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She is still a breath of fresh Ayre

Hannah Stephenson catches up with broadcaster and poet Pam Ayres to chat about her memoirs which delve into her humble beginnings, rise to fame and life

She was sandwiched between a man singing You Are My Heart's Desire and a woman who played the squeeze box on the talent show of the day, Opportunity Knocks.

Little did Pam Ayres know, when she recited her witty poem with the rather lengthy title, Pam Ayres And The Embarrassing Experience With The Parrot, that the Clapometer would swing in her favour and the postal vote from viewers would clinch her victory.

That was some 36 years ago. People thought she had it made but, like so many hopefuls on Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor, her bubble was about to burst.

Amid the whirlwind of euphoria over her victory, she signed up for her own TV series, went on tours and was filling huge venues with fans hungry for more of her humourous verse.

But all the while, she didn't feel able to step up to the mark. She simply couldn't provide enough new material to meet the demand.

"It was a completely new environment for me. Michael Grade offered me a three-year television contract which was three series, each programme 45 minutes.

"Unsurprisingly, I couldn't write that much stuff. So people were brought in to write in my style, which was excruciating and I hated it.

"It was thrilling to win Opportunity Knocks but two years afterwards, I felt as though I'd been chewed up, spat out and was expected to quietly disappear."

Little of this is detailed in her memoir, The Necessary Aptitude (so called as many of her previous employers would claim she lacked 'the necessary aptitude' for whatever job she was doing at the time).

The book charts her life from her early childhood in rural Berkshire where she was born 64 years ago to the launch of her career, ending shortly after her Opportunity Knocks win.

"People had seen me on TV doing a poem or two, then suddenly I was in the biggest theatres in the country and I didn't really have an act. I shambled out there, did a few poems and was surrounded by a lot of support acts.

"There was a kind of hysteria - it was a bit like Susan Boyle. I was painted by the press as some little old country gal who sat under the haystack writing her poems."

Ayres ended up returning to small theatres to work her way up the ladder again. By then she'd met her husband, Dudley Russell, a concert promoter who became her agent.

Today, while most poets feel lucky if they flog 1,000 published works, Ayres's books of verse have sold in their millions. She's a regular guest on the radio show Just A Minute and Loose Ends, while her Radio 4 programme Ayres On The Air enters its fourth series next year.

One of six children, the daughter of a linesman for the Southern Electricity Board, Ayres grew up in a council house in Stanford in the Vale, a rural Berkshire village, but as she grew up, the stagnancy of village life led her to seek adventure.

After a stultifying spell as a civil service clerk, she joined the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) and soon found herself in Singapore, where she began to write in earnest.

While in the WRAF, she joined various theatre clubs but discovered that her country bumpkin accent wasn't always an advantage.

"An accent like mine tends to make people think you're a yokel and village idiot combined," she says. "It comes with a lot of baggage. In the WRAF, everybody started saying 'Ooh aargh' to me. The accent condemned me before I'd even said anything and in that respect, I hated it. But later, when I went on tour to Australia and New Zealand, people liked my accent."

When she left the WRAF, local folk clubs were on the rise, which is where she continued to perform her poetry, including Oh I Wish I'd Looked After Me Teeth, which recently came in the top 10 of a BBC poll of the nation's best loved comic poems. She then clinched a weekly slot on Radio Oxford and from there went in for Opportunity Knocks.

Today, Ayres is about to embark on her 14th tour of Australia and has toured many other countries, performing her humourous verse to packed houses.

Home these days is a small holding in Cirencester in the Cotswolds, where she lives with Russell, her husband of 35 years.

Their two grown-up sons, William and James, have long since left home, but she's kept busy with 15 cows, nine sheep, four dogs, 16 guinea fowl and a brood of hens.

Her poems still focus on aspects of everyday life that people can relate to.

"I'm writing a piece at the moment about insomnia. You know, people who can't sleep at night?" she says.

"If you talk to them you find out that they are forever having little naps and dropping off during the day. Then another recent piece is about snoring. It's ordinary and everyday, but at the same time it's a guilty secret.

"There'll be the attractive woman in the audience who knows she throws her head back and snores all night and the man beside her who does the same.

"When I say the poem to the audience, I can see people digging each other in the ribs and saying, 'Yes, that's you!' It's lovely because it's something everybody can identify with."


From Belfast Telegraph