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Su Pollard: ‘People can’t deal with anything that is perceived to be soft porn’

Su Pollard
Su Pollard: 'I can’t stand ageism' Credit:  Jeff Gilbert

The name Su Pollard evokes a certain time in recent cultural history. As the lowly, lovable chambermaid Peggy Ollerenshaw in sitcom Hi-de-Hi!, she caught the public imagination and for a time in the Eighties she seemed to be the most famous woman in Britain.

She scored a No 2 single with Starting Together and released an album. Elton John was a fan and Freddie Mercury once asked her for an autograph. While at a charity event in the House of Commons, Princess Diana approached her and they started tap dancing.

“She was very good, very slick,” says Pollard. “She was also very nice with a fabulous smile and fabulous teeth. I just wanted to grab them, which probably isn’t the right thing to do.” Pollard was having a ball, old enough to appreciate her success and aware that it was a team effort.

“It was wonderful to be part of a show that everybody took to their hearts,” she says, “and they did so because it was fun. David and Jimmy [Croft and Perry, the show’s creators] wanted everyone at home to recognise their characters, and that’s why it worked.”

Pollard in Hi De Hi Credit:  Television Stills

Now 68, Pollard is still as lively as a cricket. And, far from putting her feet up, the pensioner has decided to make her Edinburgh Fringe debut. The project is a play called Harpy and focuses on Birdie, a lonely old woman who hoards objects. Not one of those people you see on unsympathetic Channel 4 documentaries, Birdie is a woman who cherishes the items she squirrels away. “Birdie has never had anybody close to her and so her things become her friends,” explains Pollard. “I’m lucky because I have got a full life. If I’m not working, I’m socialising. But loneliness is the biggest killer and this play is poignant at times because it shows that and shows her vulnerability.” 

Harpy is not only a departure for Pollard but also a comeback. It’s clear that the success of Hi-de-Hi! led to a severe case of typecasting. Croft and Perry kept her busy with more sitcoms – You Rang, M’Lord? and Oh, Doctor Beeching! – but appearances after those two series have been restricted to reality TV shows and touring theatre. “People don’t have the imagination, they put you in a box,” she says. “I can understand that, but the older you get, the more careful you want to be in the choices you make. Sometimes I’m offered something and I think: ‘Oh, that’s too fluffy.’ Or I’ll think: ‘I did that 30 years ago.’ ” 

Of course, 30 years ago she was at the height of her fame – cavorting for Britain, while careful to take the advice of her father. “He told me never to believe my own publicity and to always keep my feet on the ground,” she says. It’s fair to say that Pollard doesn’t strike me as someone who keeps her feet on the ground. There is an endearing madcap quality to her, which, I imagine, may have got her into trouble when she was younger. Her former husband, Peter Keogh, detailed their relationship in a memoir in 2014, My Hi-de-High Life. Keogh says that people described Pollard as “a bee on speed” and describes how she once fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and nearly burned the house down. Has Pollard read it? “I didn’t know anything about it because I don’t do social media,” says Pollard, who has not remarried and has no children. “I said at the time that I couldn’t imagine there would be anything too salacious about it.” She pauses: “As long as it’s made him a few quid.”

There is a show‑must‑go-on breathlessness to Pollard, which makes it hard to delineate the difference between her and the characters she has played. So who is the real Su Pollard?

“I just like to have a good time, really,” she replies. “People say to me: ‘Are you like this at home?’ And I say: ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ ”

I suggest that many actors are incredibly shy when they don’t have a persona to hide behind. “Oh yes, Kenny Everett was like that,” she says. “He would make me check a room at a party before we went in because he didn’t like crowds of people. I’ve never been like that.”

During Su Pollard at Langan's Brassierie, in 1988

Pollard was born in 1949 in Nottingham, and worked as a shorthand typist before performing in working men’s clubs. She appeared on Opportunity Knocks in 1974, where she lost to a singing dog, before finding roles in West End musicals such as Grease and Godspell.

She lives alone in Islington now in a house called Campus R Soles (you may need to say it out loud to get the rather risqué gag).  Indeed, her lack of inhibition (and disdain for society’s various hang-ups) recently caused minor controversy when she appeared on the BBC’s Today programme defending the recently deceased nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow, whom many perceive as the epitome of Eighties sleaze.

“I wasn’t going to be persuaded to say that he was lascivious, because in my experience he wasn’t, he was lovely. Just because someone decides to do a dance for someone else in one of his clubs… So what? People can’t deal with anything that is perceived to be soft porn or a bit ‘ooh-er, missus’.”

Pollard in Leicester Square Credit:  Jeff Gilbert

Certainly Pollard seems to embrace the outré and the bizarre. Her dress sense, once slightly derided as part of her wacky persona, is now getting her attention from approving millennials. When we meet, she is wearing short shorts, large-holed fishnet tights and a shirt splashed with newspaper headlines. This is topped off by a rather demure red bow that is perched on top of her short, white hair. 

“Years ago, it was like, ‘God, what are you wearing?’ I used to tie scarves around my ankles and look like a Morris dancer. When we were out, my mum used to say: ‘Just walk in front, I don’t want to be seen with you.’ ” Pollard says she is simply being herself. “I don’t understand why you should save something for Sunday best when you could just wear something fabulous to Sainsbury’s. We should allow people to just be.

“I can’t stand ageism. We’ve got to get rid of this… Just because a woman is 52, why can’t she wear something short if she’s got lovely legs? We need to be more mindful of that.” So how does she feel about getting older? The phrase “growing old disgracefully” springs to mind, but her answer is surprisingly low-key. “You have to have a little bit of hope, but really all I want do is enjoy things and that might just be a day trip to Eastbourne. As long as you wake up feeling happy – that’s all there is to it, really.”