FROM the moment I met Pauline Quirke, we clicked. It was a firm two-peas-in-a-pod-type friendship right from the off, although we never realised just how intertwined our lives would become. And they remain so to this day, despite what certain sections of the media say. I’ll come back to that later.
Pauline was in the year below me at our North London primary school, and I just loved being around her. I think everyone did, because she was that kind of character.
We did everything together, even outside school – playing in the street at weekends and, when we were around ten years old, joining a new drama club which had been started by our art teacher, Anna Scher.
Pauline and I were never happier than when we were in each other’s company. She was often labelled ‘the chubby one’ and I felt very protective over her for that. I remember once sitting in a cafe with her when this woman approached us out of nowhere, pointed to the chips on my plate and said to me, ‘You don’t want to eat that – you’ll end up looking like her.’ She nodded towards Pauline.
That sort of thing used to happen quite a lot and I know it was really hurtful for Pauline. Obviously I told that woman to f*** right off.
FLOCKED TOGETHER: The stars of Birds Of A Feather, from left to right: Linda Robson, Lesley Joseph and Pauline Quirke
Linda at her wedding to husband Mark Dunford in 1990. Pauling Quirke joins them, left
There was only her mum Hetty looking after the three of them – as well as Pauline there was her brother and sister – and they lived in this little block of flats with no hot water. We were poor, but they were really poor.
In 1970, when I was about 12, Pauline and I, and a load of the other kids from Anna’s, were cast in a sci-fi type film called Junket 89, which was our first paid acting job. By then casting directors had really started taking notice of Anna’s drama group.
I did a few of those shows over the years and they were always really good fun, as well as lots of TV work as an extra.
I left school in 1974 with the worst O-level results known to man. I’d had a lot of time off for acting work and had fallen behind. Mind you, I don’t know if I’d have done much better had I been in school anyway.
The teachers used to say to me: ‘Just because you’re on the telly, Linda Robson, doesn’t mean you can come to school whenever you feel like it!’ And I’d say: ‘I used to come in whenever I felt like it before I was on the telly!’
Pauline and I were still as thick as thieves, and some of my favourite memories are of the Friday nights we’d have down the pub with my dad and his mates.
However, we were still young enough to feel the full force of my mother’s fury, and there was one night when Pauline was staying at my house and we came in late.
I think we were supposed to be back at 10pm – but it was gone 11 by the time we got in. As we opened the door, my mum walloped me. Pauline started to laugh and so my mum walloped her as well.
We had such great times back then, just a couple of jobbing actresses from North London, making the most of whatever came our way. Neither of us had any clue that there was something just round the corner that was about to change our lives for ever. Can you guess what that might have been?
If I was to write down all the things that Birds Of A Feather has given me, I could fill a whole book.
And people still love it, so it really has stood the test of time. They don’t seem to make comedies like that any more, perhaps because everything has to be politically correct these days.
Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who had written the drama Shine On Harvey Moon, which Pauline and I had been in, had told us they wanted to write something for the two of us. They liked the chemistry between us.
What they’d come up with was a sitcom about two sisters whose husbands were in prison for armed robbery. They’d had the idea when they’d been staying in a hotel and had overheard these two women talking about their husbands who were in jail.
The more they told us, the more I loved it.
They said one of the sisters would live in a million-pound house in Chigwell while the other was in a high-rise block of flats. Pauline rolled her eyes and said, jokingly, ‘Well, I know which sister I am.’
Laurence and Maurice mentioned a third main character who lived next door to the Chigwell sister. They already had Lesley Joseph in mind, who they really wanted us to meet and so a table was booked for the Ritz – the Ritz! – the following week.
Pauline and I turned up really inappropriately dressed. She had a pair of old Reebok trainers on and I was in my sloppy, casual gear. I haven’t got a clue why we didn’t make more of an effort.
As the waiter led us to our table we saw Lesley was already there looking completely glamorous with her big hair and brightly painted nails. What she must have thought of us two lolloping towards her I have no idea, but she didn’t flinch.
We said our hellos and the wine waiter came over with a bottle of pink champagne. He poured it in our flutes and then Pauline and I, not knowing any better, immediately added sparkling water to it. The waiter was clearly horrified, although of course he never commented. We just liked our spritzers!
On paper the three of us should never have been friends, but from that very first meeting we got on like a house on fire. You could say it was at the Ritz that Tracey Stubbs, Sharon Theodopolopodous and Dorien Green were born.
The first episode, in 1989, caused quite the stir. The three of us went to our producer Esta Charkham’s house to watch it going out.
Afterwards Esta said she was going to ring and check whether anyone had phoned up the BBC to comment. These days you just have a look at social media, but back then that’s what you had to do.
So she made the call and told us that so far there had been 100 complaints because Pauline had said the word ‘bastard’. Apparently it was the first time a woman had said that word in a sitcom.
We started panicking that we were going to get pulled before the next episode even went out. Esta said not to worry – she had a plan.
Linda says Pauling Quirke was often labelled ‘the chubby one’ and ‘I felt very protective over her for that’
Linda says: Pauline, Lesley and I always had each other’s backs and we weren’t afraid to stand our ground on the things that mattered
So we poured ourselves another glass of wine and got to work. The four of us took it in turns to ring the BBC complaints line, disguising our voices each time, to say how amazing we thought the new comedy was. ‘That Birds Of A Feather show? It’s brilliant! And the three actresses in it were fantastic!’
Obviously we didn’t get cancelled because it was a huge success, and overnight I went from being a little bit known to properly famous. We had millions tuning in for each episode, and fans from all walks of life. I’ve heard Prince Edward was a fan – and Fergie, too.
Pauline and I teamed up with her for an episode of our spin-off series Jobs For The Girls in 1995 and she still sends us Christmas cards.
I really liked Fergie. She was slightly bonkers, a bit eccentric, but great company.
Pauline and I used to go and open places, such as cinema complexes and shopping malls, for silly money. We opened the newly extended Brent Cross Shopping Centre in 1996 and each got paid several thousand pounds. There were so many people there to see us I felt like I was in Take That! It was madness. And I blew the lot.
Pauline, Lesley and I always had each other’s backs and we weren’t afraid to stand our ground on the things that mattered. And this was never more evident than when we found out that we were getting screwed over with our wages. We were all having a drink after work one night, when one of the accountants let it slip that over on Only Fools And Horses, David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst were getting paid double the amount we were per episode.
We were pulling in just as many viewers on the same channel and working equally hard, from six in the morning till ten at night. The only difference was that we were women. We were fuming.
The three of us asked for a meeting with our TV production company. We said we’d found out what the boys were getting and we couldn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be getting the same. And we made it clear that we wouldn’t carry on unless we got a pay rise.
We expected to have to put up a bit of a fight but to our surprise, that was all it took. The producer said: ‘You know what, I think you’re right and I think you deserve it.’
We were really proud of ourselves for standing up for each other. When the three of us were together we felt indestructible.
THERE was a period during the ’90s when we were having money thrown at us. Pauline and I got signed up by Surf to do their TV commercials and also nabbed an Anchor butter campaign. We were getting paid a fortune.
The financial security meant that in 1992 my husband, Mark, the kids and I were able to move to a beautiful four-bed Georgian house in Islington. We took regular holidays abroad and our house was filled with lovely furniture, lights which cost a fortune from Liberty’s, and wallpaper and cushions by Designers Guild. Life seemed perfect and more stable and secure than it had ever felt before.
For several years, I spent like there was no tomorrow. But of course tomorrow did come. It always does. And it hit me (and my bank account) like a truck.
In 1998, after nearly a decade on air, we decided to call it a day on Birds Of A Feather. It was something Pauline, Lesley and I had been discussing for a while, and the feeling was that after more than 90 episodes, we needed a break, and the chance to try other things.
Now, it had been all well and good splashing the cash when Birds Of A Feather was riding high. But when that came grinding to a halt, my finances crashed.
I had no regular work and certainly nothing that was going to pay anything like as much as Birds Of A Feather had. I found myself trapped in spiralling debt and I knew it was a mess entirely of my own making.
Pauline and I used to go and open places, such as cinema complexes and shopping malls, for silly money. We opened the newly extended Brent Cross Shopping Centre in 1996 and each got paid several thousand pounds. There were so many people there to see us I felt like I was in Take That! It was madness.
And I blew the lot.
It wasn’t like I was out buying designer clothes or frivolous things for myself – my money was mostly spent on gifts for other people and taking them to nice places.
But the spending had become like an addiction. I’ve got an addictive personality anyway and the shopping totally fed into that.
I’d have massive sprees in HMV buying gifts for everyone and I had store cards for every shop you could possibly think of. I bought my sisters a clothes shop which they ran together and paid for my niece to go to a private school when she didn’t get a place at the one she wanted.
What I should have done when Birds Of A Feather ended was immediately get a handle on it. I should have stopped shopping like a madwoman and sat down and worked out exactly what we could afford. And yet I carried on spending.
Eventually I had to confess to Mark. I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer.
It turned out I had no need to worry about how he’d react – he was supportive and said we would get it sorted together, as a family, just like we did everything else.
The first thing we did was cut up all the store cards and credit cards. We also came up with an idea of giving me an allowance. So, to this day, I get given a set amount on a Monday and another one on a Friday, like pocket money.
If I need more in between, I can ask for it from my two daughters, as they look after my accounts for me – but I very rarely do. I doubt I’ll ever be any good at budgeting. It’s a simple way of helping me to live within my means.
I’ve been really, really rich and I’ve been really, really poor and I don’t want to be either of them ever again. Being comfortable enough to look after my family and go on nice holidays suits me down to the ground. I don’t wish for anything more.
FOR years people had been asking us the same question: when are you coming back on the telly? To be honest, it was a question we had been asking, too.
It finally happened in 2014. The BBC had offered us an hour-long Christmas special. However, ITV had said they wanted to do eight episodes, and we felt that was the better deal. So we made the decision to switch channels and head over to the other side.
The first episode went out in January that year and even though I knew it was good, I was petrified about how it was going to be received on social media, which hadn’t existed when we’d last been on air in 1998. As it happened, the response was fantastic. Everyone seemed really happy to have us back. We did two more series after that and Christmas specials in 2016 and 2017.
In 2020, during Covid, ITV commissioned another Christmas special. I couldn’t wait. There was only one problem: Pauline had quit.
I’m not going to lie and say Lesley and I weren’t disappointed. Of course we were. We were gutted and we couldn’t imagine going on without her. We were a trio – how could it possibly work without any one of us? But at the same time as all that sadness, there was acceptance and understanding, too.
I’d had a feeling she was building up to telling us. You don’t have a friendship spanning more than 50 years and not get a sense for what each other is thinking. So it wasn’t a huge shock when she sat Lesley and I down in early 2020 and said she didn’t want to do the Christmas special. Or any other episodes which might follow, for that matter.
‘I don’t want to act any more,’ she said. ‘It’s not Birds Of A Feather itself, it’s everything. I feel like I’m done with it. I feel bad for you two, but you can go on without me.’
I wasn’t sure that we could.
Pauline explained she didn’t want the long hours away from home and her family. She wanted to concentrate on her performing arts academy. She had stopped enjoying the social side of things as well.
When we finished work at night, Pauline couldn’t wait to get home and put her jarmies on, but Lesley and I would go out for dinner or a drink somewhere to wind down.
And we all knew that she had never enjoyed the studio days where we had to perform in front of the live audience. For someone who is as brilliant as Pauline, it’s really sad how much she doubts her own ability and gets herself so nervous. She’s always been like that, even when we were kids. It wasn’t just a shame for us but for the industry because Pauline is such a huge talent.
We knew that when the news was announced it would set the rumour mill going that there had been some big fallout. Sure enough, the headlines were predictable, saying there was a ‘feud’ and ‘bad blood’ and that she’d quit because we were no longer speaking. It’s such bulls***. We tried to ignore it but it was difficult when it was all we were ever asked about.
Pauline and I might not be working together any more, but our friendship will outlive all of that. We have been there for each other through thick and thin and for every single major life event.
The decision she made about Birds Of A Feather, however much I wished she felt differently, was never going to come between us. There is simply too much history there and our relationship is bigger and stronger than any TV show.
After a lot of deliberation, Lesley and I decided to do the Christmas special without Pauline. We loved making it but I think that’s us done now. Although it was fine to do that special with just the two of us as a one-off, I couldn’t contemplate doing a full series without Pauline. It just wouldn’t be right.
In the spring of 2022, the three of us went out for a lovely lunch in Central London and it felt so good to be back together. We’d been out for lunches before then but this time we decided to make a bit of a stand against the reports of a rift.
So we had our photo taken together and I got my daughter Roberta to upload it to my Instagram, captioning it: ‘A lovely lunch with my beautiful friends.’
It was our way of saying, ‘There you go, that’ll shut you up!’
And it did.
I CAN’T think of anything worse than retiring. I’d be bored out of my mind. A little stint on EastEnders would be nice. One of the producers came up to me recently and asked why I’d never been on the show.
‘Because you ain’t f***ing asked me!’ I told him.
And he said they would have to do something about that. So you never know! I think I’d be quite good on there, don’t you?
I’ve never felt more confident in myself or more at ease with who I am, how I look and what others think of me. I’ve got a beautiful family, fabulous friends, a job I adore and, after a long road to recovery, I’ve got my health.
I feel like the luckiest woman in the world.
© Linda Robson, 2024
lTruth Be Told by Linda Robson to be published by Penguin Books on February 15 at £22. To order a copy for £19.80 (offer valid to 24/02/24; UK p&p free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.