Having begun her career in Nottingham’s working men’s clubs, Su Pollard made her name in a series of 1980s sitcoms. Now she is adding another string to her bow with her first Edinburgh Fringe appearance in a serious one-woman show about mental health. She tells Nick Smurthwaite why she is reluctant to turn anything down
Taking a one-woman show to Edinburgh Festival Fringe in your 70th year – and in a heatwave too – seems to border on the masochistic, but Su Pollard is characteristically upbeat about making her debut at the world’s largest arts festival this month.
“I’m an Edinburgh virgin,” declares the flamboyant, jewellery-festooned star of the TV sitcoms Hi-de-Hi and You Rang, M’Lord, as well as countless regional pantos. “I don’t even think I’ve done panto in Edinburgh. But I’ve always loved the city and its people.”
Pollard’s professional career began in musicals in the early 1970s, although she had started performing in Nottingham, where she grew up, 10 years earlier.
“I did all kinds of shows with the Co-Operative Arts Theatre in Nottingham, dramatic as well as musical,” she recalls, “and I used to sing in working men’s clubs in my teens.”
Already a minor star in her home town, Pollard entered the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks at 22 and came second to a singing dog. “I wanted to do I Don’t Know How to Love Him from Jesus Christ Superstar but they took one look at me and said I had a funny face, could I sing something more light-hearted, so I finished up belting out I Can’t Say No from Oklahoma!.”
She found her first professional job – in the chorus of the touring musical The Desert Song – in the pages of The Stage in 1972. Its star, John Hanson, a big name at the time, proved an exemplary role model, both kind and helpful, as well as ultra professional. It was during the run that she acquired her full Equity card. “I cried when I got it because at last I felt like a proper artist,” she remembers.
In those early years, Pollard, who was always a strong vocalist, assumed she would become a singer or a musical theatre performer, or both. But then she met Dad’s Army writers David Croft and Jimmy Perry, a meeting engineered by their shared agent Richard Stone.
The writers had struggled to create a bright new idea for a TV sitcom, but eventually came up with Hi-de-Hi, revolving around the mishaps of a Butlins-style holiday camp. Clearly Pollard had made an impression, as Croft-Perry asked Stone, a year later, to be put in touch with “that potty girl we interviewed last year, as we’d like her to be in our new show”.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Secretary at the Tennant Rubber Company. I learned to be a shorthand typist before I went on stage.
What was your first professional theatre job?
In the chorus of The Desert Song.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Nothing. If I’d known what I know now I’d never have done half the things I did.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Turn up on time and give it your best shot, and remember – if you don’t get the job it’s nothing to do with your personality.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
If it’s a musical, I might turn up two hours before curtain up so I can do my own vocal exercises before the company warm-up.
The role of Peggy Ollerenshaw, the bespectacled chalet maid, catapulted Pollard to national stardom, which lasted throughout the 1980s and beyond. Several stage spin-offs followed and another Croft-Perry sitcom, You Rang M’Lord, with the same cast re-ordered in a different setting.
“We were all so lucky to be given these opportunities,” Pollard says. “We were like a rep company, and I loved that David was always loyal to the people he’d worked with in the past. It was a heavy schedule at times, doing the stage versions when we weren’t filming a new series, but when you’re flavour of the month you must embrace it. The stage versions were hugely successful. We played Victoria Palace for six months.”
If she found it frustrating being associated with one role for so long, she doesn’t show it. “I’m very happy to play myself,” she says, before adding that she always wants to challenge herself when choosing work. “My byword is, don’t turn anything down unless you really feel it’s not for you. I’ve done Shakespeare, cabaret, reality TV, after-dinner speaking. I’ll give most things a go.”
Pollard continues: “In our business, a lot of it is down to luck and being in the right place at the right time. If you’ve been specifically successful at something, you can easily get lazy. You have to know when to change direction, or to try something different,” adding: “I’m lucky to still be working and doing a job I love. So many people can’t stand their jobs.”
Her latest challenge is Harpy, a one-woman play written for her by Philip Meeks, which will play at the Underbelly in Edinburgh. It is one of the hardest things she has ever done, she says. Audiences will find a different look to Pollard, with no big glasses, no bling and no sartorial flourishes.
“Why did I say yes?” she exclaims, arms aloft, when I ask how she is feeling about it. “It’s relentless. It’s 52 minutes, no interval, for three weeks.”
She has gone over and over the play to learn the lines, but finds there is “always one little section that trips you up”. If she dries, her contingency plan is to improvise on the basis that it’s a new play “so hopefully the audience won’t know the difference”.
Pollard plays Birdie, a character with mental health problems, a hoarder who is ostracised by neighbours who think she is mad. “Hoarding is her way of being good at something,” Pollard says. “Philip, who wrote it for me, wanted to draw attention to mental health issues because he has suffered with depression. It is really exploring the meaning of madness.”
Has the actor ever suffered with mental health problems herself? “No, I’ve been lucky. I tend to sort out my problems by talking to myself. And I like to help sort out my friends’ problems if I can. I always try to make time for people, whether I know them or not.”
Pollard has also made time for London’s LGBT+ community as an unofficial “gay icon”. She hoots with laughter when this comes up in the conversation, saying she loves the community and “they love me because I’m camper than a row of tents”.
She met Peter Bull, founder of Above the Stag, the capital’s first professional LGBT+ theatre, when she was in the musical Shout!, which Bull helped to put on. “Peter has a fantastic team working with him and it’s been a great success. I haven’t done a show there yet, but I will do. I might do cabaret there. That would be a laugh.”
As she comes up to 70, does Pollard feel she is becoming more eccentric with age? “No, I don’t think so. I’m getting more pragmatic the older I get. You bother less about little niggles, it’s easier to let things go. I hope I’m going into old age feeling positive, optimistic – not a misery but someone who looks on the bright side. Basically I just want everyone in the world to be happy.”
Born: November 7, 1949
• Godspell, UK tour (1973)
• Shout!, UK tour and Arts Theatre, London (2008-09)
• Harpy, Edinburgh Fringe (2018)
• Opportunity Knocks (1974)
• Hi-de-Hi (1980-88)
• You Rang, M’Lord (1988-93)
• Last Laugh in Vegas (2018)
Agent: Lizanne Crowther
Harpy is at the Underbelly, Cowgate, Edinburgh until August 26