Born for the screen - Exmouth's very own Liver Bird

Pauline Collins and her husband John Alderton

Pauline Collins and her husband John Alderton - Credit: Eva Rinaldi CC BY-SA 2.0

The actress Pauline Collins is easily the most famous person to have been born in Exmouth living in the world today.

Pauline was born on September 3, 1940, on the first anniversary of Britain’s entry into the Second World War. Her mother was a schoolteacher called Mary Honora while her father was a headmaster named William Henry Collins. She grew up near Liverpool, later moving to London. Although she would later become best known for playing working-class characters as a youth she was sometimes teased for having a “posh” accent.

An early stab at acting almost ended in disaster. Having been cast in a small part in the popular 1960s TV drama, Emergency Ward 10, a confused Pauline found herself blundering through a door into a scene where another nurse, played by actress Jill Browne, was seeing a patient. “Thank you, nurse,” Browne quickly improvised before Pauline bid a hasty retreat. The scene had gone out on live TV. Jill Browne turned out to be seeing a tall, dark-haired actor who was also filming. They would later marry. Pauline would only meet him properly years later. It was John Alderton.

Pauline had more success in Doctor Who. Appearing opposite Patrick Troughton as Samantha Briggs, she was offered a further 39 episodes but turned them down fearing the show would become “a prison sentence” for her. She was also cast as Dawn opposite Polly James’s Beryl in the first series of Carla Lane’s Liverpool-based sitcom, The Liver Birds. The show was a hit but again, Pauline pulled out. Some have noticed a pattern in Pauline’s career: after achieving some success she then tended to pull away from it. She was replaced on The Liver Birds by Nerys Hughes who remained on the show until its end, a decade later.

In fact, leaving the sitcom still might not have been a bad move as she next found herself cast in her most successful ever TV role, that of Sarah Moffat in the hugely successful period drama, Upstairs, Downstairs in 1971. Viewers saw the chirpy Sarah apply for a job as a parlour maid opposite Jean Marsh’s no-nonsense Rose Buck in the series’ opening scenes.

By now, Pauline was acting alongside her real-life husband John Alderton, who she had married after the end of his relationship with Jill Browne. Alderton played chauffeur Thomas Watkins in the drama. Both chose to leave Upstairs, Downstairs simultaneously in 1973, later reprising the characters for spin-off series, Thomas & Sarah in 1979.

Alderton and Collins have now been together for more than fifty years and have three children, Nicholas, Kate and Richard. They have appeared with each other on screen a number of times. In the 1990s, Pauline re-established contact with another daughter, who she had given up for adoption following a relationship with the Irish actor, Tony Lahr in the 1960s. The story of
their reunion is told in Pauline’s moving 1992 memoir, Letter To Louise.

In 1989, Pauline Collins enjoyed her biggest ever success playing the lead role of the bored holidaying Liverpool housewife in the film version of Willy Russell’s play, Shirley Valentine. Having already been showered with accolades for originating the role in a one woman show on the London stage and on Broadway, she received both a Golden Globe, an Oscar nomination and a Bafta for bringing the role to the screen. The film was a big critical and commercial hit. Among other things, it is sometimes cited as the Queen’s favourite film.

The years since have seen Pauline remaining busy. Whether drawing on her own mother’s battles with dementia for her role as Cissy, a senile opera singer in the 2012 film, Quartet, playing the bird-obsessed Miss Flite in the BBC’s version of Bleak House or returning to the newly revived Doctor Who TV show in 2006, Exmouth-born Pauline Collins’s status as one of Britain’s finest actors is secure.