Theatre interview: Su Pollard on making her Fringe debut in Harpy

Su Pollard in Harpy
Su Pollard in Harpy
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It’s taken a long time for her to make her Fringe debut, but Su Pollard is as enthusiastic as ever and happy to be starring in a solo play written by Fringe First winner Philip Meeks. Interview by Susan Mansfield

‘Is there a good club to go to?” Su Pollard, who is making her Fringe debut at the age of 68, is keen to get the lowdown on the Edinburgh nightlife. “And that place, I love it, the Witch’s thingie? The restaurant.” The Witchery? “Yeah. Fantastic. I must go there again.”

Despite a theatre career spanning four decades, the Fringe has eluded Pollard. “Summer seasons were always the thing. People would approach you and you’d say, ‘No, I can’t, I’m doing four months in Bournemouth.’ I do feel that sometimes things come at the proper time, when you’re meant to do them. Perhaps I wasn’t really meant to do it 30 years ago.”

Now the moment has arrived in the form of Harpy, a one-woman play written for her by Fringe First winner Philip Meeks (Kiss Me Honey Honey!). We meet before rehearsals on a warm day in London. She’s wearing black satin shorts, a sparkly T-shirt with “punk” spelled out in sequins, and a battery of necklaces, and her trademark big glasses are sitting askew (“I trod on them, darling!”). She talks nineteen-to-the-dozen, laughs loudly and often, and is irrepressibly friendly: “Do you prefer Susan or Sue? Can I call you Sue? Su and Sue!”

In the memories of all who grew up in front of the television in the 1980s, Pollard will forever be Peggy Ollerenshaw, the ditzy chambermaid in holiday-camp sit-com Hi-de-Hi, which attracted 17 million viewers at its height. While many actors are standoffish about being recognised as their sitcom selves, Pollard is refreshingly warm about fans who stop her in the street wanting a selfie.

“I don’t believe in hiding away. I can’t do without my glasses, anyway, and they’re a bit of a give-away sometimes. I think it’s lovely. They only want to say hello, for goodness sake, what’s wrong with that? If you put yourself in the public eye to a certain extent, I think that’s part of the job. And it’s a part of their life – why would you not to acknowledge that they’ve seen you in it and they enjoyed it?”

Harpy is her first solo play. Meeks wrote it for her after they met in panto in Sunderland (“he was a very good dame and I was the wicked queen in Snow White”). She plays Birdie, a compulsive hoarder, the kind of person who might end up on a reality TV show like Britain’s Biggest Hoarders. But Birdie has a story. She’s a damaged soul, a woman who sees the beauty in things and annoys her neighbours by singing karaoke late at night. “I think she’s a bit defiant, is Birdie,” Pollard says. “You can see bits in her where you think, ‘What a shame,’ but I think she would be excellent company.”

Exploring Birdie’s character with Meeks and director Hannah Chiswick has been “challenging, but fabulous to do”.

“It’s very nice to be entrusted with something someone has written, it means they’ve got faith in your ability. It’s fun, but it’s also poignant. We can all make judgments, but I think we’ve all got some kind of mental health (issue), maybe just a small little thing like getting a bit stressed. Why do we want to call people barmy?”

Pollard grew up in working-class N­ottingham, and famously came second to a singing Jack Russell on Opportunity Knocks in 1974. Her early work was touring in musicals. “I remember when we took Godspell to Edinburgh, me and two friends went out in the dead of night and swapped all the flags around on the golf course. It was hilarious. If anybody reads that, I put my hand up, it was me – apologies!”

Hi-De-Hi!, written by sitcom champions David Croft and Jimmy Perry, was her big break in 1980. When it finished eight years later, there were other TV jobs including You Rang M’Lord and Oh! Doctor Beeching. More recently, she joined a group of veteran variety stars for reality show Last Laugh in Vegas. One suspects that she is the kind of performer whose talent is under-recognised because she is a natural at comedy. Her all-time heroine is Lucille Ball.

While life might not always have been the happiest – her 12-year marriage to actor Peter Keogh ended when he came out, and he later wrote a memoir: My Hi-de-Hi Life: Before, During and After Su Pollard – there is a strong sense that she is a woman for whom the glass is always half full.

“I’ve always been good at that. Even before mindfulness came along. You’ve only got one life and if you’re fortunate enough to reach an age where you’re going into your next decade – and it could be 70 – well, darling, you’ve got to face the fact that three-quarters is gone.

“The sooner you learn to be mindful and embrace every day, the better. I always to say to people, look, don’t wait for Sunday to wear your best. Wear it on a Tuesday morning if you want!”

“Yes, it gets harder to find jobs as an actor, particular as a woman, as you get older. I do firmly believe that, if you allow yourself, you can be invisible, because you’re guided towards that at this time of life if you’re not careful. But you haven’t had your day just because you’re flippin’ 60! If you are able and lucky enough to work it’s a marvellous bonus. But if you’re not, it doesn’t matter, something will come along – in the meantime just enjoy going on day-trips.”

Pollard continues to work hard; she rarely misses a panto season, doing a good line in wicked queens (“If I can’t hear a child crying, that means I haven’t done me job!”); and spent several seasons as Miss Hannigan in Annie. “It’s the quality of the work, for me. You don’t have to have a starring role, as long as you’re in something where you think, ‘I can’t wait to go on stage and do that every night.’ I’ve been very eclectic in my choices, but I like to think that I’ve made choices that have been considered, and they’ve been good choices because you’re doing worthwhile stuff.”

In 2006, in what many felt was a surprise move, she was cast as the Nurse in a Birmingham Rep Production of Romeo & Juliet directed by Bill Bryden. “Yeah, I loved that, that was amazing. Another fabulous experience. I don’t think you should close the door just because something is not what you’re used to. It’s a great opportunity. You take a leap of faith, don’t you, babe? One thing, though – Shakespeare’s a great writer, but he likes to write, doesn’t he? Three hours forty minutes, flippin’ heck!” And I’m treated to another hearty Pollard laugh.

Harpy is at Underbelly, Cowgate until 26 August, 4pm