Trouper Behind The Wacky Specs

Su Pollard is the Nottingham girl who put ditzy into British sitcom. She was the slightly simple maid in holiday camp romp Hi-De-Hi, the downstairs skivvy in You Rang, M'Lord and latterly a trackside character in Oh, Dr Beeching.

You won't have known this, but had her TV career been less successful she would be better known as a star of the musical stage. "Elaine Paige and I always seemed to be at the same auditions," says Su of the Rice-Lloyd Webber team's favourite chanteuse of the 1970s and 1980s.

"She said she would love to have done some sitcom work!" As it happened, the daughter of John Player employees didn't do badly in musicals - she was in Godspell, played Sally in the West End production of three-hit wonder Me and My Girl, which Robert Lindsay had helped forge into the unlikeliest West End hit of the 1980s, and warbled her way through national tours of Grease and of Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms, playing Bunny Byron opposite Matthew Kelly.

But the trouper behind the wacky specs remains best-known for her oddball TV roles, and barely a day goes by when she is not reminded of the part that made her a household name - cleaner Peggy Ollerenshaw in Hi-De-Hi.

"It's amazing that it is still popular a few generations on," she said of Jimmy Perry and David Croft's hit sitcom.

"I get students aged 18 and 19 coming up to me and saying 'Loved you in Hi-De-Hi.' "Whatever success you have there is always going to be the thing that people remember the most, so of course I don't mind."

Don Pollard worked in data processing at Player's and his wife Hilda in the packaging department. They were not surprised when their elder daughter (born 1949) expressed an interest in the stage.

At six, Su had played the angel in her school nativity play. The story goes that while standing on a box announcing the arrival of the angel Gabriel she fell through the lid - the audience wept with laughter and she discovered her comedic powers.

"I was in all the school plays, and was encouraged by the music department and the drama club," she recalls between performances of Snow White at Mansfield's Palace Theatre, where she tops the bill as the Wicked Queen.

"I liked English. I even liked grammar and still make sure I put all my commas and full stops in the right places. "I quite liked RE and history, but was not terribly committed to maths and science."

At Peveril School in Robins Wood Road, a kindly head teacher was keen to encourage the talented youngster from Prospect Terrace, off Alfreton Road.

"She said, 'Why don't you go to the Arts Theatre? It's run by the Co-op'."

The Co-op Arts in George Street - now the Nottingham Arts Theatre - was a training ground for talented amateurs. John Bird and Peter Bowles acted there. So did soap star Sherrie Hewson, "Dr Who" Tom Baker and classical actors Philip Voss and Michael Jayston. Film director Ken Loach and playwright Stephen Lowe also have an Arts Theatre history.

There was nothing to suggest that young Su Pollard was of that calibre before she made her debut in a show called Speeches and Cream.

"But then I graduated to plays and musicals, and I had a marvellous grounding," she recalls.

"If you weren't in part you worked in props, making swords and that sort of thing, or you lent a hand in the coffee bar or did a shift in the box office."

When she left school she went to work as a secretary ("I still have the shorthand and typing") and went moonlighting as a singer in working men's clubs. "I'd do numbers like Ave Maria and Aquarius from Hair.

"I went to Basford Hall Miners' Welfare, which was considered a very prestigious booking. I had a three-piece ... piano, bass and drums ... and did three 25-minute sets.

"At two o'clock I'd finished and it was time to enjoy myself. I had a pint of lager, and an official came out and said, 'What do you think you're doing drinking PINTS? It's unseemly. You're sacked'. Thirty years ago you could do that sort of thing. You couldn't get away with it today.

"I was fortunate, because I had a reasonable repertoire and I could do requests. Mind you, they told you if they didn't like you. At another miners' welfare one of the members said, 'At least you can sing ... not like that idiot we had last week.' "You also had to show respect. Bobby Ball once told me that he went to a working men's club and the members were all there with armfuls of leeks and potatoes and all manner of vegetables.

"He said, 'What's this? Harvest festival?' They didn't take kindly to that. They were ordinary working men and all had allotments and were taking their vegetables home for the Sunday lunch."

In her early 20s, Su was at a career crossroads.

She had a steady job, extra money from singing, and opportunities on the Arts Theatre Stage. It wasn't enough.

"My parents had been to see me in amateur shows and I think they were positive about what I was doing. They felt that at least I had some sort of talent.

"When dad learned what I really wanted to do, he said, 'Go for it!' "One day I bought The Stage and there was an advertisement at the back, auditions for the Desert Song. I thought, 'I've done this as an amateur ... I'll give it a go.' I got the part.

"I was a bit naive and thought I would get three or four months to get my house in order. Actually, I had three or four days, so it was a bit of a panic. My boss at the Co-op education service, Mr Pike, gave me a hug and said, Just go! We'll get a temp'."

The florid dune opera The Desert Song, popular in its day and latterly a vehicle for matinee idol John Hanson, was the start 23- year-old Su needed.

She stayed with an aunt in Chelsea and found her feet in professional showbiz. Then came the role of Lady Jane in Rose Marie, also with John Hanson, and a turn in a very young Cameron Mackintosh's West End production of the rock opera Godspell.

"I got my first agent, and he got me into three or four plays. David Croft and Jimmy Perry were also on the books ..." A lucky connection.

Su was already a TV face, having appeared in 1974 on Opportunity Knocks with her rendition of I'm Just A Girl Who Can't Say No from Oklahoma - no doubt irritatingly, she came second to a singing Jack Russell terrier - and alongside Paul Nicholas as squatters in the BBC sitcom Two Up, Two Down.

All of a sudden, she was in one of the most successful sitcoms in TV history, for Hi-De-Hi ran to 58 episodes and helped make the careers not only of the actress who played the chalet cleaner, but also of Ruth Madoc, Paul Shane and the late Simon Cadell. After the brilliant pilot programme in 1979, Hi-De-Hi lasted for nine years and regularly attracted audiences of 15 million-plus. That's England in the World Cup territory.

A quarter of a century on, not even soap weddings get that sort of viewing figure.

She is currently touring as Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie, a role she has made her own over recent years. She says: "I think I've got the balance of my career right now: sitcoms, musicals, pantomime. However I don't think sitcoms are of a very good standard today, although it must be difficult for the writers to come up with new ideas.

"I loved Birds of a Feather and Absolutely Fabulous - as soon as that started I knew it was going to be a big hit."

Not even five-series of Ab Fab, however, can match Hi-De-Hi for audience or longevity.

The show made a star of Su Pollard and she's grateful.

Nottingham Evening Post
19th February 2011