Thursday, February 26, 2009

R.I.P. Wendy Richard

My good friend from across the pond, Gary Dobbs, mentioned in a comment he made on a post I composed in October of last year that British actress Wendy Richard had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and wasn’t expected to live past twelve months. Sadly, the medicos were spot-on with this…as the talented woman who appeared in the long-running sitcom Are You Being Served? and the soap opera warhorse EastEnders has indeed shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 65.

Younger TV fans are probably more familiar with Richard’s role as matriarch Pauline Fowler on EastEnders, a program she became a cast member of when the series premiered in 1985 and on which she appeared in approximately 1400 episodes before departing in 2006. But here in the good ol’ U.S.A., where we’re blessed in knowing that public television has progressed a little beyond (but not much more) Benny Hill in British television comedy, she’s instantly identifiable as Miss Shirley Brahms, one of the dutiful drones whiling away at Grace Brothers Department Store on Are You Being Served? (Richard reprised the Brahms role in a follow-up series to AYBS, Grace and Favour—known to U.S. audiences as Are You Being Served? Again.)

In total honesty, I think the day public television discovered Served? was a dark one, indeed…because the show itself has apparently come to represent what American audiences think Britcoms are all about (double entendres and sniggering sex jokes). But Richard’s performance as the Cockney salesgirl who suffered under the autocratic thumb of pompous Captain Stephen Peacock (Frank Thornton) and the equally self-important Betty Slocombe (Mollie Sugden), her supervisor, was truly one of the bright spots of the series—her cheekiness and all-around good-humored outlook on life being a real joy to behold. One of my favorite AYBS episodes is “Closed Circuit,” in which Miss Brahms has been asked out by a man of means because he overheard her doing a commercial for the department store…unaware that her earthy Cockney tones were substituted with a sexy voice with which he’s fallen in love. (Being a sitcom, the situation requires the rest of the Grace Brothers employees to play members of Miss Brahms’ “family”…and the wacky complications ensue.)

Because I collect a lot of classic British sitcoms on DVD, I’m always finding Richard making appearances in the darndest places; I’ve seen her in episodes of Please Sir!, On the Buses, The Likely Lads, Dad’s Army and Not on Your Nellie. She was always a breath of fresh air to any tired Britcom plot, and to hear of her passing at such a young age is indeed a tragic thing.

R.I.P., Wendy. You will be missed.

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