Richard, an only child, was born in Middlesbrough in 1943. Her parents, Henry and Beatrice Reay (née Cutter) Emerton, were publicans and ran the Corporation Hotel in the town. Emerton and Cutter married in Paddington in 1939. While Richard was a baby, her family moved to Bournemouth. They later moved to the Isle of Wight and then to London, where they ran the Shepherds Tavern in Shepherd Market, where Elizabeth Taylor and Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon are said to have been customers. Richard attended the local primary school, St George’s, but her education was interrupted when her family moved again, this time to the Valentine Hotel at Gants Hill, then in Essex, now in Greater London. Another move, to the Streatham Park Hotel in south London, followed a few months later. It was there, in December 1954, that Richard’s father committed suicide. Wendy, then 11, found his body. Her mother Beatrice never remarried, and died of liver cancer in May 1972.
Richard was enrolled at the Royal Masonic School for Girls at Rickmansworth after her father’s death, as Henry had been a Freemason, and help with fees was provided by the organisation. But she found the school rather “strict,” and her art mistress called her paintings and drawings “affected, rather like herself.” Richard dreamed of becoming a TV continuity girl or film star from a young age and, after leaving school at 15, helped to pay her way though the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London by working in the fashion department at Fortnum and Mason. It was at that time that she decided to change her surname to Richard, because “it was short and neat.” While at the Italia Conti, Richard appeared on television with Sammy Davis, Jr. in the ATV programme Sammy Meets the Girls, and also in No Hiding Place.
Richard first became familiar to TV audiences playing Joyce Harker, a regular in the BBC’s 1960s soap opera The Newcomers. She appeared in Dad’s Army (first as Edith Parrish, and later as Private Walker’s girlfriend Shirley), Up Pompeii!, and The Likely Lads. Richard’s first appearance in a television series was as a teenager in Stranger on the Shore, which debuted in 1961. The theme tune of the series was the Acker Bilk clarinet solo of the same name. In 1962, Richard’s distinctive cockney vocals helped get her to No. 1 on the UK singles chart with the single Come Outside by Mike Sarne. Richard appears in a scene cut from the released version of The Beatles movie Help! (1965).
In 1965, Richard appeared in an early black-and-white episode of “The Likely Lads,” as a household cleaner saleswoman called Lynn. She also had a bit part the same year in the episode “Don’t Nail Him Yet” of Danger Man (aka Secret Agent) with Patrick McGoohan. Richard’s first soap role was as teenage supermarket till girl Joyce Harker in The Newcomers, which ran on BBC1 from 1965 to 1969. She appeared in the 1970s sitcom Are You Being Served? as Miss Shirley Brahms, a shop assistant with a heavy Cockney accent. (Richard also appeared in the Are You Being Served? sequel Grace & Favour in 1992 and 1993; the programme was syndicated in the United States under the title Are You Being Served? Again!). Richard appeared in two Carry On films, playing a small role in Carry On Matron and a supporting part in Carry On Girls (both Carry On films also featured her future EastEnders co-star Barbara Windsor.) Her other film roles included No Blade of Grass (1970), Gumshoe (1971) starring Albert Finney, and the film versions of On The Buses (1971), Bless This House (1972), and Are You Being Served? (1977).
Richard subsequently found continued success as heroine and matriarch Pauline Fowler on the BBC soap opera EastEnders, a role she played from the first episode in 1985 until the character’s death at Christmas 2006. On 10 July 2006, the BBC announced that Richard had decided to leave EastEnders after nearly 22 years on the show. An interview with The Sun revealed that problems with the EastEnders storyline (primarily Pauline’s marriage to Joe Macer) were the main cause of her departure. In 2007, Richard was awarded a British Soap Award for ‘Lifetime Achievement’ for her role in EastEnders.
Richard appeared regularly on the BBC Radio programme Just a Minute from 1989 until 1994. She returned for further appearances in 2002 and 2003. In 2000, Richard was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. In late 2006, Richard was seen as a guest presenter on the BBC’s City Hospital series and on 31 March 2007, she presented the documentary A Tribute to John Inman, for BBC2. She also gave interviews for the first time in a number of years, making appearances on The Paul O’Grady Show, Big Brother’s Little Brother, Loose Women, Parkinson, and the Biography Channel special Gloria’s Greats with Gloria Hunniford, amongst others.
In April 2007, Richard announced that she would be appearing in a new role for the first time since leaving EastEnders, in a new sitcom penned by David Croft called Here Comes The Queen. The project came about after she personally asked Croft to write something for her. Richard had commented: “The part is like an older version of Miss Brahms.” In September 2007, it was announced that Richard was to join the second series of ITV1’s sitcom Benidorm playing a “loud-mouthed, rude” wheelchair-bound character; the episodes aired in 2008. In January 2008, adverts for The Post Office featuring Richard (as a human cannonball) began to be shown. In February, she landed the role of Mrs. Crump in the episode “A Pocket Full of Rye” of the Agatha Christie’s Marple TV series starring Julia McKenzie. This was to be her final role, airing in 2009.
Richard was married four times. Her first marriage was to a music publisher, Len Blach, in 1972, which lasted just five months. For six years she lived with an advertising director, Will Thorpe; though her co-stars on Are You Being Served? were aware that he physically beat her, she married Thorpe in 1980, finally leaving him after 18 months of marriage. Her third marriage, to Paul Glorney, a carpet fitter, took place in Westminster, London. That marriage ended in divorce four years later. Richard later lived with John Burns, a painter and decorator 20 years her junior, in the Marylebone area of London. They lived together from 1996 until her death and married on 10 October 2008 at a hotel in London’s Mayfair. She had no children. Richard was a supporter of the Conservative Party. During the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, Richard was a frequent and conspicuous supporter of Thatcher’s policies and accomplishments. At one point the EastEnders scriptwriters gave Richard a script in which Pauline Fowler launched into a tirade against Thatcher, and Richard refused to perform it.
Richard’s agent, Kevin Francis, reported she had died on 26 February 2009 of breast cancer, aged 65, at a clinic, Harley Street, London. Her husband, John Burns, was at her bedside. Francis said: “She was incredibly brave and retained her sense of humour right to the end.” On the day of her death, that evening’s episode of EastEnders and a memorial programme, both dedicated to Richard, were broadcast on BBC One. Actor Bill Treacher, Richard’s on-screen husband Arthur Fowler in EastEnders, said the actress was a “true professional.” Richard’s funeral, on 9 March 2009 at St Marylebone Parish Church, was attended by many in the media industry and many fans. She was later cremated at a private service at Golders Green Crematorium. It was reported the actress had already planned her funeral and written her will. In July 2009, David Croft, the creator of Are You Being Served?, unveiled a Heritage Foundation commemorative plaque at The Shepherds Tavern in London, which Richard’s parents had run. A number of entertainers were there to pay their respects on the occasion.
- July, 20, 1943
- United Kingdom
- Middlesbrough, North Riding of Yorkshire
- February, 26, 2009
- United Kingdom
- London, England
Cause of Death
- breast cancer