Sharing An Ashtray With...

The British comedian and actress, and star of the BBC TV's famous sitcom, Hi-De-Hi!, doesn't light up.

JL: Where did you start smoking?   
SP: I first started smoking in Nottingham, where I come from.  It was ridiculous: I used to have this ritual every week of just smoking one cigarette and then throwing away the other nine in the River Trent.

JL: Do you smoke now?

SP: Not at all. I stopped smoking when I was about 29.

JL: Why?

SP: I was in a panto and one night I came off and the director, who was also playing the Dame, he said to me, “Your breathing was terrible tonight, Sue.  You sounded really bad.”  And I thought, “Oh!” and I was riddled with guilt, and went out immediately and threw all my cigarettes in the river. I’ve not had any more since.

JL: Didn’t I see you smoking in Hi-Di-Hi, or am I imagining it?

SP: I smoked once, as Peggy, when she was just about to meet the entertainments director, and she was a bit nervous.  But all she did was take one drag, and stubbed it out. So she’s never really smoked.

JL:  Have you ever smoked on stage?

SP: I did last year in Abigail’s Party.  Ang’ smoked – she was supposed to have given up.  Her husband Tony was also supposed to have given up, but he smoked a cigar.  We were at this party and I smoked a cigarette.

JL:  Was it a real cigarette?

SP: Yes. But I did say to the director to please please get me the lowest tar possible.  So they gave me a menthol thing, and it was fine.  As soon as I finished in the show, I thought, “Oooh, I don’t want to go back to that.”

JL: You didn’t feel tempted?

SP: No, to be honest.  I didn’t like the taste of it in my mouth.

JL: Why do women smoke?

SP: I think women smoke because they’re seduced by all the movies and by their peers into doing it, probably when they’re about 13 or 14.  They think it goes with a grown-up sort of image or a devil-may-care I’m my own woman type of thing.  You know what I mean?

JL: Yeah.  Do you know any actresses who manage to sing and smoke?

SP: I know two or three people who do it, and it doesn’t seem to effect their breathing or anything.  I think some people think ‘Actually it stills me nerves a bit.”  But none of them smoke more than about ten cigarettes a day – I don’t know any women singers who are heavy smokers.

JL: Have you noticed when doing your shows that there are less smokers in the wings?

SP:  Not in the wings, certainly, because smoking backstage can constitute the fire officer coming along and bringing the curtain down – so you wouldn’t dare do it.  Certainly in this show, ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, there are very few smokers.  And if they do, they’re on this show all night so they haven’t got much chance to smoke, anyway, aside from probably one in the interval.  I do think smoking has become less prevalent.

JL: If you were still a smoker, whose doorway would you like most to smoke in?

SP: Robert Taylor’s. Ooh yes. Looking back on his old movies I loved the way he used to take his cigarette out of his pocket and light it – it was fantastic!  Sexer!

JL: Cigarettes and cigars have long been useful props in the movies and on stage.  Do you think there will ever be a time when they are totally banned from stage and screen?

SP: No.  I don’t think they will.  So many people still like to see actors who can expertly handle a cigarette, and they love the idea of a long cigarette holder as well.  To me, it’s part of good stagecraft. 

JL: But if smoking is in decline in the theatre, where will actors learn the craft of smoking?

SP:  Well I suppose what they’ll just have to do is look it up in old movies and video clips and think, “Oh, that’s how they did it.”

JL: You don’t think drama schools will start holding classes on smoking, then?

SP: Well actually, dear, why not. They already have classes on how to put your boots on.
By James Leavey 1999