Comedy star Su Pollard talks to Gabrielle Fagan about the joys of ageing, single life, hitting the hills, and taking on a serious dramatic role for the first time in her career
Bubbling with cheery optimism and wit, Su Pollard is the ideal person to interview if your spirits are low. In fact, it's hard to interrupt her seemingly endless supply of humorous anecdotes from her 50-year career - ranging from a close encounter with a horse, tap dancing with Princess Diana and kissing Theresa May's husband.
One of our best-known comedic actresses - known for the likes of holiday camp worker Peggy in Hi-de-Hi! in the Eighties, which turned her into a household name - Pollard is full of tales.
The main purpose of our interview, however, is her latest role as Birdie, an extreme hoarder, in stage show Harpy (the UK tour has been postponed due to the pandemic). It's one the few 'straight' parts she's ever undertaken.
"Over the years, people have put me in a box labelled 'comedy' - largely because of Hi-de-Hi! - but I don't mind that at all," reflects Nottingham-born Pollard (70).
"It's a kind of compliment in a way, because it means they've enjoyed whatever they've seen and so you're in their psyche. It's an affectionate way of being 'boxed'.
"Anyway, I have no regrets because I used Peggy and that show as a springboard, and I've done musicals, my own one-woman show, and even had a chart-topping single. But now it's lovely to show that I can play a serious part in a really thought-provoking drama."
The play focuses on society's attitude to solitary, lonely, often elderly people, and is "a mix of humour and poignancy and shines a light on mental health", she says.
Birdie is someone who has "fallen through the cracks of life". Pollard explains: There are a lot of women out there like her. She lives alone, she doesn't want to be this hoarder but she can't seem to get out of it.
"She's had a trauma in her life, which is revealed and is sad. She's lovely deep down but a bit confused and troubled, yet she gets called a harpy, harridan and hag. It's horrible and shows how we tend to judge people we don't bother trying to understand, and there can be an underlying lack of respect for the elderly."
How did you get into showbiz?
Aged six, I played one of the Angel Gabriel's helpers in a nativity play and had to stand on a cardboard box. I was just telling Mary, 'Fear not! Angel Gabriel will...', then I disappeared into the box before I could finish the line. The teacher hadn't made it strong enough.
I climbed out and remember everyone laughing and loving every minute of it. It still gives me such a buzz.
I took part in amateur dramatics from age 11 and knew I had to make acting my career. I began singing in working men's clubs in Nottingham, where I grew up.
I adore comedy but I also absolutely love singing. I used to go to the same auditions as Elaine Paige - she got Evita at the same time as I got Hi-de-Hi! - it's fate the way things play out.
How do you look back on Hi-de-Hi! now?
With great affection. You have to thank god for getting a role like that in this business, which can be very tough.
We had so many laughs making it. During one rehearsal, I got into a horse's costume - I was the back end. The only problem was, there was a real horse in the field. It trotted over and tried to mount me - the fake one's rear end!
I kept saying, 'Get him off, get him off!' But that horse was extremely insistent and everyone was laughing so hard, they couldn't pull themselves together to rescue me.
What are some of your most memorable moments?
I've had so many and met so many fantastic people. Singing for Dame Vera Lynn at her 100th birthday celebration at the London Palladium three years ago in front of the Queen is right up there.
At a 10 Downing Street reception, I tap-danced with Princess Diana because she'd just started learning some steps and we hugged afterwards.
Last year during another reception there, I met Philip May and told him what a marvellous husband he'd been supporting Theresa May, who was going through the mill over Brexit. He thanked me and I said, 'I'd love to have someone like you in my life protecting my back', and gave him a kiss.
It was wrongly reported I shouted out, 'Get on with Brexit', but I would never dream of doing anything so rude and silly like that.
How do look after your wellbeing?
Many years ago - I think I was ahead of my time on this - I discovered mindfulness and realised the importance of living in the now. It's about trying not to worry about what might happen because the reality is just that - it might not happen.
My mantra's always been, 'the best of times is now', and to appreciate each particular moment because it won't come again. I talk to myself all the time, which helps me sort things out in my head and rely on my gut instinct when making decisions.
My dad, Don, who was my rock, had sound, succinct advice on dealing with tough times: 'You know what you have to do, love, just get on with it'.
What inspired your quirky take on fashion?
I've always loved to dress flamboyantly and creatively put unusual or bizarre things together. I don't really care what anyone else thinks, and while years ago people didn't get it, nowadays younger people come up to me to compliment me. Would you believe, I've become a so-called style icon.
Anyway, I can't imagine ever wearing some of the shapeless clothes meant for older women with elasticated waists - I've written to Marks & Spencer to complain about them. Please god, save me from elastic.
To me, dressing the way I want is part of being true to yourself. It's about trusting your instinct, wearing what you feel is right, and also doing what you feel is right. It's the only way to be happy.
How do you feel about ageing?
I'm thrilled to bits to get to 70 - after all, it's only another '0' - and I feel ageless actually. Of course, I think about death and mortality occasionally, but the trick is not to focus on it so you become over-cautious and stop doing anything.
Work keeps me going, it's a motivation, my passion, and I definitely don't want to retire - new projects bring me joy. I hate that expression 'workaholic' - I'm a work enthusiast.
I exercise my vocal chords daily and keep myself fit with 20-minute sessions of star jumps, boxing moves and stretches. When I can, I also like hill walking - getting out with friends into the Peak District - I even use Nordic skis. I'm pretty disciplined about my diet and portion sizes.
You're single. Do you ever feel lonely like Birdie, the role you play?
Never. I'm very happy being single. I hear of so many people in terrible relationships and I'm thankful I don't have that hanging over my shoulders. Unless I meet someone who can bring more enjoyment to my life, I'm not going to bother with a relationship.
Most people of my age, of course, are preoccupied with grandchildren but I've never regretted not having a family. I didn't feel I could cope with that 24/7 responsibility.
I'm the first to offer to babysit for other people and I express my maternal instinct by being kind to people. It's so important that we treat each other properly and are generous and thoughtful.
The UK tour of Harpy starring Su Pollard will be rescheduled for later this year