Heartbreak and Humour

17th November 2017

As feisty Marlene in the biggest tv comedy of the 1980s, Sue Holderness won over legions of fans. Now she’s coming to Rickmansworth to play panto baddie Malevolent in Beauty and the Beast. Lisa Botwright meets her and finds out more about…

In real life Sue Holderness is much more well spoken than her alter ego Marlene (or Marleeene as fictional husband Boycie in comedy classic Only Fools and Horses would say). Moreover, she’s not channelling Marlene’s dress sense either. “Everyone always expects me to be wearing leopard print,” Sue laughs.

Today she’s in full black regalia, ready to talk about her up-and-coming role as the wicked Malevolent in Watersmeet’s 2017 Christmas panto Beauty and the Beast. “I’m pure evil,” she tells me, somewhat unconvincingly, I think, as she tries to keep a straight face.

“Panto is a peculiarly British thing – it brings Christmas home,” Sue enthuses. “Often it’s a child’s very first taste of theatre; they get a very different experience that they can’t get from television. It stays with them. And of course Beauty and the Beast is a very sweet love story: it’s an unlikely love story and we have a great, very feisty Beauty.”

It certainly has impeccable credentials. The panto classic is written and directed by Chris Jordan of Jordan Productions, one of the top pantomime producers in the UK. Leading theatre publication The Stage calls Chris’ seasonal scripts ‘classy, topical and packed with surprises’, and Sue confides that when she heard that Chris was bringing Beauty to Rickmansworth, she phoned him and begged to be in it. She claims not to be the best singer – “but Chris always gives me lots of jolly numbers,” she laughs.

“Chris believes in the traditional side of panto,” she continues. “That’s what he does so well.” She pauses. “Sometimes I wake up and remember how ghastly the world is, and I’m so glad for the escapism of theatre.”

It’s clearly her first love, and she manages her hectic schedule with a formidable level of energy. She’s just finished a UK tour of Ray Cooney’s Out of Order, alongside Eastenders’ Shaun Williamson – and after Christmas will be appearing in Ronald Harwood’s Quartet, with Wendi Peters, Paul Nicholas and Jeff Rawle. “…Full of comedy and pathos,” she declares about this story of old rivalries among a group of ageing opera singers.

Of course, she’s also a successful tv actress, well known and universally loved for playing Marlene. Intended to make an appearance in only one episode, the character was so brilliantly brought to life by Sue that she went on to become an Only Fools and Horses regular.

The show was already incredibly popular by the time Marlene joined in series four. In the original script, writer John Sullivan had described Marlene simply as a ‘dapper little cockney woman’, and Sue was given free reign to develop her look as she wished. To complement the leopard print, there was “big hair, a sexy wardrobe, masses of make-up.”

Sue landed the part without even having to audition, after being spotted by Ray Butt, OFAH director, in a one-woman play in London written by Brian Clemens. Ray was impressed by her on-stage charisma and confident that she could play the role. “Thank you, Ray Butt” she says now. “A lovely man. Sadly, no longer with us.”

John Challis, who played Boycie, had also heard about Sue professionally by reputation, but hadn’t met her. His only reservation was a personal one – whether they’d hit it off well enough. He needn’t have worried. Their chemistry, on-screen and off, was immediate – ultimately leading to a spin-off series The Green, Green Grass where the pair are forced to flee Peckham for the country, following a ‘shady deal’.

“I’m very proud of Marlene, and would happily have gone on playing the character, were it not for the loss of such a brilliant writer.” John Sullivan, prolific comedy writer, winner of three BAFTA awards and OBE recipient, to whom Sue is referring, died from viral pneumonia in 2011, aged just 64. “He had such an incredible ability to mix heartbreak with humour,” she tells me. Sue’s favourite OFAH episode is From Prussia with Love in which Marlene and Boycie, after years of trying for a baby, attempt to adopt. In true Trotter-style, nothing goes to plan, and the baby, which the pair were intending to bring up as their own, is revealed to have dark skin.

Sue describes how the audience roared with laughter at John’s speech ‘I might be able to con people into buying my cars. I might be able to convince ‘em that you conceived and gave birth in seven days flat, but how the hell am I gonna persuade ‘em that my grandad was Louis Armstrong?!’ … but five minutes later were sniffing into their hankies at Marlene’s heartbreak, as she realised that her dream of becoming a mother was lost. “I received a lot of mail for this storyline – as did [fellow actress] Gwyneth Strong, when Cassandra suffered her miscarriage.”

As a teenager, Sue – who attended nearby independent school Northwood College (hence the beautiful diction that’s in such contrast to Marlene’s ‘Sarf London’ strains) –  loved both dancing and horse riding and “felt destined to become a performer”. When she was 16, her drama teacher asked her to play the title role in Antigone and encouraged her to apply for drama school rather than to set her sights on university. She was accepted by the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama, and has rarely been unemployed since. “At the age of 68, I just feel lucky to still be working,” she says.

With its daily performances over December, panto isn’t known for allowing much holiday downtime, and I ask if she’ll be able to get home for Christmas. “I always make time for a family Christmas,” she says. She usually spends the day at her home in Windsor, with husband Mark and her two grown-up children, but this year should be particularly special.

“I’m going to become a grandmother for the first time next spring,” she tells me with evident excitement. “My son and his wife are expecting, so this year we’ll be spending the day with them at their home. The baby will be nine months old when it comes along to its first panto next Christmas.”

Her top tip for seasonal stress reduction is to put all the jobs in a hat to be shared out. And which would she like to win, I ask. “I messed up the bread sauce last year,” she giggles. “I’m hoping to get something easier, like the carrots. I know a very good Delia Smith recipe. Where would we be without Delia?”

Sadly, we can’t share vegetable preparation tips as it’s time for Sue to get back to rehearsals. “Evil will triumph; I will get the Prince!” she cackles…

And possibly the nicest woman in comedy disappears to mingle with the rest of the cast – and prepare to spread ‘hate and misery’ to a host of very lucky festive-theatre-going-families.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ is at Watersmeet from 7 to 31 December • Tickets are available from www.watersmeet.co.uk or 01923 711063

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