The woman that time forgot

She's little known these days, but Susan Penhaligon was once a star of television. Brian Viner meets her as she makes her small-screen comeback
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The Independent Online

There are only so many times in the life of an actor when she is required to sit naked among a herd of goats circling her nipples with lipstick.

For Susan Penhaligon, opportunity knocked just once, in the 1971 film version of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. However, it is not the scene that still fills her with horror, so much as the audition. "It took place in the middle of a Welsh field, in the middle of winter, and for some reason I turned up wearing hotpants. What was I thinking of?"

Still, she got the part, as Mae Rose Cottage, and got to share the credits with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole, not to mention the then-unknown David Jason, who played Nogood Boyo. That is what has sparked these memories, over a non-Dylan Thomas bottle of mineral water in a central London hotel. For she and Jason are reunited in A Touch of Frost, a two-parter to be transmitted on ITV tomorrow and Monday, in which she plays the love interest.

Sightings of Penhaligon have been relatively rare on television in recent years, although that's not for want of either trying or talent. Nor is it for want of experience. There was a time, indeed, when she was at least as well known as, say, Martine McCutcheon is now.

In 1976, she starred as pouting Prue Sorensen in the mini-series Bouquet of Barbed Wire, which was followed, agog, by more than 20 million viewers a week. Andrea Newman's steamy adaptation of her own novel revolved around the intense relationship between Prue and her father Peter (Frank Finlay). There were flashes of nudity too, and like other hormonal 14-year-olds, I watched as much as I could wangle. But Penhaligon gently corrects my recollection that the serial owed its notoriety to scenes of incest.

"There was inferred incest between Frank Finlay and myself," she says (she is still recognisably Prue, although any bright spark wishing to commission a sequel should be reminded that Prue topped herself in episode seven). "He loved me too much. But it was very subtle. Actually, I was one of the most moral characters. My mother got into bed with my husband, my father with his secretary, but I only slept with my husband. And yet a lot of the more salacious reaction seemed to land on my shoulders. I was completely at sea with it. I just didn't understand how to deal with the intrusion into my private life. These days there would be more support."

But these days she might not have got the part. "Back then, the director and producer would look at the script and say, 'Let's see this actress, that actress, and we'll cast who's best'. Now, on television, it's the other way round. They get the actor or actress and then find a script to suit them. We've got a Hollywood system of star vehicles, which excludes a huge group of actors. It might make awards ceremonies more interesting if a wider range of people were involved. And, of course, another reason why there's not as much work for actors is because most programmes are about gardeners or houses or pest control." She smiles. "Having said that, I'm hooked on Pop Idol."

Penhaligon – a second cousin of the late Liberal MP David Penhaligon – was born in 1949 in the Philippines, where her father worked for Shell. When her parents' marriage ended, her mother, an actor, took her to live in St Ives, among the St Ives school of artists. "It was all very bohemian," she recalls. "One of my earliest memories is the smell of oil paint and wine, because they would drink, paint, drink, paint...."

Unsurprisingly, she decided to become an actor herself, and duly graduated from the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. A period in rep followed (and she is still busy in the theatre, currently touring with David Soul in Deathtrap), but it was Bouquet of Barbed Wire that seemed likely to propel her to major stardom. Oddly, it never quite happened. Although she worked steadily as a jobbing actor, she suffered a crisis of confidence around six years ago, when the TV work started drying up.

"So I thought, 'if I can't be in them, I'll try to write them'. It was very naïve, and I wrote a screenplay in two weeks which was total rubbish. But I kept at it, and now Yorkshire TV have optioned a script I wrote with Neil Harrison, who plays John Lennon in the Bootleg Beatles. It's about a woman who wants to be a country and western singer, and a marriage that's gone wrong."

Penhaligon knows what she was writing about. She has been divorced three times, and has a son, Truan, by her second husband, the documentary-maker David Munro. Her third ex-husband is the actor Duncan Preston, Victoria Wood's leading man in Dinnerladies. "We are now back together," she says. "We didn't see each other for seven years, and then I rang him one day. It's the last thing I ever thought would happen to me, but I suppose some relationships don't end even when you think they have." Andrea Newman, sharpen your pencil.

'A Touch of Frost' is on Sunday and Monday at 9pm on ITV 1

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