It is 40 years since Elizabeth Perrin wrung her hands and uttered the unremarkable line, “Have a nice day at the office.”
But it’s still remembered, and chuckled over, decades later. Mrs Perrin, the long-suffering wife of Reginald, played by Leonard Rossiter in the 1970s sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, was always greeted with the riposte, ‘I won’t.’
Pauline Yates was best known for this long-standing part. She was born in St Helens, Lancashire, in 1929 but the family moved to Liverpool soon afterwards. Throughout her life she called herself Liverpudlian and working class, despite having well-rounded vowels due to childhood elocution lessons and going on to enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle in the south of England.
Yates’ father, Thomas, was a commercial traveller, selling cough mixture and lung tonic. Her mother ,Marjorie, ran a grocery store during rationing, stocking everything from butter to sweets and paraffin. The eldest of three children, Pauline attended Childwall Valley High School but left at 16, determined to pursue an acting career. Her younger sister remembers her acting out Richard II for her to help her pass her school certificate. Her school report said, “Pauline is a pleasant girl but OH WHAT A CHATTERBOX!”
Her first job was assistant stage manager at Chorley Rep, before moving on to weekly and fortnightly reps throughout the country – Oldham, Dewsbury, Wakefield, Bolton, York, Scarborough, Canterbury and Wolverhampton. In London she had digs with the character actor Peggy Mount in her Earls Court flat.
Unusually, she never did anything but act. She was rarely out of work. From Emergency – Ward 10, Britain’s first medical soap, to Casualty, there was hardly a TV series in which her name had not appeared on the cast list. In the 1960s she appeared in Z Cars, Softly Softly and The Ronnie Barker Playhouse; in the ’70s she had leading roles such as the female MP in My Honourable Mrs and the divorcee who moves to London to start a new life in Harriet’s Back In Town, as well as in Armchair Theatre. In the ’80s she was back to playing the wife of an eccentric in Keep it in the Family, and enjoyed working in the Lake District on the film She’ll Be Wearing Pink Pyjamas (1985) with Julie Walters. Her last appearance was in the pilot Rose and Maloney in 2002.
Although she was on stage – Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice at Liverpool Playhouse and touring as Lettice in Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage – her home was the burgeoning genre of soaps and sitcoms. Her parts read like a history of popular television roles for women – the sensible pair of hands; the tempting but virtuous woman next door; the long-suffering wife.
My glamorous aunt, whom we always joked was Spanish because of her sleek, brushed-back, jet-black hair, was said to have turned down offers from Hollywood and The Avengers (the part that went to Honor Blackman) for family life. In 1960 she married the actor Donald Churchill, whom she had first met in Liverpool, and had two children. (Donald died in 1991, aged 61, on the set of El C.I.D. while playing the irascible harbour master, Metcalf.)
In constant demand, she was the family’s main breadwinner. Her daughter, the actor Jemma Churchill, puts that down to years treading the boards in rep. “It left her with an amazing ability to work in stressful situations, and to line learn damn quick,” she says. One interviewer, amazed that a woman could work so hard, asked how she managed to look after the house, her husband, the children and the evening meal, and be a beautiful actress. She replied, “I see myself as a messy Joan Collins. – Not that I know anything about Miss Collins’ domestic arrangements.”
Despite her family role, she was the sort of actor who is always an actor. She didn’t peel off a mask at night and become plain Pauline Churchill. “We both have what we called ‘Big Mouth’, said Jemma. “We are loud.” Their home in East Molesey, Surrey, was filled with old tea chests tumbling with discarded costumes for us children to dress up in. I pranced around her home as if it were a film set. There were potential props everywhere; discarded bottles of drink consumed by the endless stream of visiting actors, a massive African drum – a gift from her brother, who worked on a tea estate in Kenya. My aunt loved books and art, sketches in particular. Her house was like a gallery, every wall covered with framed works. I remember being shocked that most were of nude women.
In the late 1960s, she insisted they leave Surrey for Camden Town as there were too many “keys in the fruit bowl” at their suburban dinner parties. She continued to entertain: the huge, round white table in their dining room was always surrounded by TV celebrities and littered with bottles of wine and food. My aunt excelled at making salad dressing, lemon drizzle cake and damson gin – all consumed in vast quantities by her many guests. The conversation would be raucous – they loved to shock by talking about sex. Jemma recalled: “I would often return home from a night out as a teenager and see her gaily and soberly pouring bottles of recently opened good red wine down the sink to make them all go home. She’d say, ‘It’s midnight, I’m filming in the morning and they all need to fuck off!’”
She loved to swear. It was the strength and naughtiness of it she enjoyed. She was thrilled when one of her grandchildren came out with an appropriate obscenity. She boasted to her grandchild Marlon, “I taught you the C-word, didn’t I? When you were 10!’”
In 2002 Yates, who is survived by her daughters, Jemma and the writer and playwright Polly Churchill, as well as her three grandchildren, suffered a stroke and could no longer work. But she never forgot she was an actor. The last time I went to visit at Denville Hall, the retirement home for actors where she spent her last years, she characteristically rose to her full height in her wheelchair, looked at me looking at her, and, with perfect projection told me to “Fuck off!”
Pauline Lettice Yates, actress: born St Helens, Lancashire 16 June 1929; married Donald Churchill (died 1991; two daughters); died Northwood 21 January 2015.Reuse content