Su Pollard – In Conversation

One of the most recognisable and prolific figures in the history of British comedy, actress and entertainer Su Pollard has been delighting audiences for half a century now, with her madcap comedy and powerful voice. Reaching the final of the heavyweight Opportunity Knocks in 1974 gave the young performer vital grounding in a world which would ultimately make her a star. Performing the Rodgers and Hammerstein Oklahoma classic “I Cain’t Say No”, Su wowed the judges and host Hughie Green despite losing out to a singing dog which became the forever source of her amusement. Yet despite this, Opportunity Knocks set Su on the path to nationwide stardom where she has remained for nearly half a century.

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Following her triumphant appearances on Opportunity Knocks, it was only a matter of time before the phone started ringing on Su’s career. Roles in musicals The Desert Song and Rose Marie with John Hanson offered her a first taste of theatrical success before starring in the Cameron Mackintosh West End production of Godspell. From here Su played opposite Jack Wild in Big Sin City at the Roundhouse and even toured in the musical Grease in a company. Yet her West End debut came when she was cast alongside comedy royalty Tim Brooke-Taylor and Hugh Paddock in the theatrical farce Not Now Darling. For Su, this was the perfect accolade to her flourishing career and to be in the presence of such masters of comedy proved the ultimate schooling. 


By 1978 Su’s agent Richard Stone was slowly attempting to make waves in the enigmatic world of television and representing the legendary sitcom supremo David Croft meant that she had a way in which proved an opportunity far too good to turn down. In the era of agents packaging talent for TV networks to showcase, this was an added advantage for Su’s growth as a performer. Even from an early age, she recognised that she would never be the stereotypical leading lady and so worked to her strengths. Having never worked on any of Croft’s previous sitcom triumphs, Su concluded that she may be at somewhat of a disadvantage over her acting contemporaries who were already firm staples of the BBC TV comedy fraternity. Yet as soon as she performed her audition for the hapless chalet maid Peggy Olrenshaw, Perry and Croft knew that they’d struck gold as Su brought her to life in a magical way.


The entire cast of Hi-De-Hi had very little experience with the world of situation comedy: Paul Shane had been a comedian in the working men’s clubs of Northern England, Jeffrey Holland was a jobbing television and theatrical actor who had played supporting roles in Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot  but never a reoccurring role. Therefore there was an enormous sense of equality through the whole cast and being entertainers themselves gave the sitcom much greater gravitas. Cast as the downtrodden chalet maid Peggy Ollrenshaw, Su originally merely had a supporting role. Yet as soon as the audience became invested in her plight to become a fully fledged yellowcoat, it endeared her to the nation. Britain loves an underdog and arguably Peggy represented a small part of everyone in her naive persistence to reach her goals. The series climaxed with Peggy finally receiving her sacred yellowcoat which seemed the perfect payoff to ten marvelous years of Hi-De-Hi. Yet by this time the cast had grown so close that it was extremely emotional to say farewell to Maplins Holiday Camp. Filming the last scene with all cast on the stage singing “Goodnight Campers” became a touching moment for everyone involved in the show as it hailed as the end of a fantastic era.


It wasn’t all bad for Su and the cast of Hi-De-Hi because just as the cast and crew had said an emotional farewell to Maplins, Croft and Perry were already hard at work on a follow up series. The 1920’s class system had never been subject to sitcom conventions but in the hands of the legendary Croft and Perry, this was about to change. You Rang M’Lord combined the stars from three of Perry and Croft’s most popular shows and brought them together for this big budget elongated situation comedy. A fifty minute episodic sitcom had never been attempted on British television but under the stewardship of David Croft, the series subverted the concept of those great Sunday night period drama shows that the corporation had an unrivaled reputation for. Su was cast as the downtrodden maid Ivy Teasdale who definitely knew her place in the order of service but frequently melted under the pressure of responsibility. This vulnerability, again made Su one of the most identifiable characters in the show and the perfect candidate for some of the show’s more slapstick moments.


In 1995 David Croft reunited the cast for one last time in his historical sitcom surrounding the railway strike of the 1960’s in Oh Doctor Beeching. Su was cast as gormless booking clerk Ethel Schuman who had single-handedly brought up her  educationally challenged son Wilfred who also worked at the railway station as a porter. Downtrodden, eccentric and manic, Ethel Schuman exhibited all the characteristics of Peggy and Ivy which became a poisoned chalice for Su when attempting to remember the character names of the cast members who, by now, she had known for years. Therefore when encountering Paul Shane (or “Shaney” as she affectionately refers to him!) Su forever wanted to call him Ted or Alf out of habit. 


Running for two series between 1995 and 1997, Oh Doctor Beeching provided the perfect swan song to the David Croft sitcom trilogy with actors from all across his TV repertoire. Su thrived on the ability to act opposite other legends of sitcom including the great Stephen Lewis who was able to shock her with his natural English gentlemanly accent which was nothing like the characters he portrayed. Despite a stellar cast and cameos from Hugh Lloyd, Oh Doctor Beeching fell victim to scheduling issues as a result of BBC management reshuffle which resulted in the cancellation of the show after just nineteen episodes. However, working with such a tight nit cast and crew was an absolute joy for Su and this positive attitude transcended the screen. It may not have been as popular as Croft’s former triumphs but Oh Doctor Beeching  combined so many elements that Su really enjoyed her time and was the perfect climax to the David Croft trilogy.


Beyond sitcom, Su has enjoyed a long career in the British pantomime circuit, becoming a favourite with audiences and performers alike. Her madcap persona makes her the perfect loveable villain; a role that she always relishes. As a performer, she is equally comfortable being herself as she is portraying a character and the art of pantomime remains unique in combining both elements. No other form of entertainment is able to capture the imagination of the audience from toddlers to pensioners and everyone in between. As an experienced turn, Su is able to perfectly gauge material which will appeal to the many different generations and believes that this is the pure magic of pantomime. This is testament to the standing in which Su Pollard now sits in the collective psyche of the nation.


It’s very clear that stars of successful sitcoms can now enjoy a lifetime of fame and success from merely making a fleeting appearance in one of Britain’s best loved shows. Yet Su Pollard’s innate talent as an entertainer sets her apart from her peers and reminds her audience that she is anything but a repertory star. Her showbiz anecdotes, her unique take on life and a wonderfully warm spirit are what has endeared her to millions for approaching half a century. It was a real honour to welcome Su Pollard to the podcast and in an uncertain world, it’s reassuring that she shall forever take top billing for everything she does. A true national treasure!