Pam Ayres: 'I'm glad I've stayed ordinary'

After her sudden rise to fame in the 1970s, her career nosedived. But she is still one of Britain's best-loved poets. Genevieve Roberts meets her
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By 1980 the glittering career was finished. She'd won Opportunity Knocks – the Britain's Got Talent of its day – at the age of 27, had her own prime-time television show and was a household name. Pam Ayres's 15 minutes of fame had stretched to five years and then it seemed to be over as quickly as it had started. Her star had plummeted. "I'd been chewed up and spat out, but I felt as if I hadn't even started," she says. "I felt as if I'd been chucked aside."

After her performance of "Pam Ayres and the Embarrassing Experience with the Parrot" triumphed on the talent show in 1975, ITV's Michael Grade gave her a "staggering" three-year contract to create a series of 45-minute shows. "I couldn't begin to write it," she recalls. "I knew I'd only succeed if I was doing my own stuff, but I couldn't do it so they brought in all these tired old writers who did stuff supposed to be 'in my style'. It was a nightmare." The shows bombed; the series ran once before being put out of its misery by mutual consent. Meteor-like, her career screamed earthwards with increasing velocity as other bookings dried up.

Not that she regrets any of it and would readily do it all again, even if that meant appearing in front of a "pretty savvy" Simon Cowell. "It's basically the same animal," she says, "however glammed up it is nowadays. Talent shows are a bit humiliating. Nowadays people say nasty things to you if you're not very good. In my day there was a clapometer you had to stand by, which was pretty humiliating."

Frustrated with life as a secretary, she was determined to grab any chance to perform and make people laugh. "I really wanted to be an entertainer, I would have gone and auditioned for anybody," she says.

And so it is that three decades after her career "ended", she has never been more popular. The celebrated down-to-earth poet recounts her fall and rise in her autobiography – in prose. "I didn't have to make anything rhyme," she says. "It was smashing: usually I'm tinkering with syllables." The memoir, The Necessary Aptitude – something she lacked in her first jobs – affectionately records her life growing up in Stanford in the Vale, Berkshire. She wanted to write about her past before those she grew up with became too old to enjoy it.

"We were very modestly brought up, but it was quite a rigid system," she recalls. While never hungry and always shod, she says that she and her five brothers and sisters, who grew up in a council home, never had much. It fired her determination to experience life, joining the Women's RAF and, in 1967 at the age of 19, going to the other side of the globe. "I love the village, but I was dying: I had this feeling there was something good happening elsewhere. There was fun and romance and excitement and thrills, and I couldn't get there," she remembers.

She remains proud of her modest upbringing and ashamed of the only time she denied it – at a grand dinner aboard a ship in Singapore. Her mother had worked as a cleaner in university student digs. When someone present asked Ayres where she was from, her name, and finally whether her mother had been a cleaner, she said no. "I felt that if I told him, he'd think I didn't have the right to be there, so I denied it and said it was a very common name," she says. In her book she writes of this betrayal: "Somewhere far away from Tengah and the sea, and the little waves that lapped the bow of the ship, out along the Bukit Timah Road towards Serangoon, an old cockerel stirred, stood up on his perch. He crowed once, twice, three times."

The occupational hazard of an amateur catapulted to stardom – fame followed by the fizzle– taught her caution. She started again, playing smaller venues, building a steady, sustainable career. "Relaunching yourself is very difficult, more difficult than launching yourself in first place," she says. "You develop a thicker skin than you'd like. I feel as if I've had two careers: one brief and violent, and the other a steady burn to the present position I'm happy in."

The success of her "second" career should not be underestimated: now 64, she performs to packed venues such as the Sydney Opera House and the London Palladium and has sold more than three million poetry books. Her work is sewn into the family fabric of British society. A generation has grown up with "I Wish I'd Looked After Me Teeth", while "Yes I'll Marry You, My Dear" is often read at weddings, "Woodland Burials" at funerals.

She is clear she is an entertainer rather than a poet, that she sets out to make people laugh, rather than to write poems. She never even felt especially drawn to poetry, but was interested by the funny use of words in poems such as Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky".

Asked whether she'd ever consider becoming Poet Laureate, she describes the very idea – in her trademark country burr – as "preposterous". "I'm glad I've stayed ordinary. People trust me to enable them to laugh at themselves. If I'm talking about big feet, or my husband who knows it all, or packing too much on holiday, people like it. I don't think I'd fit in [as Poet Laureate]," she says. "It seems to me you have to be some sort of scholar: the whole world of poetry is not without snobbery. I don't think it would suit me at all. I feel I've got the affection of British people."

And so, 36 years after her clapometer triumph, she has no intention of stopping. Her mornings are spent writing fresh material – currently a poem about a woman suffering from insomnia, who turns out to spend her whole day napping. She is also nursing an idea for a novel. "I do feel very conscious of the fact people trust me to write something funny. Only age and infirmity will stop me."