TV actress opens Suffolk acting classes

She's been an actress since she was a young girl now Pauline Quirke is setting up a new acting academy in West Suffolk to help give youngsters confidence and fun at the same time.

Andrew Clarke

She's been an actress since she was a young girl now Pauline Quirke is setting up a new acting academy in West Suffolk to help give youngsters confidence and fun at the same time. She spoke to Arts Editor Andrew Clarke.

Her career took flight when she appeared as Sharon in the long-running BBC sitcom Birds of a Feather, she's been seen as a brutal killer in The Sculptress and even an Angel in the nursing soap from the 1980s but now Pauline Quirke is busily opening up a series of new drama schools which she hopes will provide an entertaining way of boosting youngsters' confidence.

This weekend she will be in Bury St Edmunds opening the latest of her Pauline Quirke Academies where young people from five to 18 can come, develop friendships and enjoy learning theatre skills which can stand them in good stead for later life.

The prompt for this is not only the fact that she is a mother of teenage children herself but she still suffers from what she describes as “terrible stage fright” whenever she has to do anything live - resulting in the fact that she rarely does live shows or chat shows in front of an audience.

She hopes that children attending her drama schools won't have to endure the awful shyness and stage fright that she still endures when she has to talk as herself before an audience.

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Her revelation is particularly surprising because Pauline Quirke is this year celebrating 40 years in showbusiness, having made her debut television appearance in Dixon of Dock Green at the tender age of eight. Then in 1976, she and best pal Linda Robson, Tracey from Birds of a Feather, landed their first TV series Pauline's Quirkes which became Pauline's People when they turned teenagers.

Roles for the pair arrived in long-running series Shine on Harvey Moon in 1982 before Birds of a Feather took off in 1989. So it is surprising that live appearances as herself still provide her with sleepless nights.

“If we are recording that's fine,” she explains, “But if it's live. I really don't like it and to be honest, turn down a lot of show's like that.”

She said that the academies have really taken off since she opened her first one near her home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, last September. Bury St Edmunds is the eighth location and there are two others opening elsewhere this month and plans to open another in Cambridge later on in the year.

She said that her idea for the academies came after her daughter attended the Bristol Old Vice Theatre School and she was impressed with what she got out of the experience.

“My son, who is ten, also attended the technical programme there in the summer holidays. I got talking to two people there Sarah Counsel and Simon James Green and they have designed all the modules - all the things we do - at the academy. I had done workshops with kids in the past, and I always said I would go back and do some more, so having met these guys, I thought now's the time to stop talking about it - just go out and do it.”

She said that she is aware that there are several different acting or musical theatre schools out there but maintains that the Pauline Quirke Academy is coming from a personal development angle rather than trying to find the next child to play Oliver Twist or Billy Elliott in the West End.

“I do think that we are becoming rather obsessed in this country with the whole fame thing and I felt that we needed to get back to basics. We don't run an agency or anything like that, we don't audition children and we don't have any big end of term productions. We don't do shows because kids already do them at school and more importantly if we did big shows kids will be spending all their time learning lines rather than coming to us and enjoying themselves.

“Also we don't want anyone to get panicky about this show - also some children will get the big parts and others could feel that they have been sidelined or forgotten and we don't want that. The whole ethos of the academy is fun not fame.”

She said that the events take place on Saturday mornings and are divided into three one hour sessions. The first deals with aspects of drama and comedy, before onto song and dance in musical theatre before finishing up tackling skills needed for film and television work.

“The great thing about musical theatre as a subject is that it combines singing and dancing as a unified whole. Having got a 13 year old boy myself I know that boys, in particular, find dance, by itself, extremely embarrassing - they are very self-conscious about it and would rather have their eyes cut out that have to do a dance in front of a class. We don't it like that - we do scenes from shows like Rocky Horror Show, Godspell that sort of thing so it feels like they are performing in a show and not being made to look foolish in front of their friends. It's slightly more disguised.”

She said that at present 40% of children at her academies were boys - a high percentage - and at her Beaconsfield Academy in the 13 and above age group boys actually outnumber girls which, she says, is unheard of elsewhere.

She said that a lot of sessions are based on improvisation which allow the kids to take ownership of what they do, it means they don't have to learn lines and it fires up their imagination.

She said that they are not a stepping stone to stage school and this is another reason why they don't do an end-of-term production. “What we do do is a showcase twice-a-year, so that parents can come along and see what their children get up to on a Saturday.”

She said that she was opening up an Academy in Bury St Edmunds because the principal tutor Lynne Kentish comes from the area and thought there was a need for their services in the town.

She said that they recruited their principals from adverts in The Stage and like Lynne are trained actresses who feel they are in a position to give something back to the community.

“Also it's great to have an Academy in Suffolk because I loved the area when I was down here 12 years ago filming David Copperfield in Southwold. In fact at one point I was determined to buy somewhere in the north of the county by the sea.

“I found myself in an estate agents in Southwold and phoned my husband Steve about buying a place and he told me to turn round and walk straight out - so we never did get anywhere but I was really tempted.” She pauses for a second before adding “Even more so when I saw my hero Delia Smith. I was brought up on Delia's recipes - I love all cooking shows, I'm a real television cooking junkie but Delia is still Queen of the Kitchen as far as I am concerned.”

In fact Pauline will shortly be demonstrating her culinary skills when she appears on Ready, Steady Cook with her old pal Linda Robson. But before then, tomorrow night, she will be starring in an episode of My Family with Robert Lindsey and Zoe Wanamaker when she plays an enterprising burgler.

When I point this out to her she sounds surprised. “I'd almost forgotten about that. We recorded that at the end of last year, before Christmas, it's so easy to lose track of these things. I've been so busy with setting the academies that everything else gets to go out the window.

“But, its always great as far as the kids are concerned because they have no idea who I am - why should they? I'm just this mad, fat, middle-aged lady who makes the teas and coffees. Then suddenly I'm on the telly and they start looking at me differently, out of the corner of their eyes. They're not quite sure if it's really me or someone who looks like me.”

Of her own work Birds of a Feather obviously holds a special place because it turned her into a household name but it is The Sculptress is the work of which she remains most proud.

It told the story of Olive Martin, a heavily overweight young woman, who is convicted of horribly killing her mother and sister and is sentenced to life imprisonment. However, when author Rosalind Leigh (Caroline Goodall) is assigned to write a book about her life, she is soon convinced of Olive's innocence. However, all is not what is seems.

“It was very well made and they showed it on a Saturday and Sunday and then parts three and four on the next Saturday and Sunday which, at the time, was very, very unusual and it just captured people's imagination.”

The Pauline Quirke Academy - Bury St. Edmunds - Open Day will be held at 11am on Saturday April 19 at St. Benedict's Catholic School, Beetons Way, Bury St. Edmunds. It first classes will be held on May 3. A three-hour session will cost £22.50. To register interest please visit www.pqacademy.com or call 084567 32022.

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