HOW WE MET

POLLY JAMES AND NERYS HUGHES
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The Independent Culture
Polly James, 54, was born in Blackburn and won a scholarship to RADA. Best known as Beryl in the Seventies comedy The Liver Birds, she has since worked mainly in theatre, most notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is divorced and lives in London.

Nerys Hughes was born in Rhyl in North Wales. She created the role of Sandra in The Liver Birds, and is also remembered for her title role in The District Nurse. Married with two children, she now lives in London. Polly James and Nerys Hughes are currently appearing in a new series of The Liver Birds

Polly James: I first met Nerys Hughes in 1966, down at a place in east London called Hoxton. Her then boyfriend was running one of those tiny, incredibly old wooden theatres with a gallery running round the side of it, doing Shakespearean plays as they would have been done in Shakespeare's day. She was in his company, playing Viola in Twelfth Night. There was a first night party at the theatre and I remember being introduced to this very beautiful girl. She had dark eyes and very dark, long hair and an incredibly voluptuous figure. I was tiny and skinny and blonde, so this made a great impression on me.

Nerys, by the way, has no memory of having met me on that occasion, she's got a terrible memory. Anyway, the next time I met her was in 1970 when I had been cast for The Liver Birds, in the office of Sidney Lotterby, the producer. She was full of fun and we hit it off straight away, and that's how it's been with us ever since.

That translated itself into our performance on screen. The Liver Birds was all so innocent really. Our screen characters had boyfriends, but there was no mention of sex or anything like that. Basically the series was about two girls sharing a flat in Liverpool, having boyfriend problems and trying to get jobs and not getting them. Things like that. And in fact we did spend an enormous amount of time together. We rehearsed together most of the day, then we went home to one of our respective flats to learn our lines.

In the midst of all this, Nerys acquired a boyfriend who was later to become her husband, Patrick, a cameraman. He was abroad a lot and he used to bring Nerys back bottles of Pernod, and we'd drink this disgusting concoction, Pernod milkshakes, while we were learning the scripts together. Don't ask me why we drank that particular mixture. I think Nerys might have recently acquired a blender.

Our "real" friendship was very like our on-screen friendship. I often used to stay over at her flat. We were always having parties; we had one every week after the programme was recorded. In those days we learnt one episode at a time and did the turnaround in five days. And then on a Saturday we'd do the show at 8pm in front of a live audience; after that we'd go home to her place and have a big party. Her flat was in this little mews in South Kensington and every Saturday night we'd fill it up with about 80 people. While we were getting ready for the programme we'd be worrying about whether or not we'd got enough food for the party or if we'd have to get some more dips on the way back.

We loved the five years we spent together in The Liver Birds. We hadn't done anything together since that, but when we started working together again for this series, we just clicked straight back into it.There's no clash between being such good friends and working together. The main difference this time is that I don't drink Pernod milkshakes in Nerys's house.

She lives near me, in a house with an Edwardian hall, with the rooms leading off it. I go into Putney early in the mornings and I usually pass her house and if I see her car there I drop by. I always say "I can't stop", but then we start chatting and we stand in her hall and chat, and then we sit on the stairs and chat for a couple of hours, and then it turns into a bit of lunch. Then, in the late afternoon, Nerys's daughter Mari-Claire comes back from college; and I'm Mari-Claire's godmother so she says, "Why don't you stay for a bit of supper?", and so by this time it's about 10 o'clock. This often happens. Nerys is a marathon chatter, and so am I. We can talk for days.

We don't do that many things together, we don't mix much socially. Apart from working together, we just chat. We never talk about acting, though. We mostly talk about family life. She's a wonderful mother, you can tell that from her two children - they're really secure and they're very good fun. I watched them grow up. Nerys is always terribly early for everything. I've never walked into a rehearsal room without seeing her sitting there quite composed, as if she's been there for hours. I fly in at the very last minute so this is always a bit maddening. She constantly tells me how she gets up at six and has done all the ironing by seven. That gets me down sometimes as I'm not like that at all. If I never saw her again I'd miss the fun we have and the 12-hour chats I have with her on my way back from Putney.

Nerys Hughes: Polly says we met before The Liver Birds, but I have no recollection of this. I only remember meeting her for the first time in Sid Lotterby's office when The Liver Birds started. She made such a huge impression on me then that I can't believe that I could have met her at that party in Hoxton and not remembered, but I really don't. I thought Polly was tiny, but so dynamic and hugely talented, because it was at a time when she was doing a West End musical, I and Albert, where she played Queen Victoria. Everything about her was terribly sparky. How can I have met her before and not remember?

Anyway, my first memory of her is in The Liver Birds. Gosh it was fun. I remember that as a golden time. It was the early Seventies, it was a smashing time. I'm quite sure there were Cold War tensions and international crises but I can't remember any of them. We were having such a lovely time, we were wearing mini skirts and hot pants and we had good figures and it was so lovely. I really can't remember anything bad about it.

Polly isn't like her character, Beryl. She's very delicate and ladylike, she wears very lovely tailored, smart, pretty things and she puts her hair up. Beryl is very brash and outspoken and likes to shock - Polly isn't like that at all. I think what constantly surprises me about Polly, and this is after 25 years of knowing her, is her duality. There's one side that's very vulnerable and sensitive and artistic, and the other side that's very northern and matter-of-fact and straightforward. She even looks vulnerable and delicate, yet she has this earthy directness and this ability to take a matter-of-fact view of something.

She's had things happen to her that have rocked her life a couple of times. She lost her brother whom she absolutely adored - I adored him too - and she's had other sadnesses like this in her life. Yet they have not hardened her. She has coped with these situations, she has not gone under, and yet she looks as though the wind could knock her down - she's so dainty and delicate. Great sadnesses can alter you in two ways: they can harden you, or they can make you "deeper". They made Polly deeper, she is not a hard person at all. She has an immensely strong character, she copes, she's quite tough.

We share a sense of humour. When we act together we don't need to discuss anything, we have the same reactions to a comic situation, so I suppose that means we have the same taste in humour. We don't have to ponder, there's a sort of shorthand whereby we don't really need to discuss things with each other, we take one look at each other and just do it. And it works. I suppose that's a symptom of the fact that we view the world in very similar ways.

I loved doing The Liver Birds with her. Lots of people said that it made them want to share a flat too. It was a very gentle series, no political correctness, no sex, it was very naive in a way. I was in it for 11 years, five of them with Polly. We used to have a laugh. We used to make these disgusting Pernod milkshakes which we'd drink while we were learning our lines; and we'd have these extraordinary parties back at my little flat every Saturday after the programme was recorded.

We live near each other, and because she's godmother to my daughter, there is a closeness anyway. We talk a lot. When she comes in, she says "I'm just dropping in; I'm not staying, I've got to get to the bank." But then we go in and sit on the stairs and chat, and then at 4pm she realises that she still hasn't got to the bank and she's missed it. Also, we don't finish sentences, we don't give each other the chance, we've always got so much to say to each other, so the conversation goes off on millions of tangents.

I'm very practical and I tend to mother people and I know that irritates her because she's little and so perhaps I do treat her like a child. She said that to me once and I got terribly upset about it but it's probably true.

Polly's got this lack of urgency. I'm always trying to get things done and always have my eye on the clock. Polly's totally vague about time and arrives at the last second, so I'm always doing a little bit of a push with her. But I love working with her, we're totally complementary. We're always so pleased to see each other and we know what makes each other tick. We pop in and out of each other's lives. !

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