A Special Interview By SYD GILLINGHAM
She's anything but fair, definitely fat, and she'll never see forty again~ but for sheer warmth or personality, Rita Webb can put any beauty queen to shame!
LAUGH, Rita Webb declared, she nearly died. There she was, walking along and minding her own business, when all of a sudden this bus conductor jumped off his bus and came rushing up to her. "I love you," he said, "because you remind me of my mother-in-law, she's a right old battleaxe~ just like you!" And he quickly hopped back on his bus.
"I thought,` cor, that's nice, isn't it?" Rita told me, throwing back her head and laughing all over again at the memory of it, when we met at her large terraced house in London's Bayswater, It's been home for her and her musician husband, Al Jeffrey, since they married 40 years ago.
"You see, the parts I play could so easily lead people to hate me, "she added "they could say, There's that fat, ugly old girl on television again! "But they don't they like me~ and that is really lovely.
"Only the other day after I'd been on the box, I was coming out of the supermarket when a woman came up to me and she said, `Oh you do make me laugh! As soon as you come on, my old man calls out and tells me~ here you are, he says, here's that Rita Webb!` It's smashing to hear that!
"All the bus drivers know me, too, and they beep-beep at me as they pass. And when you consider it, I'm not a star, am I?" Rita declared.
"And I can go down the market in the Portobello Road
and help myself~ I pay for things of course~ to the 'flash' from the front
of the stall."
"The flash? Oh that's the good stuff they put at the front of the stall or barrow as opposed to the old rubbish they have at the back. But, to be honest, they don't do that much these days.
"But best of all, are the wonderful letters I get from people who tell me I make them happy. I had one from a woman who has been bedridden for thirty years, I thought, my God ,I'm paid to do something I love doing~ and she thanks me! Can you imagine that?"
"But it does give me a nice feeling~ because I'm happy
and I want everybody else to be happy, too."
I soon learned that, if nothing else, Rita ~ who weighs in at 15 stone and stands four-foot-ten in her stockinged feet~ is indeed happy. The joyous, uproarious laughter that regularly punctuates her conversations leaves you in no doubt about it.
It's the kind of laughter she herself has helped to raise in the company of our top comedians-Ken Dodd, Benny Hill, Dick Emery, Jimmy Tarbuck, Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, and Bruce Forsyth among them. You name them the chances are she has worked with them.
And almost always, she plays the part of someone more cockney than a barrelful of jellied eels. The strange thing is, as she explained to me, she's not a cockney at all.
"I was born in London" she told me, "but in Maida Vale, my farther did some filming in his younger days, but I think it was more for a joke than anything else."
"His farther~ he always had to call him sir ~ was a surgeon dentist, and a friend of the famous writer, Sir Max Beerbohm".
"Are you going to tell me when you were born?" I
asked Rita then, "No," she replied without any hesitation at all.
"I'm as old as my tongue, and a bit older than my teeth!
I've got one brother and he was born two years after me. But at the last count a week or two ago he was twenty-five years older than me!" and she dissolved into laughter again. "I always wanted to be an actress," she continued. "I ran away from home when I was fifteen and got a job as a chorus girl at the old Metropolitan Theatre in Edgeware Road. I worked for about two months and then the police found me and took me home. "I had to go back to school for a little while, and when that was over I returned to being a chorus girl. I went on to appear at variety theatres in all parts of the country, and it was at this time I met Jeffie."
"Jeffie" is Rita's pet name for her husband. A one-time member of a musical act on the variety theatre circuit and for 33 years a teacher of the guitar and banjo for the Inner London Education authority, he calls her "Podge."
"He hasn't always called me 'Podge,' you know," Rita remarked. "In the early days, I weighed nine-stone, and was quite attractive.. "I'll admit I'm too fat at fifteen stone. I'd like to be slimmer-if only because I puff and blow a bit climbing the stairs. I do sometimes try to get some weight off, but the only way I can do it is to literally go without food-and I do love my grub!" "What's your favourite food?" I asked "All of it!" she exclaimed, bursting out laughing again. "I love curry, which I make myself, and rare roast beef, with Yorkshire pudding, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, and two or three vegetables-and two helpings of everything on a great big plate! "Do you know" she went on "I once appeared with Chris Kelly on a programme called Keep Britain Slim There was no script-we just made it up as we went along-and on the first programme I said, "Well, girls we must lose a bit of weight otherwise we won't be able to wear our bathing suites!"
"I told them I was twelve stone-which I was at the time-and that I was going to get some of it off. Then a bloke walked in with two sacks of potatoes, which apparently represented the excess weight I was carrying around! "There was a doctor on the programme and he asked Chris how old I was, and Chris said he didn't know. "Well she'll be dead by the time she's such and such an age," the doctor said. "Chris told me about this conversation when we were going home on the train. "Silly old fool!" I said 'he doesn't know it, but I'm past that now!"
"But the funny thing was that I was supposed to go on the last programme in the series and show them how much weight I had lost. "And I couldn't-I'd put on another stone! I just didn't have the cheek to go! "When I was young, we used to save up to buy pretty dresses," Rita recalled. "Now girls wear jeans, and his 'n' hers clothes, and when you look at them, you can see their bones sticking out, can't you? "I was only thinking the other day, I don't think I've ever felt a bone sticking out of my body! "Mind you, that's why I like this Kaftan. It covers everything, doesn't it?" And very prettily, too!
I asked Rita to tell me how she managed to break into television. "Well, when I first saw it, I thought blimey, I ought to be in that! So I wrote to Val Gielgud and told him I'd watched his programme, and I'd come to the conclusion he could use some good actresses. "He replied by saying I must understand he couldn't tell his producers 'whom to use' I wrote back and said, 'don't tell them whom to use-just tell them to see me!" "Two months later I got a letter asking me to go along and see a producer. I went along and found hundreds of people waiting-redheads, greenheads, fat ones, thin ones, the lot. I felt like clearing off again," Rita went on. "Anyway the producer came up and asked me to go into this room. In front of all the other people, and read something. They said to me, 'can you do cockney?' 'Are you kidding!' I said "I read it and they said 'we'll let you know.' 'Blimey,' I said, 'are you still saying that? I cleared off and went to the pictures. "When I came out, I phoned Jeffie and he told me the BBC-TV people had been trying to contact me. I'd got the job. It was my first acting part-I played a landlady in something called 'War on Crime.' "It's funny, but for a long time i've had the feeling that someone.somewhere has been looking after me. "Actress Sandra Dorne, a very good friend of mine, was sitting with me in the kitchen one day and said, 'they're making a film called "Moulin Rouge," why don't you phone why don't you phone up and see if thee's a part in it for you? She was always kidding along to do things like that-I hadn't done many films up to that point. "It was to be directed by the famous John Huston. so I dialled the number and said, 'I want to speak to John Huston, please'
"and as true as i'm sitting here, the voice at the other end said, 'John Huston speaking.' "I sadi, 'Now I hear you're making a film called "Moulin Rouge." You want the best actresses, don't you? i'm the finest actress in England!" "He told me to go along and see one of his blokes, but Sandra insisted it was someone having a joke with me. But it wasn't I got the part.
How did the first of Rita's many cockney roles come about, I asked then. "A comedian asked me to play the part of a cockney in his TV show," Rita replied and that was that. "My earlier work on television-with no trace of a cockney accent-was with actors and actresses like Esmond Knight, George Benson and Dilys Hamlett. "I love drama-and i think i'm a good, natrual actress.But, then, one day I looked at what i'd earned from drama, and what i'd earned from comedy, and found that the comedy parts had brought in six times as much!" she told me.
"I'd like to do more drama, though to satisfy the creative urge, which I know I have in me. "But then, if i'm able to make people happy, as they tell me I do, that's important, too, isn't it? "As far as this buisness is concerned, I have some wonderful memories of the people i've worked with. "Gary Cooper, for example. I was in "The Naked Edge" with him. a film he made before he died. "He used to bring me home here every night after we'd finished at the studio. I used to think, if only we could have the light on inside the car so that everybody could see me sitting here with this lovely Gary Cooper! "I'd always loved him, you see, He told me, "when I come back to work in this country, honey, i'm going to ask for you!" But, of course, he never came back," Rita recalled. "I could'nt have children, but I don't think that's a regret," she went on. ""I don't think i've missed anything, because Jeffie and i are so much to each other. He's my lover, my husband, my father, my brother, and my son. And I'm all things to him too. "One day when I was giving him a mouthful, I said to him, 'i'm everything to you-i'm your French mistress as well!" "He said, 'not lately, you haven't been!' And we both burst out laughing. And he put his arms round me and I said, 'careful, Jeffie, or the dinner will spill-because I was cooking the dinner over the stove. "And he said, 'oh, Podge, let's cuddle while we can! And I squeezeed him so hard he could scarcely breathe. "I told the story when i was a guest on Pete Murray's 'Open House' on Radio 2, and I had hundreds of letters. And a poet, John M Cookridge, wrote a poem called, 'Cuddle While You Can'."
I asked Rita to look back on her career and tell me which, for her, had been the best part of all. "I don't know about that," she replied, "there have been so many, but i'll tell you about some applause I once had which i'll never forget. "I'm a blood donor, you see, and I was once called to a hospital to give some blood person-to-person. The man was lying on the bed, and his face was a dirty, greyish colour. "When it was all over and I was walking out of the ward, everyone sat up and clapped me." Her eyes filled with tears and she dabbed at them self-consciously with her handkerchief. "Silly old fool, I am! she declared. I'm too emotional. I hate telling that story, because it makes me cry. "Being an actress isdn't work to me, you know, doing housework, now that's work. "No, when I walk into a television studio, I tell 'em 'I haven't come to work-I've come to enjoy myself!' "I always feel like laughing and joking. And I soon get 'em going at parties. I'm not acting, you see, i'm just being me. "Do you know, i've had people cancel their party if I haven't been able to come!" I believed her. As a matter of fact, I'd just had a jolly good time myself.
My Weekly - 20th October 1979