventures with the gang but by '73 Are You Being Served? had been picked up for a full series and the rest as they say is history!

In 1971 Wendy Richard also had roles in both the big screen and small screen versions of the popular sitcom On The Buses. The same year she also guest starred in another classic situation comedy, Please Sir! She would later feature in the spin off series, The Fenn Street Gang. Other roles in comedy included a guest spot in the likes of Pardon the Expression, starring Arthur Lowe and Betty Driver, regular roles in the Dora Bryan vehicle Both Ends Meet and the Hylda Baker comedy Not On Your Nellie and four appearances in the classic sitcom Dad's Army. Wendy features in one of my favourite Dad's Army episodes of all time - Mum's Army. This episode sees women join the Home Guard and Captain Mainwaring fall for Carmen Silvera's Mrs Gray in a sparkling tribute to the wartime film Brief Encounter.


In 1969 Wendy also guest starred in an episode of Up Pompeii, playing Soppia opposite comedy legend Frankie Howerd. Did you know that five years earlier, Wendy had filmed a scene with Frankie for the Beatles' film Help! Sadly the scene was cut and has never seen the light of day. 

Sadly Wendy passed away at the age of 65 in 2009 following a long and very brave battle with cancer. While it is right that her legacy should be her career defining roles in both Are You Being Served? and EastEnders, I think it is also important to recognise her impressive contribution to the world of classic comedy films and television shows that she appeared in before her big breaks.


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