Wendy Richard: Actress who played Pauline Fowler in 'EastEnders'

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When Julia Smith and Tony Holland, the creators of EastEnders, were planning the BBC television serial that was to bring the rough and tough world of London's East End into millions of viewers' living rooms, they wrote of its central character, the downtrodden mother Pauline Fowler: "She's very conventional, and the salt of the earth. Jolly. Rounded. Someone you can get your arms round. She doesn't trust skinny people..."

It marked a turning point in the career of the actress Wendy Richard, who was best known for playing dollybird roles such as that of the busty sales assistant Miss Brahms in the long-running situation comedy Are You Being Served? In her early forties, she was ready for a change. "I'm sick of glamour," she told Tony Holland. "I want to play my age. It's about time."

There was certainly little glamour about Pauline, the cockney mother-of-two who worked in the local launderette. The character had to contend with being pregnant again in her forties with a second son, Martin, the disappearance of her elder son, Mark – who later returned to Albert Square and revealed that he was HIV-positive – and her daughter Michelle's teenage pregnancy by the pub landlord Den Watts. There were also the deaths of Pauline's mother, Lou Beale, and her twin brother, Pete Beale.

On top of that came her husband Arthur's unemployment, his nervous breakdown, his affair with Christine Hewitt, two spells in prison and subsequent death, Michelle's emigration to the US, Mark's death and Pauline's own second marriage to Joe Macer, a widower whom she threw out after discovering that he was a criminal, only to take him back.

"She was once described as the Boadicea of battle axes," said Richard of Pauline Fowler. "It is something I take as a compliment. I think Pauline's crowning moment, literally, was when she hit Arthur with a frying pan when she found out he'd been carrying on with another woman.

"Bill Treacher played Arthur and I remember when we recorded those scenes. We had 20 scenes, just the two of us, all day long. It was so emotionally draining because not only did I have to hit Arthur with a frying pan, I had to throw a television at him! Fortunately they had taken the inside out, but I still pulled a muscle in my back when I gave it a good heave."

Richard resented criticism that Pauline was dowdy. "I've always thought about changing Pauline's image, but it wouldn't be right," she said when EastEnders celebrated its 20th anniversary. "She's not really dowdy; people talk about her cardigans, but I haven't worn a cardigan for 15 years. Pauline's costume has never come from a second-hand shop and there is nothing wrong with Marks & Spencer and Next, where most of her clothes come from. So I think, in that respect, she is quite well dressed."

Richard announced in July 2006 that she was leaving the programme after the decision by producers to have Pauline marry Joe Macer (Ray Brooks), saying she did not believe that her character would have remarried. Pauline was killed off in a dramatic storyline that saw her collapse in the middle of Albert Square. Her former daughter-in-law Sonia Fowler was arrested for her murder, but eventually Joe confessed to Dot Branning that he had struck her across the head with a frying pan on Christmas Day, causing the brain haemorrhage that killed her. Joe was eventually killed off himself, falling out of a first-floor window in a scuffle with Dot.

Richard's exit came at around the same time as the departure of James Alexandrou and Natalie Cassidy, who played her screen son Martin and daughter-in-law Sonia, marking the end of the Fowler family in the serial after 21 years.

Richard's own life began in 1946 as Wendy Emerton in Middlesbrough, where her parents ran the Corporation Hotel, but she was brought up in London after they moved to a pub in Mayfair when she was a baby. The first of many tragedies occurred with the suicide of her father when she was 11. She found him dead on the sitting-room floor in front of the gas fire and later attributed her insecurity to this incident. After the death of her father, a freemason, she attended the Royal Masonic School for Girls in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, and helped her mother to run a guest-house in the King's Cross area of London.

On leaving school, she left behind ideas of becoming an archaeologist to work in the fashion department of the Fortnum & Mason department store in London before training as an actress at the Italia Conti Stage Academy and changing her professional name from Emerton to Richard.

Although she played a runaway teenager in an episode of the popular television police series Dixon of Dock Green (1962), she found her first success on record, performing the uncredited female part on the No 1 hit single "Come Outside", recorded by Mike Sarne in 1962, for which she was paid £15, with no royalties. Richard had been working as a secretary for the pop impresario Robert Stigwood, who had the idea of using her spoken comments in response to the singer's attempts to lure a girl away from a dance (24 years later, Richard re-recorded the song with the actor Mike Berry, both of them giving a singing performance on the single.)

Several months after topping the charts, Richard was cast as the receptionist Susan Sullivan, on and off, in ITV's Harpers West One, which had begun a year earlier and was set in a London West End department store. Then she landed landed a regular part in the serial The Newcomers (1965-67) – one of the BBC's failed attempts in the 1960s to find a rival to ITV's Coronation Street and Crossroads – as a rebellious teenager, Joyce Harker, who lived next door to the main characters, the Cooper family. The soap was about Londoners who had moved to a fictional East Anglian overspill town called Angleton.

Richard continued to take one-off roles on television, in popular sitcoms such as Up Pompeii (1970), Please Sir! (1971), On the Buses (1971) and Dad's Army (two roles, 1970, 1972, 1973), so it was no surprise when she was cast as Maudie, a workmate of the widowed Dora Page (Dora Bryan) at a sausage factory, in Both Ends Meet (1972) and the pub barmaid Doris in the second series of Not On Your Nellie (1975, starring Hylda Baker).

She also played Pearl, housekeeper to an absent-minded doctor (Derek Royle) during the first series of the children's comedy Hogg's Back (1975), a role she took over from the Carry On actress Jacki Piper. But it was as the flighty Shirley Brahms in Are You Being Served? that Richard became instantly recognisable.

The programme began as an episode in the BBC's "Comedy Playhouse" slot (1973) and was then turned into a series (1975-85). The comedy was vulgar, unsubtle and reliant on innuendo, amounting to nothing more than end-of-the-pier humour, but the writers, Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, found a captive audience.

The tottering blonde Miss Brahms and her more senior colleague, the pompous Mrs Slocombe (played by the veteran comedy actress Mollie Sugden), worked in Ladies' Fashions at the fictional antiquated department store of Grace Brothers. Also featured among the cast of highly stereotyped characters were Nicholas Smith as the store manager Mr Rumbold, John Inman as the camp menswear assistant Mr Humphries and Frank Thornton as the clipped floorwalker Captain Peacock. Richard also appeared in the 1977 spin-off film, in which the staff of Grace Brothers went on a package holiday to the Costa Plonka, and a stage version of the programme, whose 64 episodes ran until 1 April 1985.

By then, the actress had already been seen on screen in EastEnders, which the BBC launched on 19 February 1985 as a serious attempt to challenge ITV's domination in the area of soap opera, something the Corporation had never taken seriously before.

When casting the new BBC serial, the producer Julia Smith did not intend to use well-known actors and actresses, but she remembered working with Richard in The Newcomers and thought she was right for the role of Pauline Fowler.

Set in the fictional London borough of Walford, EastEnders was built around the Fowlers, the Beales and the Watts families, and tackled subjects such as unemployment, rape, teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, prostitution and AIDS head-on. These were the issues that confronted viewers in the 1980s brand of soap opera, pioneered by Brookside and followed by EastEnders.

Initially scheduled against ITV's Emmerdale Farm, it lost the battle of the ratings. But when its twice-weekly screenings were broadcast half-an- hour later, EastEnders was soon challenging Coronation Street for viewers and even claimed domination, although this was usually achieved only by adding together the figures for the original screenings and the weekend omnibus. Coronation Street hit back by screening its own repeats and proved that it still reigned supreme at the top of the ratings.

But EastEnders had the effect of putting the battle of the soaps on the front pages of popular newspapers almost daily, with every aspect of the actors' lives, past and present, being dissected. Such was the soap phenomenon that, after Coronation Street increased its number of weekly episodes to three and then four, EastEnders followed suit.

However, when the cast of Are You Being Served? were reunited for two series of a new sitcom, Grace and Favour (1992-3), Richard was allowed time off from EastEnders to recreate the role of Miss Brahms. The original sitcom's characters were this time seen running a country hotel, having lost their jobs following the death of Young Mr Grace, who had invested their pension-fund money in a manor house, which he bequeathed to them.

The launch of Grace and Favour followed the huge success of Are You Being Served? on US television. Indeed, the sequel was screened there as Are You Being Served, Again?

During the glamour-girl phase of her career, Richard appeared in films such as Doctor in Clover (1966), No Blade of Grass (1970), the crime comedy Gumshoe (starring Albert Finney, 1971), Carry On Matron (1972, as the pregnant Miss Willing), Carry On Girls (1973, as the shapely contestant Ida Downs – from Bristol, of course) and the big-screen versions of the television sitcoms On the Buses (1971) and Bless This House (1972). Her appearance in the 1965 Beatles film Help!, however, ended up on the cutting-room floor. On stage, she was in No Sex, Please,We're British, Let's Go Camping and a tour of Blithe Spirit.

But Richard's personal life was often less than happy. She attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 28, shortly after her mother's death and the break-up of her first marriage, which lasted five months. She later wed an advertising executive, Will Thorpe, but the relationship ended after 18 months and she accused him of beating her. Richard married her third husband, Paul Glorney, a carpet fitter, in 1990, but they split up four years later. She married her fourth husband, John Burns, a painter and decorator, last October.

The actress fought back from being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 and underwent surgery for a malignant lump in her neck six years later. Last year, the cancer she thought that she had beaten returned, spreading to her kidneys and bones.

Away from the television studios, Richard was known as a fanatical collector of more than 2,000 ornamental frogs and all sorts of other condiment sets. Her autobiography, Wendy Richard: No S – My Life Story, was published in 2000.

Anthony Hayward

Wendy Emerton (Wendy Richard), actress: born Middlesbrough 20 July 1943; MBE, 2000; married 1972 Leonard Blach (marriage dissolved 1974), 1980 Will Thorpe (marriage dissolved 1984), 1990 Paul Glorney (marriage dissolved 1994), 2008 John Burns; died London 26 February 2009.

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