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Judy's latest touch of fate; Historic events run hand in hand with Judy Cornwell's career, says Alison Jones.

Big things happen when actors Brian Murphy, Victor Spinnetti and Judy Cornwell get together.

When they took the original production of Oh What A Lovely War to Paris in 1963 the Profumo Scandal had just broken.

When they returned to star in it at the Wyndham's theatre in London, President Kennedy was shot.

And they were together again appearing in You're Only Young Twice, an old fashioned comedy about pensioners behaving badly, on September 11 this year.

In the superstitious world of theatre Judy has to admit that there is something a little spooky going on.

'I guess when we are all together we should learn to watch out,' she laughs, trying to make light of these rather eerie coincidences.

'I remember I was watching CNN waiting to go back into the theatre when the World Trade Centre was hit and you just couldn't believe it was happening.

'My son, who lives in LA, was in a terrible state because he was looking at a picture that we'd had taken a few years ago when my husband and I had visited him and we had all gone to the top of one of the towers.

'I am normally afraid of heights but I had felt quite safe up there. As I looked down at all the Christmas lights in New York I remember thinking 'God this must be the richest and most powerful country in the world'.'

Some quick alterations had to be made to the play before the show could go on that night.

'We took out an awful lot of lines where we were making jokes about airlines because we didn't want to upset anyone. Those have stayed out.

'There is actually a moment in it where one of the characters says 'I don't remember where I was when JFK was shot'. Of course we all do and for young people today September 11 was their JFK.'

As the wife of a journalist Judy was getting the inside scoop about the presidential assassination as she and her fellow actors performed back in 1963.

'My husband was in Fleet Street and I was on the phone to him as the details were coming through on ticker tape - there was no e-mail then.

'We didn't tell the audience but we could feel the murmuring. It was just ironic that we happened to be appearing in this anti-war play and talking about the assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand just as we were hearing about the assassination of Kennedy.'

With the Cuban Crisis still fresh in their memories, Judy admits they feared this could trigger the start of another World War.

'We were very scared kids. We all thought we were going to get nuked and we were terrified that Governments would start throwing big bombs at each other.'

The fall out from the Profumo Affair was far more pleasurable as it meant the actors were treated like national heroes when they arrived in France.

'The French were thrilled to death because they were usually the ones that had the sex scandals. They were so excited the British had finally had one that they were all cheering and shouting.

'When we opened in the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre every single seat was full and we had people like Marlene Dietrich sitting in the front row.'

It is not surprising that Judy associates so many world changing events with being on stage as she has hardly been off it since she was 15.

She made her debut at Seaford Amateur Theatre, shocking her headmistress who read in a paper that her young pupil was to play a vamp.

Judy had trained to be a dancer and by the time she was teenager was running her own business as student dancing teacher.

'I got the chance to do a warm up with the Bolshoi Ballet Company who had come over to England. After seeing them I just thought 'Oh wow, there is no way I'm going to be as good as that' so I pulled out of dance and went into knock about comedy.'

She met Victor Spinnetti when she was 16 and they were in a non-stop review together in London.

'I was doing song and dance routines, Victor was doing comedy and Ronnie Corbett had a mime act. We did six shows a day and had to eat in the dressing rooms in between.'

To gain acting experience she joined a repertory company where she worked as a student Assistant Stage Manager, earning pounds 1.10s a week which she supplemented with money from doing musicals and summer shows.

After that she was put under contract to Granada television's rep company where she worked with a young John Thaw.

'Those were the days when they used to nurse young writers along and things got written by a person not by a committee.

'I really think we have seen the best of television. It is entirely different now, everything is accountancy driven.

'Accountants were never meant to run things like television companies and theatres, they were just meant to keep the books for them.

'The problem is it is all about the cost of everything without knowing the worth of anything.'

Judy holds the unusual honour of being in the first show to take the Emmy award away from America, receiving it for a two hander called Call Me Daddy that she did with Donald Pleasance.

She was also hugely popular as Miss Pegg in the series Moody and Pegg and she played Mrs Claus in Santa Claus: The Movie which she made with Dudley Moore.

In addition Judy, who lives in Brighton, is a respected author with four novels to her credit.

However, the role that has led to her being recognised all over the world and for which she still receives sackloads of mail, is that of Daisy, wife of Onslow and sister of Hyacinth Bucket, in Keeping Up Appearances.

When this theatrical tour ends she will going straight to America to appear on chat shows where she will talk about the series.

'I think it has been one of the BBC's most successful products that they have sold to other countries. I can't go to an airport without someone saying 'it's Daisy'.

'I think its success is due to the fact that Roy Clarke wrote about archetypes. The snob, the slob, the eternal romantic. I think there is a bit of each of them in all of us.'

Judy realised how big a hit the show had become after she went to do a play in Australia and when she stepped into the spotlight she was confronted by three rows full of Onslows and Daisys.

'The men had all got peaked caps and string vests on and the women had daisies all in their hair and on their tights. I nearly fell off the stage. Afterwards they gave me a comb with daisies stuck all over it which I still have.'

Her travels through America will eventually lead her to California where her son lives and works.

'He used to be a businessman but now he is an actor and writer. He always said that he would never go into it but when he did he told me he was going to go where the money is, which is very sensible.

'He sometimes goes into a rage and tells me if I'd had worked in America as much as I'd worked over here I would be rich enough to have mansions all over the place by now.'

You're Only Young Twice is on at Wolverhampton Grand from today until Saturday.


Judy Cornwell is familiar from Keeping Up Appearances on TV, but her heart belongs to the stage
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 29, 2001
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