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'Why not enjoy some romance in your 80s?': Butterflies star Wendy Craig on new Emmerdale role

Mirror logo Mirror 16/02/2018 Emily Retter
a person posing for the camera: Credits: BBC © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: BBC

Pots and pans are strewn across Wendy Craig ’s kitchen and lunch is nowhere near the oven. The actress half giggles, half groans: “I’m trying to make a simple tray bake. Why can’t I get it together more easily?”

It all sounds like her most famous character, and her favourite, Ria Parkinson, the frustrated lovestruck housewife from hit sitcom Butterflies –who is a disaster in the kitchen.

That was more than 40 years ago but Wendy is still the centre of a TV romance at the age of 83. In her first ever foray into soap land, she’s been playing larger than life Maisie in Emmerdale .

In the six-episode stint she is the love interest for Sandy Thomas, played by 90-year-old Freddie Jones.

She’s there to brighten Sandy’s dotage after a rough ride for Freddie’s character, who recently lost his son to early onset dementia. And as for new found love ­brightening your later years...Wendy sees nothing wrong in it.

a person wearing a black dress: Credits: Unknown © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Unknown She describes their romance as “rather charming”. “Why not?” she says “We’re still human beings and love a bit of a cuddle, warmth and ­friendship!”

The part suits Wendy because ­unconventional, strong women have always been her thing. Ria was a rare character at the time – a woman who dared to question her lot.

She pondered her marriage to ­Geoffrey ­Palmer’s ­character, Ben, and even thought of an ­affair, with friend Leonard. “I did think I was making a bit of a stand for women,” she agrees.

It fits neatly with the theme of the year, equality for women. But when I ­mention the #MeToo campaign which has seen so many actresses stand up and discuss the harassment, abuse and ­general misogyny they have faced in the industry, Wendy sounds hesitant.

She is quick to support any woman who has been wrongly treated.

But she insists she wasn’t affected in a career which took off during the 60s in films like The Servant, with Dirk Bogarde and The Nanny, with Bette Davis.

She also starred with known hellraisers Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole .

Then came sitcoms including Not In Front Of The Children and Mother Makes Three, in which she was a single mum.

“I suppose I was lucky, either that or I was just too plain,” she laughs, keen to lighten the mood. “I wasn’t aware of it. Flirting went on backstage but doesn’t that go on everywhere? It’s harmless.

“Men finding you attractive and telling you so, there is nothing wrong with that,” she adds. “It’ll soften off. At the moment it’s quite fierce isn’t it?

“It’s a good thing. They’ll adapt, and learn to be more polite and respectful.

a couple of people posing for the camera: Credits: Mirrorpix © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Mirrorpix “But no, I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was men and women’s natural flirting – it’s not natural that they don’t.

“I think men might be a bit nervous now, not knowing quite how to approach a woman they would like to take out.”

Nevertheless, in her own life Wendy was challenging the status quo, as a working woman, continuing to forge an acting career after marrying trombonist and journalist Jack Bentley, in 1955, and becoming a mum to her three children, Alaster, Ross, and Rosie.

Stage work could take her away for long periods, although sitcoms meant it was easier to get home. It helped that Jack worked at home and took on some household ­responsibilities, not widely the case with men at the time.

“I was very fortunate,” she says, adding:

“It very much helped me to forge my career, he was tremendously supportive.”

In her 40s, Wendy found her Christian faith again. And she learned how to keep her personal life personal – no mean feat for anyone who is a household name.

a black and white photo of a man: Credits: Mirrorpix © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Mirrorpix Jack died in 1994 but, whatever Wendy’s had to work through, she has a great ­relationship with her kids, ­grandchildren and great-grandchild. In fact, life seems pretty much perfect today.

She has good health, her kids live close by her Berkshire home, and she’s far off retirement – although she’s quick, despite her latest storyline – to laugh off any suggestion of dating in later life herself.

“I have friends but we just go to lunch,” she laughs. Emmerdale came knocking on top of an already busy ­life, workwise.

The actress, also a permanent fixture in BBC drama The Royal from 2003-11, has recently appeared in a CBBC series of The Worst Witch as well as new comedy drama Girlfriends, in which she played Miranda Richardson’s mum.

Peter O'Toole et al. looking at the camera: Credits: Hulton Archive © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Hulton Archive She says Emmerdale has been great fun: “This is my first soap. They film such a lot, it’s amazing how well organised they are. They had three units running at once, three directors, all the make-up artists and wardrobe, and it runs like clockwork, it’s so efficient.”

Wendy explained: “Coming into a company who had all been working together for so long I thought I might feel a bit of an ­interloper, but in actual fact they were so charming and welcoming and ­warm-hearted. I felt really at home.”

Despite her long-running career, surprisingly, she admits she has always been a nervy performer.

“Will I get it right, will I let the others down, will I remember the lines? All sorts of worries, I’ve always been like that,” she confides.

Nevertheless, she never wants to stop. “I’m really happiest when I’m working, and there seems to be some sort of point to me being around,” Wendy explains.

a man and a woman sitting on a table: Credits: ITV © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: ITV She adds: “Some days I feel 21, others I feel about 100, but you keep ploughing on. I try to keep busy and positive.”

However, she has made preparations for the end of her life. Touchingly, her greatest wish is that her ­children won’t have to worry “about all that”.

She says: “I have made a will, I have laid out how I want my service to be so the children don’t have all those ­problems. I have written out my personal gifts, so there won’t be any ­confusion when I’m gone,” she says.

“I just want to leave the ­children happy.

“I want it to be a positive going.”

For now though, living positively is the most important thing – and Wendy is certainly an example of that.

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