27  Feb
Life on the Box…

As artists we search for inspiration. As writers, we seek much of the same, and then endeavor to put our thoughts to print. I only hope that this small piece will serve as an adequate testimony to one of the most influential artistic personas in my life, and a woman truly larger than life itself.

The late Wendy Richard, MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) was indeed a model personification of every facet of the creative process.

Wendy Richard entered the world as Wendy Emerton in Yorkshire, England on July 20, 1943 to parents Henry and Beatrice. Her tenacity was evident even as a youngster, however, notwithstanding her stalwart emotional constitution, Wendy found life as an only child difficult at times to say the least. In fact, it was Wendy who found her father’s corpse at the tender age of eleven, as a result of his apparent suicide. It was shortly before her father’s untimely death that a youthful Wendy Richard moved to London, England with her parents, and found herself already in the company of celebrity. Amongst others, cinematic icon Elizabeth Taylor and Photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, the first Earl of Snowdon and husband of Princess Margaret Rose, younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II frequented the tavern Wendy’s parents operated in Shepherd Market.

Although her career spanned a remarkable forty-nine years from 1960 until 2009, Wendy Richard’s initial successes although significant, were seemingly sporadic. Around 1961, having already made several appearances on television and yearning for a permanent spot “on the box”, Wendy decided to enroll at the Italia Conti stage school in London, financing her efforts by working in the fashion department of London’s legendary Fortnum & Mason store, established in 1707. Perhaps it was this real life experience which lent such credibility to her acclaimed role as Miss Shirley Brahms from 1972 to 1985 in the critically acclaimed British sitcom Are You Being Served?  Regardless, her diligent efforts in world of retail proved fruitful, landing her a television gig alongside one of the biggest celebrities of the day, Sammy Davis Jr. in Sammy Meets the Girls. Perhaps her greatest breakthrough came in 1962 when Wendy lent her distinctive cockney voice to the backing vocal on Mike Sarne’s number one pop single Come Outside – A song she recorded again two decades later with Are You Being Served? co-star Mike Berry.

Following her departure from the role of Grace Brothers’ sales assistant Miss Brahms after nearly fourteen years, Wendy found new work in what would become perhaps her most celebrated and widely-recognized performance in EastEnders. As Pauline Fowler, the matriarchal figure of the fictional London community of Albert Square, Wendy acted as a stoic, opinionated, battle-axe who came to represent an entire social class in England and abroad in more than 1,400 episodes. This character has become nothing less than a popular culture phenomenon and an institution in television history. In fact, so widely admired was Wendy’s portrayal of Pauline Fowler that by 1986, only one year into production, more than thirty million viewers were tuning into episodes of EastEnders in the United Kingdom alone – More than half of the total population.

Despite the countless accolades Wendy received during her illustrious acting career, it seems as if the ghosts of her youth eventually caught up with her. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, and following successful surgery and treatment, remained cancer free until 2002 when the disease that would eventually claim her life came out of remission. After another course of countless, grueling cancer treatments, she was again given a clean bill of health in 2005. However, nothing lasts forever. In January 2008, malignant cells were found in Wendy’s left armpit during a routine visit with her oncologist. Further clinical investigation found that this, her third bout with cancer was going to be a felling blow. The cancer she had beaten twice had now metastasized to her left kidney and into deadly sarcomas, and settled in the bones of her ribs and spinal column. During her final television interview in December 2008, Wendy told host Stephen Nolan:

“I’ve had breast cancer three times now. I wasn’t too happy the first time, I was angry the second time, and believe-you-me I am hopping mad now, I really am. How dare it come back…Hard living and hard work age you, but I am determined to fight.”

…And fight she did. Britain’s original blonde bombshell drew her last breath on the morning of February 26, 2009 at the age of sixty-five. In the end, she admitted that her indulgent lifestyle and heavy smoking likely contributed significantly to her demise, despite the optimistic countenance she always employed. Her distinctive cockney accent, hard-living, sharp-tongued attitude and timeless sex appeal will endure as a testament to the better world she left in the wake of her brief time here. On the eve of her death, while vacationing in Mexico, I found myself looking up at the same sky we all see, merely from differing vantage points. More than anything else, I was reminded of how very fortunate I am to have spoken with Wendy while still full of life in 2006. Albeit a brief encounter, I had the pleasure of communicating with one of the great people of our time, during hers.

Mike Sarne was right Wendy: There really is no time to spare.

Wendy Richard (1943 – 2009)


Posted by August Donnelly, filed under . Date: February 27, 2009, 3:00 pm |

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