“My mum always wanted to be an actress”, says her now actress daughter, Jemma Churchill.
Jemma is at The Empire with Nativity! The Musical and Northern Broadsides have been causing mischief at The Playhouse with They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!
We are both glowing with Liverpudlian spirit when we meet up at Leaf on Bold Street. Ahead of our Friday night warm up calls, we share a brownie and Jemma delights me with the history of her remarkable Mother, Pauline Yates. Pauline’s spirit and determination are evident in her daughter, as Jemma runs me through weekly rep, situation comedy and bringing up a family in the 40s,50s & 60s.
Pauline grew up in modest 1930s council housing on Liverpool’s East Lancs Road, moving on to Childwall during her teenage years. No one else in her family were actors: Pauline’s Dad worked on the docks for Tate and Lyle and then became a travelling salesman. At 17 Pauline announced that she didn’t want to do A levels, “I want to leave home and become an actress”.
Initially forbidden by her mother, Pauline was issued with an ultimatum:
find a job,
in a theatre,
in one month
or come back and finish your studies.
Having applied everywhere and with just one week to spare, Pauline got a job at The Oldham Coliseum. She worked there for several weeks in the repertory company, which paved the way for further contracts. She returned to her home city in the late 40s/early 50s but now as a professional actress.
“…she received her best opportunities at Liverpool Playhouse”, says Jemma. “She worked there solidly for two years, playing every sort of part from The Admiral Crichton to Shakespeare to thrillers. It was weekly rep, so they rehearsed everyday for the next show until 4pm and then performed (the current show) in the evenings, learning the new script for the following week.”
Article on Pauline Yates and Family
“She was starving because they weren’t paid much, tired, but I know very very happy and she made some of her greatest friends in those two years”.
“What she always told me about Liverpool audiences, was that they loved seeing the same actors playing different parts week by week. The cast made incredible friendships because they were relying on each other, they were bonded. It was this love they all had for the audiences and the audiences for them, which kept them going. They worked a very busy schedule…I’ve got all my mum’s tiny little leather bound pocket notebooks…they rehearsed at 9:30am, with a little tea break, where she’d have a boiled egg or go back to her digs before performing again at 7:30pm, in a different play entirely”.
The opportunities that rep gave to explore, theatrically, was invaluable. If the rep system had stayed as it was and TV hadn’t taken off, Jemma feels her Mother wouldn’t have moved down south.
“But as it happened, I think she was very keen to explore this new medium of television. The actors who did really well from the rep system, were the ones who could rein it back a bit and understand the camera” – they were also used to live audiences – so filming in front of a studio crowd was already in their bones.
Several actors from the Liverpool family went on to make their names on television, for example Richard Briars, and Jemma’s Godmother Mona Bruce who joined the cast of Within These Walls. When Pauline left Liverpool she came down to London and had Jemma and her sister, Polly. Situation comedy became her niche, her most acclaimed role being Elizabeth Perrin, opposite Leonard Rossiter in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.
“She was very light hearted/light of touch and I know it was Liverpool Playhouse that had given her the opportunity to explore that.” It’s no surprise really, that when Broadway came looking for Pauline, her Theatre Manager, Maud Carpenter, refused to release her from contract:
‘Well, you don’t really want to go to Broadway do you?’ After Liverpool, it was unthinkable to Maud, Liverpool was the centre of the world!”
Taken from An Actors Place, Pelham McMahon and Pam Brooks
Maud was another woman ahead of her time: the first female board member at Liverpool, she wasn’t going to lose someone as talented as Pauline without a good fight! Jemma reflects on her own experience of Liverpool as an actor:
“I’ve worked in Liverpool quite a bit and here I am at The Empire in Nativity! The Musical. I knew it would be a fabulous week and it is, because the people in Liverpool really understand and respect live entertainment… I feel this partly comes from The Playhouse heritage and all the other fantastic theatres Liverpool has to offer…it’s very unlikely that it will ever die here”.
Is it any wonder that our respected and prolific Artistic Director, Conrad Nelson, is himself home grown Liverpudlian talent? Not to mention our brilliant clown, Mike Hugo…
Conrad Nelson and Mike Hugo
From actor Lisa Howard, Anthea in They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!:
“The first thing that hits you is the energy of the city itself; busy, bold, confident. Its dramatic and imperial architecture loom and impress. But the people are its life blood and they display a more earthy panache.
Liverpudlian audiences remind me of Belfast audiences; they are there to engage with the actor and each other, and to participate in the occasion. They have presence. They bubble with humour; they offer their own wit and are open to what you offer them as a guest performer in their city. It seems that every Liverpudlian has comic timing and the ability to tell a tale or crack a joke. You have to be on your mettle when performing for Scousers. Their honest reactions would tell you in a shot if they thought your delivery were awry or the sentiment was not to their taste.
Their appreciation of humour, solidarity and pride has made performing ‘They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!’ in Liverpool a real and relevant joy.”
Jemma and I first met during a rep season at the fantastic New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under-Lyme. Our company took on 4 main house plus 12 “table plays” inspired by the Staffordshire Hoard of Anglo Saxon treasure, discovered in 2009. Akin to Liverpool, the people of Stoke take ownership, pride and delight in their local theatre in the round. Actors and freelance technicians feel lucky to be there.
To close, I’d like to introduce you to another phenomenal female in the arts. Jemma’s recently departed and exceptionally talented sister, Polly Churchill.
Polly and Jemma
An established children’s TV writer, Polly also wrote several adult theatre plays. One of which, won a south London theatre competition this summer.
“Aspidistra Resistance, is autobiographical, set during WW11 Liverpool and involves our Grandmother, Margery, who had a relationship with a woman during this time, whilst our Grandfather was away with the troops. They slept in the same bed for 4 years and my mother (Pauline) was brought up by two women. It jumps in time between 1940s Liverpool and the relationship between Margery and Pat and what happened after the war when my Grandad came back.” The piece also takes us to 1970s London and the relationship (taking some artistic licence) between Jemma’s mother and father.
Margery and Pat
“It explores the sexual revolution and what is right for the child, that’s what my sister was interested in”.
While Polly was ill, Jemma found a photograph of their grandmother in the Lake District and “she was beaming and looking happy for the first time…I’d never seen her smile, she actually looked joyous and free. I showed this picture to my sister and I said, ‘she’s standing next to Pat’.
Sadly, their relationship couldn’t continue – it was, after all, post war Liverpool and Margery was not part of the theatre community. The play goes on to trace the child’s story (Pauline, as outlined above), moving to Polly in 1998 who is struggling with infertility and taking on the challenge of IVF.
Polly wrote this full length play when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A reflection, perhaps, on ancestral connections and those who paved the way for us. Jemma hopes to produce and direct the play in the near future.
What an incredible history. Grandmother, Mother, Daughters, Sisters all managing to find and embrace a truth within themselves, no matter the obstacle, no matter the time.
It was a privilege to share in your story Jemma. Thank you from all of us at Broadsides xxxx