INTERVIEW: MOLLIE SUGDEN (2003)
Mollie Sugden is considered one of Britain's top comedy actresses, and a quick look at her impressive list of credits certainly adds more than a little justification to that claim. For many years now Mollie seems to have played everyone's mum. She played Jimmy Clitheroe's mother in Just Jimmy, Terry Scott's mum in Son of the Bride, Christopher Blake's mum in That's My Boy, Nerys Hughes' mum in the Liver Birds, Robin Nedwell's mum in Doctor In Charge, and John Alderton's mum in My Wife Next Door. Added to that are substantial roles in Hugh and I, Up Pompeii and the world's best known soap opera Coronation Street. But it is as Mrs Slocombe in the sitcom Are You Being Served? that Molly Sugden has left her most enduring mark on the consciousness of the television audience.
Many actors instinctively know form an early age that they want to perform. For Mollie Sugden that realisation came when she was five years old: "When I was four-and-a-half an older girl took me to a concert in the village where we lived because my parents didn't go. And during the concert, a lady said a funny little speech and I thought 'I could do that, I could remember that', so I tried to tell my parents when I got home about this funny little piece - well you know grown-ups, they weren't really interested - so I just forgot about it. When it got to Christmas, we had a big family party and suddenly I said, 'I can do something', and mother said 'shush, no you can't', and I said 'I can!' and so to please me they said 'let her', and they stood me on this chair and I said this speech and at the end everybody screamed with laughter, and I thought, 'how wonderful, I can make people laugh', and I've been trying to do that ever since.
Like many actors of her age, Mollie's ambitions were temporarily thwarted by the Second World War, and she spent that time gainfully employed helping the war effort by making munitions. But she never lost site of her dreams of going to London where she would eventually attend the Guildhall School of Drama. "I don't suppose my contribution to the war effort was all that brilliant, but nevertheless, and then I stopped just before the war ended when they discovered that they had to find jobs for all the women. So when they found out I didn't want a job, they said I could go to London by all means. So I went to London while the V2's were coming over - you see, I never went into the shelters when they came over as there was no point. When they were coming over you'd hear them coming and then they'd cut out and you just waited till they landed."
"I don't really recall when my first part was. The first one I did at the Guildhall, where of course you did plays, was in "Dear Octopus", which is now a rather dated play and I played the juvenile lead. Of course, I've never been the juvenile lead ever in my life. After I left the Guildhall I went into weekly repertory, which is as it sounds where you do a different play every week. So you have to play anything. I've even played a boy that they had to turn into a girl because we didn't have enough men in the company and things like that. You had to do anything." However, she admits that she found rep a wonderful experience even if she had to contend with the odd bad temper. "Actually one of my first jobs was with the most bad tempered man in the entire world. He was like Attila The Hun. One day while we were plotting a play, he said, 'you go over to the window', and I asked why, and he said, 'never mind why. Just get to the bloody window.' So, you decide you'll give yourself a motive for why you're going over to the window. You think to yourself things so I just didn't do it like a robot."
In the early sixties Mollie broke into television in a sitcom that was made in, but not seen beyond, Newcastle. "It wasn't networked, so you could make all these mistakes without the whole country knowing. And I was very lucky because there was a young director doing his very first sitcom and his name was David Croft. Now you know that's a big help when you meet someone like that and David and I got along very well. He directed Hugh and I some years later.
Hugh and I is a fondly remembered long-running sitcom starring Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd as a type of modern day Laurel and Hardy double-act, forever finding themselves in hot water and situations that tested their friendship to the limits. Scott was the overbearing work-shy bachelor who aspired to wealth in a number of 'get-rich-quick' schemes. Lloyd was the rather dim-witted, hapless lodger who worked at a local aircraft factory and who was easily led from one misadventure to another by his boisterous partner. Molly played the duo's next door neighbour, Mrs Crispin, for five series. "The funny thing was that I had three husbands in Hugh and I, because Wallace Eaton (Mr Crispin) went to Australia. So I thought that was one way of getting your notice, and when the next one came he really didn't bring much to the part. They like you to bring something to the role, not just say the words. They like you to be inventive and because he didn't bring anything, he bit the dust! So then I had another husband and he stayed till the series finished."
Before Mollie's last season on Hugh and I, she landed a role as Mrs Clitheroe, mother of diminutive comedian Jimmy Clitheroe. Little Jimmy Clitheroe, as he was known, was 4ft 3in and had a very high voice, which enabled him to play the perpetual schoolboy role right up until his untimely death in 1973 at the age of 51. Jimmy was a massive radio star from the late 1950s onwards and at its peak The Clitheroe Kid commanded an audience of 10 million listeners. Molly didn't feature in the radio series but had played the role in Jimmy's stage shows. Although the TV version failed to live up to the popularity of the radio show Molly remembers Jimmy as being a lovely person to work with. Around the same time, Mollie landed a semi-regular role in Coronation Street as Nellie Harvey, a rival landlady to the Rovers Return's first lady, Annie Walker.
"I did a few and then the sitcom with Jimmy. I was dropped from Coronation Street because I was associated with that. And when there was a big shake-up of companies. ABC became Granada and Yorkshire - they split up, so the show with Jimmy finished. And as soon as it had finished I was offered to do some more Coronation Street. It was so weird. I had enjoyed it because I got on very well with Doris Speed (who played Annie Walker). We were oh so posh and snooty. In fact I saw the women who played Hilda Ogden (Jean Alexander) recently and she said to me, "we use to have a laugh because at the end of a long day when we were so run off our feet we always use to remember the line you said - 'ooh my feet were like putty!' - you were remembered after that and we always use to say that!"
As the 1960s drew to a close, there was another starring role for Mollie in the Liver Birds. "I remember reading about it originally in the Radio Times and I thought, "The Liver Birds? What a funny name", and it was ages before I even bothered watching it, and when I did, I thought it was rather nice. And then of course the time came that they asked me to be in it. That was quite funny because the director - lovely man - Sydney Lotterby, didn't know me at all. He asked me to come see him. When I got there, he said, 'would you mind reading?" Now, you DO NOT ask experienced artists to read. However, I thought 'oh well I'd give it a try.' He asked if I wanted a minute and I said no, I'd be all right. Well it came off the page. You just knew the minute you looked at it what to do with it. So I read and he asked if I'd do it and I said yes. Well. As soon as I'd gone he ran into David Croft. And David told me later that Sid had said that he'd just had this woman in to read whose name was Mollie Sugden. And David said, 'you don't mean you asked her to read? For heaven's sake man. How unprofessional. Really!' And, the first rehearsal I went to Sydney practically came running up to me on his knees and said 'oh I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to offend you'. And I thought I was really off to a great start.
"The next series that Mollie was offered was the one that would establish her as one of the country’s top sitcom actresses. "I had - there used to be things called Comedy Playhouse - done one with Jimmy Beck who was the private (Walker) in Dad's Army and Ronnie Fraser. I had about four lines in it, but it was a job, and it never did go to series as alas Jimmy died - he was very young when he died." (*The Comedy Playhouse production that Mollie is referring to was called Born Every Minute). "However after we'd done that, I was in my dressing room getting ready to go home and David always goes around to every dressing room to say thank you very much and that it went very nice. And when he came into my dressing room he said they'd written something very special for me. I asked what and he said, 'you'll know when you get the script', and about a fortnight later I got the script for Are You Being Served? and I thought oh yes this is it.
"We initially did it as a pilot to start with. We just did the one, and we all thought that was the end of that. But I don't know if you remember during the Munich Olympic games when the Israeli's were killed, of course there was a tremendous gap because all that television time had been left open and they had nothing to fill it with. Consequently they shoved in all these pilots one after another which nobody knew about and we got no audience figures. Of course we thought that was the end of that, and what a pity, and yet by some fluke the BBC decided to take it up. I don't know why because later David was talking to me on the phone and said, 'you're not going to believe this, I was talking to the head of Light Entertainment and he said he didn't know as he got so muddled up and he didn't get it.' Well David said, 'what's there to get. It's a situation comedy. What do you want? Weeping?'
To create the role of Mrs Slocombe, Mollie had help from a friend. "I had a friend who was a window dresser in a department store and I knew her from childhood and she use to tell me about this buyer who was just awful and got in her way every opportunity possible and was just as awkward as could be, and full of her own importance. And, I thought "yes", a bit of her went into Mrs. Slocombe."
As most fans of the series will know, Mrs Slocombe was always deeply concerned for the welfare of her pussy. The writers got a lot of mileage out of this and it became something of a standing joke. In fact, there was even a book published a couple of years ago entitled Mrs Slocombe's Pussy. One assumes that there was no Mr Slocombe to care for the feline. "Well it was certainly true that you never knew at one time what had happened to her husband. You always had the feeling he'd just gone off. And then when we did Are You Being Served Again? we said he'd gone to Sainsbury's to buy a half a pound of butter and never came back."
Mrs Slocombe did actually have a first name -well, several to be precise. Mollie explained; "Even the writers would forget. They forgot what her first name was, which was Betty Slocombe, and they kept forgetting and I kept getting a different name. And when it came the birthday they used that. They asked what's her name, and I said I don't know, I thought it was Betty and they thought it was Rachel. Well, they had all these names and when it came to the line 'Happy Birthday dear Betty Rachel Aviginary...' ...and that's how I got all these names because they'd forgotten it."
One wonders how, when working on a sitcom with such larger-than-life characters, it's possible to get through a recording without breaking up into fits of laughter. "We started rehearsing on Tuesday and we would record on the Sunday evening. We did it this way so people who were in theatre could do that and the show. And on the Tuesday you'd start to read through it and fall about and by the time it got to Friday it was about as funny as typhoid. But it was when things went wrong. Quite often it wasn't funny to anyone else. In one episode where there's John and I in the canteen, we couldn't keep a straight face and if you watch Trevor there's a smile hovering on his lips. You watch him!"
"One of my favorites was when Mrs. Slocombe gets to take over for Mr. Rumbold. That was joyous. I had lots of screen time and I got to sit in the office with all those cream cakes. That was fun. Of course we all liked dressing up. Certainly John and I did. John used to look at the script and say, "Oh we're not dressing up. Oh we're not doing a dance." Some of the costumes were unbelievable. Trevor couldn't cope with it. He never stopped laughing when he saw us. I think the worse was when Mrs. Slocombe came out in her ballet skirt."
Are You Being Served? was not just a hit in the UK. It also became something of a cult hit in the USA in the late 1980s and today can still be seen in America and Canada on the PBS Network. In Britain it still enjoys numerous repeats on UK Gold. How does Mollie account for its longevity? "Well I think one of things is that it has much in common with Dad's Army is because they were old-fashioned to begin with, so they haven't dated - they were dated when we did them. I mean Grace Brothers is a terribly old-fashioned store, and Dad's Army was about the war, so I think that has something to do with it. And I think people recognize the characters too. They've all been in department stores and seen Captain Peacock's and certainly Mrs. Slocombe and Mr. Humphreys. So I think that's another reason."
The show wasn't just a hit on television either. "Actually we did do a very, very successful season in Blackpool. We did twenty weeks in Blackpool and there never was a seat empty. They'd never done business like that before. The laughs were unbelievable in this enormous theatre. I'd done a play before with the Liver Birds. And of course the Liver Birds is a much gentler comedy. And the Wintergarden, where we played, really wasn't the venue for the Liver Birds. It was far too big. But for some reason the theatre had been dark for some years and I'd done three summer seasons there before and it was lovely, lovely theatre, but for some reason they weren't using it. So when we did the Are You Being Served? play, David said, "Now look, you've played the Wintergarden haven't you? What's it like?" And, I said, do it big and do it loud. And they did."
After a hugely successful run on TV, Are You Being Served? finally came to an end. But in 1992 most of the cast were back together again for a spin-off, Grace and Favour. "It was great fun. We'd never been away on location before. Obviously they put the set up of the store ever Sunday morning and took it down every Sunday evening and we'd just go up to the boardroom or the canteen, but we never, ever went out on location. So it was a nice change. We went up to Gloucestershire - which is a lovely part of the country - and it was very good fun. It took about two weeks to do all the filming."
Between Are You Being Served? and Grace and Favour, Mollie appeared in several other sitcoms, amongst them was Come Back Mrs Noah, which was written by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft and featured what has been described as the writing duo's own private repertory company of players. Nearly all the cast had appeared in other Lloyd/Croft creations, Ian Lavender (Dad's Army - by Jimmy Perry and David Croft), Donald Hewlett and Michael Knowles (It Ain't Half Hot Mum) and Gordon Kaye ('Allo, 'Allo) all starred in a sci-fi sitcom about a housewife (Gertrude Noah) who is accidentally blasted off into space with a ships skeleton crew aboard. The series was not terribly well received.
"The BBC had commissioned Come Back Mrs. Noah because they had me under contract. In fact, I think at the time I was the only woman the BBC had under contract so that I couldn't work for another English television company. I suppose they thought they better use me and put me to work asked Jeremy Lloyd to write something and they came up with Come Back Mrs. Noah. But when David was in America and they were deciding if they'd do it again because they said it was a great pity he wasn't there to stick up for me. So they didn't do anymore. You know I still get letters from America saying "when are you going to do some more 'Come Back Mrs. Noah?' and I think never. Not at my age. I cannot be flying around on a Kirby wire any longer."
There were other comedies for Mollie right up to the early 90s when ill health brought her career to a sudden halt and she says she isn't too bothered about taking it up again. "During my seventies I was so very ill and had so many operations that I couldn't have done a lot of work. And of course, people begin to think, oh dear has she died, or has she given it up. Then suddenly they're beginning to realize I've been at home and the works coming, and I don't want to do it." There's certainly nothing in situation comedy these days that Mollie wishes she was a part of, "if say situation comedy isn't what it was, they might say its sour grapes. But I find it a bit... well... a bit sordid, and it's not my scene, bad language, and who's in whose bed. Maureen Lipman said a really good thing once during an interview. She said, "I'm sick of all these sex scenes. Sex, sex, sex." And the interviewer said to her that sex was part of life and she said, "So is soup. But you don't have all these soup scenes!"
Today Mollie is internationally recognised as one of the all-time stars of British sitcoms and one particular PBS station in Detroit even aired a special entitled Celebrating Mollie Sugden. "It was rather nice because they came over and they came to my home and did quite a lot of filming there. And, John and Wendy came down. They interviewed Frank, Nicholas and Trevor in London because they couldn't come down because they were working. It was very nice of them to come down and for John and Wendy to come out and spend the day. We had a little family picture taken and I was very touched as I didn't know till I saw it in Iowa as they wouldn't let me see it till it was finished, and at the end it said that this programme had been made 'in the memory of William Moore' and that was my husband Bill."
Mollie says she's rather surprised by the recognition but also very pleased. Does she see herself as a comedy actress or as an actress who has played a lot of comedy? "Well I like to think an actress who plays comedy parts. It's just that one becomes established in comedy people tend to forget you can play other things. You can be typecast, which is really rather sad. But there again, it's your living." And the high points of her career? "Oh there's been so many. I've been lucky. I've had a lovely, lovely time. Obviously ups and downs and worries, especially when the children were at the school, and if my husband was up north working - and he worked in Coronation Street for two years - and if he was up in Granada in Manchester and I was working, and I couldn't pick them up, though I did have a lovely lady who looked after them, but there were times when I thought I'd be back and I hadn't made any arrangements and if it got near time and we were getting on, I got a little anxious. So there were times, but on the whole I've had a lovely time."
Mollie Sugden passed away on July 1st 2009.
Interview conducted by Bob Furnell & Bonnie Gale 2003.
Edited by Laurence Marcus 2004, with permission of Bob Furnell
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