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Jean Fergusson - Marina, Hylda and Much, Much More

Peter Lathan talks to actress Jean Fergusson about her long career in theatre.

Playing Marina in Last of the Summer Wine has been a bit of a mixed blessing for Jean Fergusson. She's been part of the show for almost twenty years but she does wonder what effect it has had on the theatre roles she is offered. She would love to do some more serious roles but is not at all sure how seriously she would be taken.

"Early in my career - I was in my twenties - I played Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf. I'd love to do that again. I'd also love to play Queen Margaret in Henry VI. I saw Peggy Ashcroft in the part years ago and it's been my ambition to play it ever since. We'll just have to see what sort of part I get offered when Last of the Summer Wine finishes!"

She hastened to add that she's not complaining.

"I was lucky to get Marina. I'd been in the business twenty years and I heard that a director I'd worked with in rep in the seventies was ill. We'd always go on well, so I sent him a "Get Well Soon" card. It was pure luck that the day he received the card, someone rang him and asked if he could recommend anyone to play a blowsy blonde in the stage version of Summer Wine that Roy Clarke was working on at the time. He recommended me, I did the stage show and it went so well that Roy decided to incorporate Marina, Howard and Pearl into the TV series. That was in 1984. The rest is history!

"The director told me later that it was the card that reminded him of me. Without it he wouldn't have thought of me because it was so long since we'd worked together. I was lucky!"

She had worked steadily for those first twenty years of her career. Her first stint in rep was at the Oldham Coliseum, where she stayed for two years. "It started off as weekly rep, but eventually moved to fortnightly. It was exhausting but enormously good fun!"

Working in rep meant that she played a vast range of roles. "One week you'd be the lead, the next the cleaning lady! With my deep voice I tended to get the character parts which I enjoyed."

She also did a number of national tours. "They're exhausting, too. You get one day off a week - the Sunday - and that's the day you travel to the next town!"

Working on Last of the Summer Wine means that tours are not so easy, because the show is filmed between May and October. "I tried to combine the two once," she says. "The play was Five Blue Haired Ladies Sitting on a Green Park Bench, which is a wonderful play and Eva is a great part, so I looked at the tour schedule and the provisional call sheets for Summer Wine and thought I could fit it in. It wasn't too bad when the tour dates were in the north but on average I was only managing to get two or three hours sleep a night and I was spending most of my time travelling. I won't be doing that again!"

One effect of that decision was that, when she was offered the tour of Summer Holiday, she had to turn it down.

Most recently Jean has had a great deal of critical and audience success with her one woman show about Hylda Baker, She Knows, You Know. "That began in Darlington in 1991," she says. "I was playing Fairy Marina there and someone said I reminded him of Hylda Baker. Well, here's me tall and blonde and she was short and dark! He said it was something to do with mannerisms. Now I used to do Hylda Baker impersonations in the playground when I was at school, so that struck a cord with me.

"She was such an influential figure - she laid the foundations for all modern stand-up comediennes - and hers is the most amazing, bizarre story. It's like fiction. No one could have dreamt up what happened to her in her life."

Jean spent three years on the research and the first performance of She Knows, You Know was in 1994. "In 1997 we took it to the Vaudeville in the West End where it ran for eight weeks. It went an absolute bomb! But it is a great responsibility being writer and performer."

Later she was asked to do it in Stoke in the round. "It was for a pros arch stage and I really wondered if it could work in the round. It did, although it meant a lot more movement and so was much harder work. I lost two stones in weight!"

Then she was invited to take it to the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough where it played for two weeks. "That was an absolute joy, and I'll remember Alan's (Alan Ayckbourn) comments all my life."

Her biography of Hylda Baker was published in 1997.

What about the future? What about Jean Fergusson in the 21st century?

"Writing seems to have taken over a bit. I'm just finishing a screenplay based on Hylda's life story. It's not biograhical: it's based aound one of the young men who played her character Cynthia. It's called I Wish You Love which, of course, was Hylda's theme song.

"As for my acting career, I just don't know. We'll have to wait until Summer Wine stops! But I do know this: I don't want to stop working. The creative life force keeps you going!"

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©Peter Lathan 2004