Susan Mallison - Chesterfield-born elocution teacher and actress
PUBLISHED: 16:44 25 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:11 20 February 2013
Speaking Out: Chesterfield-born elocution teacher and actress Susan Mallinson<br/><br/>of Last of the Summer Wine, talks to Pat Ashworth
To viewers of Last of the Summer Wine, shell always be the broad Yorkshire barmaid, the one who brought Howard home on a handcart after shed overpowered him in the Kiss the Barmaid competition. Susan Mallinson (ne Colledge) made the cameo role her own, and few knew just how late she had come to the small and then to the large screen.
She was born in Chesterfield and was initially brought up at a house called Laurel Garth on Saltergate, the home of her maternal grandparents. My mother, who was known as Molly Francis, would have loved to have been an actress but she was from a privileged background and her father would not allow this. However, she was a very successful and respected speech and drama teacher. Teaching was her life and she gave lessons until she was 80.
Susan had elocution lessons from her mother and worked her way through the Guildhall School of Music and Dramas speech and drama exams from the age of six. But it was her singing voice that made her stand out, first at Highfield Hall Junior School and later at St Helenas High School. Her grandfather, the biggest influence on her life, paid for singing lessons, and with her mature contralto voice, she was spoken of as a second Kathleen Ferrier.
The voice got her into the Guildhall in London at the age of 16, two years earlier than was usual. But she was refused a grant from Derbyshire County Council because the headmistress at St Helenas said she would benefit from further years at school. My mother and father werent wealthy he worked in Roy Smith, the local radio and TV shop but they said theyd pay the fees for a year and then I could re-apply for a grant, she remembers.
So Mother took me to London to meet the landlady of my digs, which I shared with four other girls. She stayed the night to check it out and one of the girls remembers that I just sat at the dinner table like a scared rabbit in the headlights. The landlady asked a question and my mother answered for me, which was normal. I was never allowed to air an opinion different from my parents, she says without rancour.
The cellist Jacqueline du Pr, the baritone Benjamin Luxon, and the actor Michael Jayston, were all in her year. She was a singing student but did the full four-year speech and drama training as well, the last three funded by Derbyshire. She won the Guildhall Contralto prize in 1963 and qualified as a speech and drama teacher but if she thought life was going to be a breeze after that, she was mistaken.
When I left the Guildhall, I thought the world would be my oyster, she says frankly. But still being so young went against me, and all I kept hearing was, Oh, youve got plenty of time. I had an operatic voice and though I didnt really want to be an opera singer, I put my name down to audition for Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells.
She went to nine auditions for musicals but only got to sing at two of them. You go to some rehearsal room in Soho and stand outside in the queue. Someone comes along saying, Youre too tall... Youre too small... its quite cruel, she says soberly. Im not a hard person but I started to get hard, and when I went to a sad film and didnt cry, I thought, I dont like this person Im changing into.
The audition she most remembers was for the chorus of My Fair Lady at Drury Lane. She had gone with high hopes because the musical director had conducted her in operas at the Guildhall. I sang well and was thrilled with how I sounded, she remembers. He called me to the footlights and said, Susan, how tall are you? And I said Five eleven He said, Sorry, darling, you wouldnt fit the costumes. And that was that.
She missed an audition for a Cyril Fletcher pantomime at Croydon but was recalled for a repeat, hearing her speaking voice shake as she rang back to confirm that shed be there. She sang well. Fletcher had been at the Guildhall himself and liked to take students from there, she says. When Id finished singing, he said, If you can get into the costume, the parts yours. It was my first professional engagement since the Guildhall. They undid the darts and seams on the costume and I got the job and it was lovely.
But resting work in Derry and Toms on Kensington High Street found her flogging myself for not very much money, always tired at night. The buyer of my department told me I was mad and ought to be using my teaching qualifications. She bought the Times Educational Supplement (TES), spotted an advert for an English teacher at a new kindergarten school in Barcelona, and a fortnight later, found herself in Spain. Two weeks after that came notification of an audition for Covent Garden. I just wasnt meant to be an opera singer, she says ruefully.
She was spurred on to contact the Conservatoire in Barcelona after an aunt in Harrogate died and left her 250 to further her singing career. She didnt know, when she got an audition with Conchita Badia, that the singer and teacher was the most renowned in Spain. I had no idea how famous she was, she confesses. She said she would take me as a private pupil for the same fee as a class pupil, and during the four years in Spain, I met all the leading composers and artists.
The Spanish government gave her a grant for an international course on the interpretation of Spanish music in Santiago de Compostela. She gave solos in the Royal Chapel, made an LP record, gave concerts all over Spain and returned to Britain in 1969 on a P&O cruise ship, the Oriana. You could buy a leg of a cruise then. Three days of luxury and my cabin trunk in the hold! she exults. That was her first taste of cruising: now she does it in a professional capacity, as a guest speaker on both P&O and Fred Olsen Lines.
No pun intended, but much water was to flow under the bridge before that happened. Back from Spain, she still couldnt get her foot in the theatre door and so it was back to the TES and a teaching job in Kensington, where she rose to become assistant head of the school. By this time, shed met her husband, at the church of St Martin-inthe- Fields I wanted to marry an Englishman and preferably a Christian and they lived in Kingston-upon- Thames before moving north to Huddersfield and then to Holmfirth.
She opened her own School of Speech and Drama there in 1980. But there have been extraordinarily bad times in her life and the period in which she had the courage to leave her husband and ultimately divorce him is one plank of the motivational talk, Life begins at 50 that has so inspired audiences in the last few years.
On her own, when her health and financial situation had reached rock bottom, out of the blue came a cheque for 1,000 from a close relative, which enabled her to rent a flat above a shop in Holmfirth, spotted by a friend. Talk about Gods hand being on it, she says with thankfulness. She turned the shop into The Speech Studio in 1994 and also got in touch with the producer and director of Last of the Summer Wine, Alan Bell, to say she was a member of Equity and would be available for work as an extra if anything came up.
Two years later, it did. Alan Bell telephoned to ask, Whats your Yorkshire accent like? and to tell her there was a part going for a barmaid and a postwoman. She was the barmaid in two series of the programme and in gratitude to St Thomas Church, Brampton, where she now worships, is auctioning on eBay for its Parish Centre Development Fund a Limited Edition plate celebrating the programme. It carries the signed dedication by Bill Owen, Theres no place like Holme.
Eight years ago, another relative left her 10,000. She determined to enjoy herself and accompanied a friend on cruise holidays. I heard talks, some good, some dry, some poor, and thought, Ive had a much more interesting life, she says. She approached P&O, who asked her to send a list of six 45-minute talks that she could offer. A new career began.
She speaks about the making of Last of the Summer Wine; about effective use of the voice; about adventures in Spain, where she has latterly been acting in films. Her favourite talk is called Footprints on the Sands of Time, about people shes met who became famous in later life. She loves the voyaging, which this year has included Western Samoa and Christmas Island, and the life on board, and P&O describe her as a charming and natural socialiser.
She didnt imagine she would find herself starring in a psychological thriller in Spain in her sixties, playing the landlady of a hostel for down-andouts, bitter and unsmiling. And she certainly wouldnt have expected to play the part of Colonel Frankenheimer, originally written for a man, in a musical comedy spoof about the pop industry in Spain. It was Spanish with an American accent, and singing and dancing flamenco, fortunately not well, she says. And wearing army fatigues in temperatures of 45 degrees! But it was a wonderful experience. I never dreamed Id be on the small screen, let alone the large.
Shes been back in Chesterfield for two years, lives in a small rented house and describes herself as blissfully happy. I do believe there is a pattern to life. My faith is very important to me, as are my friends and family, she emphasises. She specialises in helping people of all ages to speak distinctly, audibly, accurately and naturally, whether its to help them hold their own in the boardroom or just to speak with confidence and make words come alive.
TV sets such a bad example and grammar is terrible these days, she laments. Theres no example set for children nowadays and its politically incorrect to talk about correct speech, she says, acknowledging that shes the only elocution teacher in Chesterfield who does it as she does it.
Shes hoping to start classes in the new Brampton parish centre, opened last month by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and is in great demand as a speaker. I love it all, she says. Im very, very happy.
My Favourite ...
Favourite place: Derbyshire, especially her grandfathers house (
Favourite view: The Surprise View above Hathersage.
Favourite eating place: Hackney House at Barlow where I used to go with my mother. Home-made food and very generous portions. We had a party there for my 60th birthday and had my mothers wake there.
Favourite place to shop: For many years, I have bought all my clothes for day and formal occasions from Kates in Holmfirth and I have not had the need to go clothes shopping since coming back to Chesterfield.