An Interview With Juliette Kaplan – PART ONE

Recently, the Summer Winos were delighted to be afforded the opportunity to sit down for a chat with Last of the Summer Wine’s Juliette Kaplan. Juliette, of course, played the stoney faced and long suffering Pearl opposite Robert Fyfe’s Howard for many years, but in complete contrast to her character is fun, cheeky, approachable and full of energy. In this first instalment of a two-part interview, we find out how she got into the business and how she came to be cast in the series.

Tell us a little bit about your background – I know you were born in Bournemouth, but you seemed to move around a lot as a child. Why was that?

My father was from South Africa – he was in the navy. All of my mother’s friends saw this dashing young man, and introduced him to my mother! They got married, and when I was six months old I was taken to South Africa to live. But I should say that he was no good, so they divorced when I was three…

A turbulent childhood, then?

Well we hadn’t heard of child psychology back then, so although I was meant to be traumatised by all this, I wasn’t. I loved it. I went to seventeen different schools! My parents were divorced, but my father had a strange habit of taking me out of schools and disappearing with me. So my mother thought it was best if I went to a convent school – The Priory, in Port Elizabeth. I was the only Jewish girl there! I remember sitting on a bed one day with my cousin Ruth, and we’d been told that there were a lot of tarantulas and snakes in the environment. And, that if we felt anything odd, just to sit perfectly still. And I felt something on my back… it crawled up over my head, over my face, and onto my shoulder. Yes, it was a tarantula. Ruth walked into the dormitory, grabbed my pyjamas, and just flicked it off. To this day I still remember that.

We came back from South Africa when I was about five, but my mother couldn’t settle in England, so we went back there when I was six and stayed until I was nine. My mother had been a nurse, but was also working as a secretary, and the firm she was working for in Johannesburg transferred her to their office in New York. So off we went! I absolutely loved it. New York made me what I am today. It carved my character… outgoing, brattish… (laughs)

When would this have been?

This was the late 1940s. We came back to the UK in 1951. My mother had been asked to move to San Francisco, but bottled out. A shame. We then came back to England, but by that time I was too old to take the Eleven Plus, so they sent me to a Secondary Modern school. And I hated it.

Was moving back to England a culture shock?

I just took everything in my stride. ‘We’re moving to South Africa? Yeah, fine!’. One thing did upset me though… I was an avid reader from the age of three, but before we went to South Africa for the second time, my mother made me pack up all my books and take them to the local children’s home. I never, ever forgave her! God rest her soul. Apart from that, I loved all the travelling. My first spell in South Africa was during wartime, and I had to carry a life jacket and – I think – a gas-mask around at all times. I thought it was so exciting! Maybe we’d get torpedoed and rescued…

Was it your mother who first suggested you went to drama school?

Well, I was a pathological liar. The stories I told at school! There would be concerned phone calls to my mother, because there’d been a fire where we were living, I’d raced through the flames to save people,  I’d saved a child from drowning, I’d fought off a vicious dog. They’d phone my mother, and of course none of it was true! But she said to me… these are stories, and you know they’re not true, but why not write them down and act them out? She wasn’t the sort of person who’d say ‘Don’t do it again, or I’ll beat the living daylights out of you’.

Added to which, when we came back from South Africa I was talking like this (Juliette does a splendid South African accent), and when we came back from New York I was talking like this, from Brooklyn you know (again, it’s a belter!)… and my mother wanted me to have a good English accent, so she sent me to elocution lessons. And from there I became a lady (laughs).

So is the voice you have now natural, or do you still have to think about it?

No… I’ve always had nasal tones! When we were in South Africa, I saw a couple of films staring Margaret O’Brien, who was a child actress, who – apparently – I looked like. She had her hair parted in the middle with platts, as I did. I went to see one of her films at the age of seven or eight, and that was when I realised I wanted to become an actress. And from then on, nothing ever swayed me. And my mother said that I could become an actress, but first of all I’d have to get a teaching qualification.

To have something to fall back on?

Yes, but I was the world’s worst teacher! I’d rather have worked at Woolworths… which was actually one of my jobs. Or I’d do waitressing and chambermaiding, because in my day there weren’t any grants – if you wanted to go anywhere, you had to pay for it. But we had a small drama school in Bournemouth, the Hampshire School of Drama, and I went there as an afternoon student. So I could work in the mornings, from 7.30 to 1pm, as a chambermaid, a sales girl, a telephone operator, you name it… and it paid my way through drama school, so I could get my diplomas.

So from drama school, what were you initial steps into acting for a living?

Rep. Our drama school was attached to an agent called Vincent Shaw, who used to work with… oh, who was the woman from Mrs Dale’s DiaryJessie… Matthews?

That rings a bell…

Don’t pretend you’d know!

I know Mrs Dale’s Diary, I do!

You’re far too young! Anyway, I went into drama school one day, having done my exams, and the teacher handed me an envelope with my name and the letters LGSNANEA after them. I thought wow, I’ve passed! The next thing I knew, I had a call from Vincent Shaw saying ‘The script’s arrived for you, and you’re due in Llandudno to do a play called Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary?. And that was my first step into the business. Actually, having said that, I’m telling lies… there was a small company in Bournemouth that made religious documentary films, and I played Salome for them, in His Name Was John. And a refugee in a film called And It Came To Pass. That was when I realised that I loved the camera. Added to which, I’m a devout coward and would far rather my performance was in the can before an audience sees it!

So did you see acting in rep as a step towards getting back in front of the cameras?

No. It was a job. People talk about whether you’re successful in the business, and I get a lot of people asking me how they can get to ‘the top’… and I tell them that if they’re working, they’re a success. Nine out of ten people in our business are out of work at any given time. And all I did was carry on in rep… meeting a lot of eligible young men, because their mothers had heard there was an unmarried Jewish girl in town! And, eventually, that was how I met my husband. I was sent to Margate to do a play in 1958, and didn’t have a job to go to afterwards, so asked if they’d keep me on. Which they did, as an assistant stage manager. Getting two pounds 19 shillings and ninepence a week, I think… (pauses) No! I lie! I started off on five pounds!

The big money!

The big money… and then when they put me on a contract, it went up to eight pounds. And then I started having children… three in three years before I found out what was causing it! So I learned how to play bridge instead (laughs). I left the Theatre Royal when I was six months pregnant, my last play was The Diary of Anne Frank. And I played Anne Frank! Six months pregnant, and nobody knew.

Unfortunately, in 1981, my husband died. I was 42 at the time, and I was thrown into his business… which was nothing to do with the theatre; he ran gift shops. I tried to run them, but then I had a call from my ex-agent, asking if I could go across to Folkestone for a meeting about a play. I thought ‘I can’t do this… it’s ridiculous’. I was involved with a chain of eleven gift shops. So as I was driving over, I thought that if they offered me the job, I’d say no. But they didn’t… they just gave me the script, and said ‘rehearsals start next Monday’.

So it was a foregone conclusion?

Yep. And then one day my agent phoned, and asked if I could go to London for an audition for a touring play. I was in a filthy mood at the time, and said to let them know that I couldn’t make it. My husband had died, I’d taken over the business, I had to see my accountant… but she said ‘Oh come on, it’s tomorrow evening…’. So I did. I walked into the audition room, and the lady doing the interviewing was very charming. And I’m not a ‘charming’ sort of person! If somebody’s charming to me, I think they’ve got a hidden agenda. She said ‘can you do a Yorkshire accent?’ and I said (angrily) ‘Well I am an actress!’. In that tone of voice. She said ‘This part calls for an aggressive actress…’, and I said ‘GIVE ME THE SCRIPT!’ (laughs)

I read the script, and it was a play called Last of the Summer Wine, and it was going on tour before playing in Bournemouth, on the pier, for the summer season. I went home, and the next day they called me up and gave me a recall. I slammed the phone down, drove back to London and said ‘Look – I can’t go charging up and down the motorway like this, either you want me or you don’t want me’. By the time I got home, I’d been offered the part! And I thought ‘This is very strange…’ It involved being in Bournemouth, which was where I came from, it was a lady called Pearl, which was my mother’s name… all very odd. But I only got it because another actress had turned it down. And during that season, Alan Bell – the director of the TV series – and Roy Clarke, the writer, came down to see the play, and invited me, Robert Fyfe and Jean Fergusson to join the series. I couldn’t quite believe it. I told my family, and my son said ‘Who’s going to look after the shop?’ (laughs). I thought ‘To hell with the bloody shop!’

So had you been familiar with the show prior to that?

No. I’d never heard of it. I went to rehearsal, and said to one of the girls ‘That man looks familiar… would I know him?’ She said ‘That’s Peter Sallis. Oh, and that’s Bill Owen…’ I had no idea.

Did that help at all? Would it have been more daunting had you been familiar with the cast and the show?

I think you’re right. To me, it was just a play that was going to Bournemouth for the summer. It’s the first time I’ve thought about that, but yes… you’re right, that would have been daunting. Even when they played me the music, I’d never heard it before! This was in 1984, and the show had started in 1973. So I was kind of the new girl. But they booked me to do one scene in one episode, in 1984, and the following year – out of the blue – I got scripts sent through. So I called the Summer Wine office, and said…

‘Hello, it’s Juliette Kaplan here’
‘Yeah, what do you want?’
‘Well, I’ve got some scripts’
‘Yeah. But what do you want?
‘Well… does that mean I’m in it?
‘Yes!’

No agreement, no contract, but I was in every episode from then until the end. As well as doing tours and pantomimes.

When you join an established programme like that, the existing cast will presumably be set into a rhythm of production, and be very familiar with each other and how they work together. As a new girl, was it difficult to find that rhythm?

No. But I can’t remember if that was sheer ignorance! We would rehearse each day at the studios in Acton, and then record in front of the public. That frightened the hell out of me. I thought ‘A live audience? What happens if I go wrong?’. But Kathy Staff came up to me, put her arms around me, and said ‘You’re frightened aren’t you?’. I said ‘Yes, I’m terrified’. She gave me a big hug, and said ‘If it goes wrong, the audience will love it… that’s what they’ve come for’. So that was the welcome I got. Lovely.

So instantly part of the fold, then?

Yes. I became very friendly with Jane Freeman – I still am – and I asked her once how everyone had felt about us all coming in, like usurpers. And she said that they’d had to expand the cast to give Roy Clarke more material to work with. It was fine with them. I wonder if I might have been a bit snotty in the same situation… although no, I don’t think so. The scripts went out, and we all just said ‘Let’s get on with it… let’s have fun’. Love it.

What were your first reactions to the character of Pearl? Was she someone you could identify with? Had you met people like her before?

At that stage, Pearl was a bit nervous. She was worried. Her first episode was Catching Digby’s Donkey, and she came into the café, saying ‘I’m very worried about Howard, I think he’s got somebody…’. Then over the years, without my realising, she became more knowing and cool and sarcastic. But I didn’t realise that was happening.  People would say to me ‘Do you mind going on TV looking so horrible?’ but I loved it! I was partly responsible for Pearl wearing the turban and the beret… have you seen her in those?

A turban?

You haven’t watched it, have you?

Of course, I just can’t place a turban!

Yes, for her housework! Stop pretending you knew…

I wouldn’t have described at as a turban, but I know what you mean now!

Pearl’s turban in action.

They actually gave me a wig from stock, and it used to flap at the back… so every time the wind blew, my wig came off! So it was my idea to anchor it with either a turban or a beret. And when the rushes came back after the first day, Alan Bell said that I looked too young. I thought ‘Oh my god, I’ve lost the part before I’ve started…’ So I suggested wearing glasses. And that’s really how Pearl, as we know her, came into being.

So it started off as a practical decision, but did that help solidify the character in your mind?

The costume and the make-up helped, but really I just fell into her. And then you start establishing the relationships, too… I became very friendly with Robert Fyfe, and Jean, and Sarah Thomas who played Glenda. And then gradually we all just became a kind of family. Although years later, when June Whitfield came in and I was playing opposite her… then, I had a gulp. I thought ‘June Whitfield’s a star… they’re going to find out that I can’t act!’. I was totally overawed by that. But I met so many famous people coming in to do guest appearances, and they were all so friendly.

Maybe they were in the same frame of mind as well, though? In awe of you lot?

I don’t think they were in awe of us, but Summer Wine had a certain cache, and people like John Cleese, like George Chakiris  – I’m sure I’m forgetting thousands more here – wanted to do it. They’d come in, and we’d meet them, and it’s very strange with people at the very top of their profession… you hardly ever find that they’re drama queens. They don’t have to be. On the whole, they’re so secure that they don’t have to be vicious or snide.

I’ve heard similar things about other shows.

What do you do, then?

I teach at a university at the moment, and I’m in the process of writing my second book, about the history of the Muppets, of all things! And a lot of the people I’ve spoken to for that say the same thing… it was a show with lots of big-name guests, and they just dropped all pretence of ego and stardom and got on with it.

What was your first book?

It was about the Marx Brothers…

Really? Fantastic! How much work did it take? I’m in the middle of writing my memoirs at the moment…

On and off, about two years, I guess.

That’s marvellous – I do admire you. My daughter teaches film and photography at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.

That’s a bit more glamorous than Sunderland!

Well as a good mother, I feel it’s my duty to go out there as much as possible and make sure she’s alright… (laughs) No, it’s interesting to see how other people earn their living. I always threatened my children that if they went into the acting business, I’d break every bone in their body! You don’t want that kind of rejection when you’re young, going up for parts and not getting them. I’ve just been very lucky.

Did any of your children go into your husband’s gift shop business?

No – my son became a scientist, working in medical research. The human genome! One of my daughters manages the Empire casino in Leicester Square, and the other is in the West Indies.

They’ve found their own paths, then.

Absolutely. Mind, my two granddaughters want to go into the acting profession, and I’ve made the same threats to them! It won’t make any difference, though.

We have no idea where this picture comes from, but we love it.

How is the autobiography coming along?

Well… I have a very particular writing style, which is that I write as I talk. I’ve written about 15,000 words now. But I’ve only got up to aged seven! Later this year I’m going to visit my family in South Africa, and I’m going to get on with it while I’m there. I’ve got a tiny laptop, and I’ve promised myself I’m going to work on it. Although I might be touring – I don’t know yet. Roy Clarke has actually been tempted out of retirement. Hopefully, we might even see Last of the Summer Wine re-emerging!

Really? That’s interesting…

__________________________________________
And on that bombshell, we’ll simply say, “To Be Continued…”.

Be sure to check back with us for the concluding installment when we reach Pearl’s debut episode, “Catching Digby’s Donkey”, during series eight. Until then, you can get your fix of all things Kaplan at www.juliettekaplan.com

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Barbara Shaw on June 7, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    That would be great to have more Last of the Summer Wine.

    Reply

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