Should you find yourself in Mansfield over the winter season and you see Sue Holderness walking down the street, don’t be afraid to shout “Marlene!” at her.
The actress who’s playing the Wicked Queen in the town’s pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs won’t be insulted that you still think of her as Marlene Boyce from Only Fools and Horses, described by Sue as “the biggest tart in south east London”.
ue spoke to me as rehearsals were starting for the panto and told me how playing Marlene changed her life, how she’s frightened of getting dementia and what she’ll be doing next year on her 70th birthday.
Sue and Marlene could hardly be different. Sue comes over as charming, educated and well-spoken, talking quickly and enthusiastically about life and her career.
The character of Marlene was supposed to be in the television sitcom for only one episode. Del Boy and Rodney were to look after the Boyces’ dog while they were on holiday and Marlene delivered the animal to the two brothers.
“John Sullivan wrote such a wonderful scene for my handing over the dog that a couple of weeks later he rang up and said ‘we’ve decided we like Marlene and she’s coming back’. So thank you John Sullivan because it’s been a joy.”
Sue played Marlene from 1984 until the final episode of Only Fools and Horses in 2003. She and on-screen husband John Challis – dodgy second-hand car dealer Boycie – then starred in the spin-off ‘The Green Green Grass’ which ran for four series and three Christmas specials.
Hardly surprising that people still address her as Marlene – yet she says she loves it.
“If John Sullivan were still around and writing, I would like to be playing Marlene until I shuffle off this mortal coil or am staggering around on my zimmer frame because he wrote wonderful lines for us.”
She explains the enduring popularity of Only Fools and Horses: “None of the characters swear, they don’t drink and drive, they don’t take drugs – it’s proper family viewing that’s just fun. There’s not very much of that about.”
Only Fools and Horses was life-changing to such an extent that Sue never has to audition for a part.
“Aren’t I lucky? I haven’t had to audition for many moons thanks to Marlene. When I got the role in 1984 I thought it was just going to be one day’s work. Now I seem to be able to do plays and pantomimes and not have to audition simply because they can say ‘Sue Marlene Holderness’ and think people might come along.
“I’m going to be 70 next year, still working, and that can’t be said of an awful lot of actors my age because it’s hard out there. There are an awful lot of us who really don’t want to retire but there aren’t enough parts for us all, so I’m lucky that I keep getting offered them.”
Susan Joan Pringle Holderness was born on 28 May 1949 in Hampstead. She trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London and has worked consistently in theatre, radio, film and television.
Her first taste of pantomime came in 1974. She took a break for about 14 years while her children were growing up but couldn’t wait to return.
“I came back with a vengeance and you can’t stop me now! I love it. Some people are scathing about pantomime and I don’t know why. You can’t get away with pantomime if you can’t do the work. You’ve got to be able to sing and dance and remember your lines.
“The wonderful thing about pantomime is you get the reward all the time from the audience. If you don’t get it right it’s quiet. If you’re getting it right they’re booing and hissing.”
Sue thinks Snow White is one of the best pantos. She’s appeared in it nine or ten times because the character she’s playing is “gloriously wicked”.
She adds: “I think it’s a particularly good pantomime for little ones because the story’s so sweet. We’ve got a very adorable Snow White. I instantly hate her and decide to get rid of her. There’s a very handsome prince and I love him and decide I’m going to have him.”
What can people expect from Sue’s Wicked Queen?
“They can expect to be very, very scared. But I hope she’s a little bit funny too. I like Snow White because it’s a story that everyone knows. Obviously there’s going to be the odd double entendre in there for the grown-ups but basically the jokes and the fun are aimed at kids.
“I just think it’s a terribly good way to get everybody into the holiday spirit. The kids have got to be frightened of me, they’ve got to know there’s a chance I’m going to kill Snow White. So you’ve got to have certain skills to get out there and do it.”
Sue will appear at Mansfield Palace Theatre for the first time. The punishing schedule means she will perform 62 shows in just over a month.
“I do a lot of stuff with Alzheimers for various reasons and I’m terrified that I’m going to lose my mental capacity. We’re all frightened of Alzheimers and dementia, aren’t we? So I think learning lines is very good for keeping that at bay.
“My mum suffered from dementia and it’s quite a big part of my life now. The battle has to go on to raise more money to try to find a cure.”
This year will be strange for Sue because it will be the first time she has not spent it with her children. Harriet is 33 and teaches yoga and massage on a beach in Ibiza. Freddie, 31, is head of history at a school in West Sussex. He and his wife have given Sue her first grandchild, eight-month-old Max.
“They couldn’t be more different,” says Sue of her children. “One is bohemian, the other is bourgeois and they’re very fond of each other.”
Sue’s husband Mark Piper recently retired as executive director of the Theatre Royal, Windsor. “He’s coming up to Mansfield and we’re having lunch in a restaurant so I won’t have to cook. It might be nice but it’ll be very peculiar”.
It looks as though 2019 is already shaping up to be another busy year for Sue. She’ll be in the next series of another TV sitcom, Still Open All Hours, playing Mrs Rossi and working alongside Sir David Jason again.
“When the producer said the writer Roy Clarke wants you back in the next series I realised that I will be gainfully employed on my 70th birthday without having any real gaps in my career.”
Ten years ago the cruise company P&O signed up Sue to be a celebrity guest speaker on their ships. She takes her husband with her and they have a great time.
“We’ve now done 41 cruises. After Christmas we jump onto a ship in Bermuda, then we go to the Caribbean. I’m very grateful to P&O because they’ve also changed my life. It’s been fantastic because we’ve been to places we’d never have dreamt of going – Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, the Middle East, the Far East, America.
“I love cruising – what’s not to like? Somebody cooks your food, makes your bed, you don’t have to think about what to buy at the supermarket – it’s just bliss.”
Like many of the people in the entertainment business I talk to, Sue admits she’s been fortunate: “I’m very lucky that acting came my way because it’s been pure joy. It’s not for everybody because so much of the time people are waiting for the phone to ring. Because of Marlene I’ve never really had to do that”.
“I’m lucky to be in a profession where you get up in the morning and really want to do your job. The fact that you get paid for it is a bonus.”