One of the true icons of British situation comedy, legendary star of stage and screen Wendy Craig has been entertaining audiences for over sixty years with memorable characters on the big and small screen. Like most actors of her generation, Wendy began her career in rep which was notoriously known for a small turnaround of plays which resulted in actors being forced to learn lines on the hoof. This was perfect grounding for a life in acting and offered the young Wendy an insight into what would become her world for the next six decades.
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Cameos in films such as Jack Clayton’s cult 1959 thriller Room At The Top and the 1963 romantic drama The Servant offered Wendy the opportunity to flex her acting prowess. As an actress, she insists that the differences between film and television are really quite subtle and therefore personally Wendy is unable to pick a favourite. The stage however, remains quite unique in that you’re able to obtain instant audience reaction which is only possible within the confines of a theatre. Her grounding in rep helped to make Wendy feel comfortable with the theatre environment and it wasn’t long before she was making waves in the West End appearing opposite legendary acting royalty; Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole.
By the mid sixties, television was changing. The influx of financial investment within entertainment assisted the upscaled vehicles which television companies were able to offer the biggest stars of the day. In 1967 Wendy landed her first situation comedy Not in Front of the Children alongside Paul Daneman and then Ronald Hines for the popular BBC1 family sitcom. This was the first time that Wendy had headed up a sitcom and for four series and thirty nine episodes, Britain was introduced to her interpretation of a suburban housewife. Written by the great Richard Waring, Not in Front of the Children transformed Wendy Craig from a jobbing actress into a star and it was only a matter of time before another TV venture came calling.
As an actor, Wendy has never been aware of any discrimination or professional injustice surrounding her gender. During the sixties and seventies, as women slowly realised larger horizons beyond the domestic kitchen and contributed to the employment market, television had a significant responsibility to echo and celebrate the sexual liberation taking place. This meant that female artists were no longer in the small, subordinate roles within TV comedy, but were now centre stage. Indeed it wasn’t just actresses who were benefiting from the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Writers including the legendary Carla Laine were slowly using their experience of working class Britain as creative inspiration. This was to change the course of the traditional British sitcom and in turn created a golden era for the genre.
Such a societal shift resulted in sitcom writers having to acknowledge this and in 1971 ITV launched Mother Makes Three starring Wendy in the main role as the scatterbrained Jennifer Corner. The series, created by Richard Waring, was another hit for Craig which cemented her status amongst the sitcom elite. It was here that Wendy met a figure who would have a dominant effect over the rest of her career. Liverpudlian writer Carla Laine had already tasted success with the sitcom The Liver Birds during the early seventies and was quickly gaining a reputation for adding a touch of gravity to her work. As soon as Wendy met Carla, she identified fully with her background and plight and the two women instantly hit it off. In drama, it’s very seldom to encounter a relationship between actor and writer which is symbiotic, but with Carla and Wendy, there was obviously some magic there which became prevalent for all to see.
This understanding proved vital in Wendy’s next career opportunity when Carla Laine penned a pilot for another BBC sitcom. As a self confessed hopeless cook and housewife, Laine didn’t much care for a life of domestication but as a mother, found herself in a situation which she didn’t ask for. It was this feeling which formed the inspiration of the sitcom Butterflies and when it was pitched to Wendy, she was able to easily identify with the main character. Butterflies centred around hopeless suburban housewife Ria Parkinson and her frequent flights of fancy. Married to businessman Ben (played by the late, great Geoffrey Palmer) and mother to Russell (Andrew Hall) and Adam (Nicholas Lyndhurst) Ria was determined not to live the traditional housewife lifestyle. When she encountered Leonard (Bruce Montague), her perception of life changed and she realised the importance of being socially and sexually fulfilled in a way that butterfly collecting dentist Ben couldn’t.
Such emotive themes were new to the British sitcom. Never before had the concept of female sexual freedom been subject for comedy and this became one of the many contributors of the show’s popularity. Over four series, the audience was hooked as Ria struggled with her double life with family man Ben against the foot-loose enigmatic Leonard. The comedy was found within the exploration of the extreme lengths which Ria would go to have some alone time with Leonard and the many hurdles she encountered as a result. Irrespective of the subtle adult themes, at heart Butterflies was a very traditional family sitcom which was accessible to all and despite merely running for four series across five years, it still made a great contribution to the art of the British sitcom and over four decades later, it’s still remembered with great affection by its audience. Despite Wendy’s vast achievements on both stage and screen, Butterflies shall forever remain the series which defined her career and for this she remains extremely proud.
In 2000 the cast of Butterflies reunited for a short special for BBC Children in Need. For Wendy, this was a very special moment to be back on a studio set with some great friends all those years later proving the magic hadn’t gone away. A spectacular script written by Carla Laine made it seem like Butterflies had never stopped flying and in turn, allowed a whole new generation of TV viewer to fall in love with the dysfunctional Parkinson family. Yet on a personal level, Wendy really enjoyed the reunion with old friends and to see Nicholas Lyndhurst and Andrew Hall blossom into formidable actors in their own right was a real thrill. It was quite clear that the audience was really excited to see the return of Butterflies and Wendy was so glad to be able to reprise her role as Ria for one final time.
Just five years later, Wendy was cast as Matron in ITV’s Heartbeat spin-off The Royal alongside Ian Carmichael and Michael Stark. This allowed the television audience to be reminded of her prowess as a straight actor, away from the safe confines of a sitcom. For this role, Wendy relished the opportunity to be a stern figure of authority and thrived upon the ability to boss the nurses around. As an actor, it’s refreshing to be cast in different roles and Wendy was determined to make the character of Matron the antidote to Ria. This was an aspect of the role which appealed to her and for eight series embodied the role of the hospital matriarch. Unfortunately The Royal was cancelled in 2011 but Wendy remains thankful of her contributions to the Sunday night drama.
Still in love with the art of performance, Wendy still lends her voice to audiobooks and radio plays where she collaborates with some of the biggest names in theatre and drama. Yet she has rightfully earned a long and happy retirement and enjoys family life. The term icon is regularly overused when describing noteworthy figures within the entertainment industry and I guess I have been known to over exaggerate the achievements of certain individuals from time to time. However, for me, Wendy Craig shall forever personify the very essence of the middle class, suburban situation comedy and for that reason occupies a very special place within the pantheon of British comedy. It was an absolute honour to meet and interview the legendary Wendy Craig and long may she reign over sitcom.