Hello Campers: Su Pollard Interview

Rob Cope: How did it all begin for you at Maplin’s?

Su Pollard: As you know David (Croft) and Jimmy (Perry) were also clients of Richard Stone, the agent I was with at the time. Normally with Richard if you want one of his artistes you get another six thrown in so it becomes a sort of package deal. In one way it’s a good thing because when David and Jimmy write anything usually the agency’s clients get the pick of the auditions first because they tend to look after their own stable. The first I heard was when Richard phoned me, he said “You know David and Jimmy of Dad's Army fame, they are thinking about writing a new sit-com about a holiday camp. I’m not sure if all the parts have been cast but go and visit them anyway for a chat.” So I duly took myself the 369 steps up to Jimmy’s penthouse, when I got there he opened the door he looked me up and down and said, “No we don't want any pegs thank you !” because I had a long hippy coat on, I must have looked like a Yak. I thought it wasn’t a very salubrious start, but we started chatting about all the usual stuff, things I’d done etc. At the end they thanked me and said they would be letting me know one way or the other. I didn’t hear anything for a year by which time I reckoned that must have got someone else for the job, but as I’ve come to learn about them they take a lot of time casting. During that year that’s what they were doing, seeing the world and his wife about various roles. Interestingly enough, John Quayle with whom I worked in the West End and New Zealand runs of the farce Don’t Dress For Dinner was offered the part of Jeffrey Fairbrother. He was working at the National Theatre at the time appearing in rep doing small roles in three of their plays and they refused to let him off to play a major television role like Jeffrey Fairbrother! Obviously Simon Cadell then got it by default, but didn’t he turn out to be brilliant? Anyway, the next thing was that Richard Stone phoned me again saying that they’d like to offer me the role of the chalet maid, it was only a small part but if I wanted a go at it he promised that Jimmy and David would look after me if it went into a series. Of course I decided to give it a whirl and the rest is history. It just shows darling, it’s just where you are sometimes - luck plays a major part. You’ve got to be talented surely but it’s then up to you to make the most of what you’ve been given.

What were your thoughts when you first read that pilot script?

The very first scene I thought was hilarious, on the train where Spike, Ted and Jeffrey are travelling to Maplin’s. Straight away what appeals to me is that David and Jimmy’s comedy comes from the class structure. The greatest fun in this country is when you are taking the mickey out of the higher ranks. So for a start I was really impressed with the dialogue, I could hear Ted’s voice when I was reading it.The sounds of the words leapt out from the written page. Marvellous phrases like “If the Venus De Milo was a map of the world, Maplin’s would be the bum !” Then there was Gladys Pugh, Ruth (Madoc) was marvellous as Gladys I thought. Some people are tailor made for parts. But you see I always say that if you get a success you become a victim of the system, if you are good in a certain characterisation and people like you, they want to see you doing a similar thing next time. But after a while they start to say “Can’t she do anything else?” It’s really difficult to balance the two. The first time we went into the studio though and heard the applause and cheers, we all thought ‘Dare we hope that this will be a success?’ At our peak we got 16 million viewers, I was just lucky to get the job, everybody needs a lucky break.

Jeff Holland told me that at the first read through he was terrified of you. What did you make of the rest of them?

On the day of the first rehearsal I got there really early because the Central Line is notorious for getting stuck in the tunnel at White City. I was there at half-past nine and at about twenty-five-past-ten I wandered off to find the rehearsal room. As I walked in David took one look at me and asked “Good God, you haven’t walked off the street dressed like that have you?” Simon Cadell was marvellous, he said “Darling, I can tell we are going to be great mates", he had a big fat cigar in his mouth. I was a nervous wreck doing the read through, I slow down a lot now but then I read it like a bat out of hell. Afterwards you get talking and you then realise you are all in the same boat. Paul Shane was a bag of nerves, that’s how Tony's Tratatoria came about. In one of the read through’s Paul said “Hey Clive, why don’t you take Gladys down to Tony’s Tratatoria...” And of course it should have been Tratoria. Anyway it stuck and we all p***** ourselves when he said it.

When did you get the first hint that the series was going to be massive?

It wasn’t until the second series I don’t think...

Funnily enough the first series was repeated just three months after the original transmissions so someone at the BBC smelled a hit. Also the catchphrase “Hi de hi” caught on very quickly...

I think you are absolutely right, it was a boost to the original showing. You realise it is going to be massive when you are constantly asked for interviews. You are a new person on the entertainment scene if you like and they want to find out as much about you as they can. Of course it all comes out about how many abortions you may have had and that’s the down side of it.

How did you cope with becoming a celebrity, very much public property?

I was hopeless at the beginning. I was very good at saying hello to people in the street but you don’t learn how to play the media game until you’ve been at it for a bit. We all got caught out, by freelance journalists especially. Beware the News of The World! We all need publicity and they need a story so I think you can have friendly relations with the press if you play it right. At the beginning I was very naive and I was telling everybody I used to moon out of coach windows, the whole lot. Then we had the unfortunate business of my marriage (to teacher Peter Keogh), we got married in unusual circumstances as you know - which I don’t want to go into - but again the press had a field day. Over the years you learn how to deal with it, but when you are involved in, for want of a better word, a “scandal” and are relentlessly pursued you become very wary and don’t open up to anybody.

Even though it was a traumatic time in your private life with headlines on the front page of all the national newspapers and even on the television news, somehow you emerged from it an even bigger star - everyone knew the name Su Pollard whereas before you were just ‘the chalet maid from HI DE HI!’

It’s true, and that’s why even negative publicity like that can be turned into something more positive. Photographers have always said that the HI DE HI! and You Rang M'Lord? gang have always been very good at giving them what they want, a good photo. They’ve got their job to do and so if you start being difficult they’ll just go off and take pictures of someone else and you loose out on valuable publicity. It’s a two way thing and they respect you if you approach it all in a professional way. Let’s face it if you are not very high profile for a while (due to lack of work) you need those photo stings to let people know you are still around. If ever I hit hard times I might need those little radio stations and newspapers that you get asked to speak to so it’s no good being very grand and pretending you are too big a star for all that. Mind you, I do think success is 25% graft and the rest is just playing the media game that keeps you in the limelight. If you give your best in everything you do you will be respected for it by the public and the people you work with.

What do you think were your best moments in the show?

I was very proud of the scene where I didn’t get my Yellowcoat (Peggy’s Big Chance). If it elicits a response like “Ah, poor thing” at least you’ve hopefully brought across the reality to people. There was another one in the Christmas special where I had to Obligon the campers (The Great Cat Robbery) to put them to sleep and I was running around with a balaclava on my heat stuck up like a peanut. I love doing slapstick comedy. I really really enjoyed Tell It To The Marines as well where I had to pretend to be a man and go over an army assault course. There were other moments too, scenes with Ruth Madoc where she is sewing her wedding dress and Gladys would have a heart to heart with Peggy. There have been some wonderful moments, these are just two or three that spring to mind.

Then there was the stage musical of HI DE HI!...

Wasn’t that fantastic? Two a day though, it was ridiculous. One day Felix Bowness came in looking very agitated. He stood there without his trousers saying “Su, I feel terrible.” His trousers were on the radiator and he was in just his boxer shorts. He had dashed onto a tube thinking he’d be late for the show and sat down in the nearest seat. He suddenly felt all wet, obviously some poor tramp had wet himself and Felix had sat in it ! We killed ourselves laughing. We were thrilled with the stage show though because it showed everybody our theatrical roots, all of us were strong stage performers. The reason we had to do the Ugly Bug Ball in the show I reckon was that they’d spent a fortune on the costumes for one of the episodes on television so they tried to get their money back by including it in the stage version. We repeated our Victoria Palace success at the Opera House, Blackpool - a 16 week season in that massive 3,000 seater theatre. It is a real killer though trying to give 110% twice a day bar Sundays, I don’t think variety performers really get their due, they don’t have anything like the BAFTA’s for variety people. What really gets me sometimes is this thing where they think they can team up an opera singer with a news reader. OK, perhaps I’m being cynical but that opera singer has worked hard all his life to perfect his art and by bringing in a news reader it is demeaning his professionalism.

When Perry and Croft asked you to be in You Rang M'Lord?, did you think to yourself “Oh no, not more of the same” because they cast you as another maid?

Oh yes, totally. I thought I was going to get stuck playing a maid for the rest of my life. They took us to one side to try and dismiss some of the initial fears we may have by explaining that for a start we would look totally different. I was happy that as a performer I had a chance to play not simply black and white, there was a lot more to Ivy than making someone laugh or making someone cry. Because it was fifty minutes per episode we were able to take advantage of that long script, things didn’t have to be quite so frantic. People say to me sometimes “Which series did you prefer?”

And it is so difficult to find an answer because there were so many things about each one that made them really special. I suppose in a way Ivy appealed to a lot more people than you would have thought, it’s amazing how many people have said to me,‘I prefer that to HI DE HI!, please bring it back.’ I did get a huge mail bag from You Rang. One lady wrote to say that she’d been in service some fifty odd years ago and she was cleaning the room of Kitty McShane, the stage daughter of Old Mother Riley, the great variety comic. She spied some face cream on the dressing table and because she was only sixteen dipped her finger in it and put a bit on her face. Anyway, the next day Kitty McShane sent for her and shouted “How dare you touch my make-up” and slapped her across the face. The upshot of it was that this woman’s mother was furious and went to see Kitty and ended up slapping the stage star across the face before triumphantly walking out. It just shows you how the characters and situations in You Rang M'Lord? struck a chord with those that had been in service.

I think too it was educational for viewers to glimpse life as it must have been for so many people all those years ago.

I think you are right, who would have thought that Mrs. Lipton would order 13 lobsters for the upstairs lot and an extra 6 lobsters for the servants! They were really crafty but I suppose they had to be in a way. During the series we got free butling advice from Ivor Spencer who runs a school for butlers, I think knowing what to do gave our performances a bit of extra reality on screen.

The cast as a whole seemed disappointed that the BBC didn’t embrace the series as much as it might have.

No, they didn’t seem to did they ? What did it for us is that they brought out the drama version of our show, The House Of Eliot. When you have two very similar period pieces something has to give and with their’s being done on film that sort of investment is going to be a bit more secure. It’s also my opinion that a lot of the powers that be thought ‘Oh no, not these tired old performers on the screen again’, because people like Bill Pertwee go back as far as Dad's Army. But by the same token if the performers are popular and turn in good performances why should their careers come to an end? Bill is a damn good actor so if there is a good part for him why shouldn’t he be seen on television ?

Where do you see your career going. Having created your niche in comedy, what would you like to say you’d been doing if I interviewed you again in fifteen years time.

I would love to be telling you that I’d tried every aspect of show business. I’d love to have done a film especially. I did do one many years ago with Bernard Manning called The Great British Striptease Contest which was a big hit on video. It was pathetic, really terrible. I was the Anthea Redfern who collected everybody’s clothes! I’d like to be saying I’d scored a hit in my own sit-com and had a big success in a major musical. It’s still one of my first loves, musicals. Above all I want to still carry on doing good work and being respected for what I do.

How would you like to be remembered?

I’d like people to say she was good to have around, wasn’t negative. She was a great mate, wasn’t just an actress but a person as well. You get so many arty-farty actors who haven’t got a clue how to live life in general. I’m very simple, I don’t strive for a Porche or a big house, if they come through hard work and success that is fine but they are not essentials with me.

I think you’ll be remembered as a true star, by that I mean somebody who didn’t just take but gave something back to life.

That’d be nice actually, it’s nice when people come up to you and say “We’ve enjoyed your work, thank you for all the pleasure you’ve given us.” It’s a nice testament. If people do think that I’d be thrilled, it’s a real reason not something made up.

Su Pollard, thank you very much.

Su interviewed by Rob Cope.

Hello Campers 1994