In February BBC One soap EastEnders celebrates its 25th anniversary and to mark the occasion we have re-uploaded our ATV Icon feature on actress Wendy Richard who played matriarch Pauline Fowler in the soap for 21 years.
One of Wendy’s earliest television roles was on the short-lived Anglia soap, Weavers Green. The soap ran in 1966 and was basically an earlier version of Emmerdale Farm but set in the Anglia region instead of Yorkshire. In the serial, Richard played the Barmaid at the local village pub. Also starring in the soap, in one of her earliest roles, was Kate O’Mara. Weavers Green didn’t last long because few ITV regions besides Anglia showed the soap and after 49 episodes it ended.
After appearing in Weavers Green Richard became more familiar to 1960’s TV audiences for playing the character Joyce Harker, a regular on the BBC soap opera The Newcomers which began her long career with the BBC that has spanned well over 40 years. The Newcomers was an early attempt by the BBC to find a successful soap to rival Granada’s Coronation Street but at the time the BBC was rather aloof about such matters and so The Newcomers wouldn’t be referred to as soap at the time. The saga ran for four years between 1965 and 1969 and was initially produced by Verity Lambert, fresh from Doctor Who.
The Newcomers revolved around the Cooper family who moved out of London and into a housing estate in the fictional country town of Angleton. The series dealt with the conflict that arose from the rapid expansion of towns in the 1950s and 1960s and the local’s feelings towards the Londoners that left the big city seeking a better life in the new towns. Alongside Wendy Richard, the series also starred Judy Geeson, Alan Browning and Maggie Fitzgibbon. Sadly nearly all the episodes of this production were wiped and only a few still exist in the BBC archive.
Before appearing in The Newcomers Wendy recorded a hit single with Mike Sarne, Come Outside, where she was heard as the girl next door who the singer was attempting to woo outside. In the late 60s and early 70s she guest-starred in many popular television shows of the time such as The Likely Lads, On The Buses, Up Pompeii, Bless This House, Please Sir, Fenn Street Gang, Dixon of Dock Green, Z-Cars and Dad’s Army.
The actress also appeared in medium roles in a number of Carry On films during the early 70s. She had originally appeared in the 1970 Christmas television special, Carry On Again Christmas and her role in this lead to further roles in the film franchise. In 1972 Richards had a medium role in Carry On Matron and then in 1973 a bigger role in Carry On Girls.
It was also in 1972 when she was cast as the ditsy Miss Shirley Brahms in the hit comedy Are You Being Served?. Interestingly the actress had appeared in a short-lived ATV series in 1961 that was also set in a West-End department store. Harpers West One ran on ATV from 1961 to 1962 and Wendy played a secretary in the series. In Are You Being Served? Miss Brahms was second in command to Mrs. Slocombe and was the eye candy of the whole show, her brash cockney accent used once again for comedy.
The BBC didn’t originally place much faith in the series and it sat on the shelf for some time before being aired unscheduled; Audiences loved the slapstick sitcom and like many comedies of the 1970s it even spawned its own movie, of the same name. The series revolved around the staff of Grace Brothers, a department store in London, and mainly featured the staff of menswear and womenswear. The series rarely moved outside its regular set of the department sales floor but the film saw the staff travel aboard for their holiday and an uprising causing mayhem for the holidayers, of course, in reality, it was all filmed in studio. It ran until 1985 and Richards remained with the show right until the end.
In the 1990’s a reunion comedy series, Grace and Favour ran for two seasons and saw the former staff of Grace Brothers reunited to run a bed and breakfast. In America the series was renamed Are You Being Served Again? The series reunited the main-stars of the original series, such as Molly Sugden and John Inman, and was launched with the funeral of Young Mr Grace. The department store, Grace Brothers, was being shut down and in his will Mr Grace left the staff a house in the country.
It was in 1985 that the BBC launched their brand new soap set in the modern-day East-End and created by Tony Holland and Julia Smith. The pair had previously worked together on the popular medical drama Angels and when the series drew to a close the BBC put the pair to work on launching a brand new soap for the corporation. Between them, Holland and Smith came up with EastEnders and the central families that the early days of the show revolved around, The Fowlers, The Beales and The Watts. Richard was cast in the role of middle-aged mother of two Pauline Fowler who finds out early on in the show that she is once again pregnant. Pauline’s pregnancy was just one of main storylines that would feature the character over the next twenty-two years.
While dealing with the prospect of pregnancy later in life Pauline also had to contend with the wayward antics of older son Mark and the teen-age pregnancy of daughter Michelle. To make matters worse Michelle refused to name the father of her child further adding to the Beales woes.
Also to contend with was the interfering and domineering ways of Pauline’s mother Lou, and the slow downward spiral that saw husband Arthur fall into depression over his unemployed status. Those early days/years of the soap were certainly hard on Pauline and things only got worse for her when Mark disappeared, Lou died, Michelle gave birth and Arthur had a breakdown and was imprisoned.
As the years continued Wendy displayed her diversity as an actress showing us her brilliant comic timing and her serious dramatic style. In the early 90s Pauline had to contend with the return of Mark and the revelation he was HIV positive, the death of brother Pete and Arthur’s affair with Mrs Hewitt.
The nation was gripped as the months followed and we learned she was to die on Christmas Day. Her last few weeks showed her variety once again where she played the comedy Pauline at Ian’s fake wedding and her bitter twisted side after she heard her nearest and dearest discussing her in a less than flattering manner. In true Pauline style, she left her mark on many, physically and mentally before she finally slowly dropped and died peacefully in the Square next to Arthur’s Bench from a brain hemorrhage.
After leaving the soap the actress appeared on numerous talk shows, guest-starred in an episode of Benidorm and ITV’s new adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Marple. In 2008 it was announced that her cancer had returned, the actress had battled with breast cancer previously. In October of the same year, she married her long-term partner, John Burns. The actress passed away at the age of 65 in February of 2009. Friends and co-stars of the actress were quick to pay tribute to her.
Michael Keohan is a radio presenter and has worked for stations including Lite FM and Capital Radio.
He also from 2008-2009 wrote a monthly personal showbiz column for ATV Today.
ATV Icons celebrate the names past and present who have given a great deal to British Culture.