Gabrielle Fagan catches up with the unstoppable actress Ruth Madoc, to talk broken hips, feminism and retirement.
Ruth Madoc became a household name playing chief yellowcoat Gladys Pugh in BBC One’s hugely successful sitcom, Hi-de-Hi! – about a holiday camp set in the late Fifties.
Even today, the 76-year-old is still greeted by fans with ‘Hi-de-Hi’, but over the years, her career has spanned an array of roles in theatre and musicals, from Fiddler On The Roof to Gypsy.
Remarkably, it’s only two months since she broke her hip in a fall while rehearsing for her role in Calendar Girls, but she’s confounded doctors with her recovery and vows to return to the stage in September.
Here, she talks about ‘bouncing back’ from adversity, how show business helps keeps her young, and her health regime…
Have you enjoyed testing out gadgets and technology for the new TV show Hard To Please OAPs?
“It’s been amazing and such fun – Harry Redknapp is charming, Sheila Ferguson is a hoot, Michael [Whitehall] is fabulous, Amanda [Barrie] and June [Brown] are my icons, and I’ve known John Sergeant and Lionel Blair a long time.
“It’s about mature minds having to cope with the ghastly gadgets they concoct now, but I’m definitely not a grumpy old woman who thinks things were better in the old days – not at all.
“Some of the modern advances are brilliant, especially mobiles and emails, but I can’t be bothered with things like Alexa, a virtual assistant which you can ask to do things. I’m a doer, not someone who wants to shout at a gadget which couldn’t understand what I was saying half the time. I’ve given mine to my grandchildren.”
“I’m not convinced about an electric car. Ours ran out of charge in a thunderstorm when we were on a motorway! Women of my age are used to getting on and sorting things out and so it was me, who got drenched outside trying work the charging station ,while John Sergeant and Lionel Blair sheltered inside!”
How have you coped with breaking your hip?
“It’s the first accident I’ve had in 60 years in the business. It was a bad fall and a real shock. It was my own fault – I slipped during a warm-up for a Calendar Girls routine, just after I’d done a high kick.
“I was screaming my head off because the pain was horrible, agonising and worse than childbirth. I knew immediately I’d broken something and kept saying, ‘Get me an ambulance!’
“I now have a 10” nail in my hip and leg, and a bolt to keep it in place. The pain isn’t significant any more. There was no sign of arthritis, so I didn’t need a replacement joint. I was walking with a Zimmer frame three days after it happened, as I was determined to get back on my feet. Now, I’m only using one crutch and by July, I’ll just have a stick for a short while.
“I’ve just visited my specialist and even he’s amazed at my progress. Most people are still hobbling around at my stage, but lying on a bed, I could get my leg go up into a pretty reasonable high kick. It’s amazing how the body can heal.”
Did you worry that it could end your career?
“Never for a moment, although I was worried – wrongly as it turns out – about the long-term effect on my mobility.
“Working’s vital to me and I can’t wait to get back to Calendar Girls in September. Bouncing back isn’t new to me – I was performing within two weeks of giving birth to each my two children. That’s what show business gives you – a drive to get up and get on.
“Fortunately, years of dance training, as well as performing in musicals, have kept my muscles alive and toned. I’ve always been conscious of keeping myself fit so I could perform, and I’ve done isometrics – a type of strength training involving the contraction of muscle tissue at a specific angle – for years.”
Did you have any hesitation about the nudity in Calendar Girls?
“After all my years in the business, that didn’t worry me at all. I first bared my bosoms when I was 29 for the film of Under Milk Wood with Richard Burton. It was a scene with David Jason and my only worry was getting pneumonia, because it was freezing in on the quayside of Fishguard harbour.
“Last year, I bared my bosoms for ITV’s The Real Full Monty: Ladies’ Night, helping raise awareness of breast cancer, which was great fun.”
What impact did your role in Hi-de-Hi! have on you?
“The effect’s never gone really. Gladys was a wonderful, unexpected thing to happen. I was nearly 40 and it took up nearly nine years of my life and changed my career. Without that, it could have taken years longer to get appreciated.
“I never watched a single episode while I was doing it though, because I was so frightened I’d hate myself. Despite the accolades we kept getting, I kept thinking, ‘I hope to God I’m doing this right’. Also, there’s nothing like kids for keeping your feet on the ground, and my two children used to say, ‘You’re not going off to do that Gladys Puke again are you?’ That was their name for her!”
How do you feel about Gladys?
“I knew Gladys so well, because I’d met women like her while growing up in South Wales in the Fifties and Sixties. She was a woman of her time – like two tonnes of nutty slack rolling down the Welsh valleys.
“Gladys used her womanly wiles to get on, which would probably be frowned upon today, but she had an innate intelligence and was good at her job. She was definitely glamorous – I modelled her look on a famous French ballet dancer, Zizi Jeanmaire.”
How do you look after your health?
“As well as regular exercise, I walk as much as I can. I love exploring the Welsh coastline. I’m very lucky, I haven’t had any real health problems apart from bladder cancer 16 years ago. I have a check up every five years and all’s fine.
“Of course, it was serious, but it didn’t change my perspective on life. My mother was a matron of a general hospital, so I grew up with the attitude that if you get things, you just have to deal with them.
…And what about your wellbeing?
“Always being able to earn my own living and having that independence has been very important to my wellbeing – it’s helped me weather any tough times.
“My mum was way ahead of her time and was a feminist of the 1930s. She instilled in me a belief in independence, determination and a work ethic. I’m also a very optimistic person and have always been able to see the humour in life. As you get older, you’ve seen a lot, so you don’t get so anxious and worried about things.
How do you feel about ageing?
“I’ve never really bothered about my age – I feel about 50. People don’t seem to take it into account when they book you, they just rely on what they see in front of them, which is great.
“Keeping yourself alert, aware and continuing to learn keeps you young. If you keep your mind tuned up, your body will follow. I’ve never gone for grey hair – unless it’s for a role – I love being a redhead, it’s such fun.
“I’ve certainly not thought about retiring, because I can still learn scripts quickly. At my age, you have to live each day and ignore death, really. As a grandmother of five, aged between eight and 11, I just hope the good Lord gives me enough longevity to see them get into their careers and find out what they’re going to do with their lives.”
Hard To Please OAPs is on ITV on Tuesdays at 8.30pm.