How can someone born in Manila be so totally Cornish? Susan Penhaligon, one of our nation’s greatest acting talents explains why she cannot help thinking of herself as Cornish rather than British…
Susan Penhaligon had an unusual start to life since she was born in the Philippines, a far distance from the sandy shores of Cornwall.
‘My father, who had been in the Navy, was working as an engineer for Shell but we returned to England and back to Cornwall, which I always think of as my home. My formative years were spent in St Ives and I’m always tempted to fill in the nationality question on forms as ‘Cornish’
“My parents sadly divorced when I was quite young and my brother and I were sent to live with our grandmother for six months while my mother found a place for us to live. Granny Pen was proper Cornish. She made saffron cake and the best pasties I’ve ever tasted. She taught us about Cornwall and our heritage. Not just the history but the very nature of Cornwall; it’s people and what it’s like to feel Cornish. She used to say, ‘We don’t live in England, we live in Cornwall’.
“I think I get much of my drive and work ethic from her. My grandfather died in his twenties and she never remarried. She brought up two sons and worked as a welfare officer on Falmouth docks so she could send them to a good school. There’s an old Cornish saying ‘Cornish women be proud and stubborn’ and that was her – and possibly me – I loved her for it.
“A few years ago, a magazine did the Penhaligon family tree for me and traced us back to the 17th century. My ancestors were working folk, farm workers, hoopers, and clay pit workers. My great, great grandfather was known as ‘Cap’n P’naligon’ because he was leader of a clay pit band. He was a colourful character with a big white beard. Unfortunately he ran off to Australia leaving a wife and six children. I believe he started another family out there!
“Although I visited my mother and brother a lot before my mother died and my brother went to live in San Francisco, I haven’t lived in St Ives for a long time and sometimes I feel my memories are in a rosy bubble of the bohemian 1960s and ‘frenchie’ fishing boats moored in the harbour. It bears no relation to what the town is now.
“My father went to Truro Cathedral School and sang in the choir. Recently I met the choir master who showed me his name in the records: William Russell Penhaligon, aged 8. I felt quite emotional as my father died in America after leaving when I was ten. I hardly knew him.
Susan first left Cornwall aged 11 when she was sent to boarding school in Bristol.
“I’d failed my eleven plus and my mother being a little bit of a snob didn’t want me going to the local secondary modern school which she considered to be rough.
“I suffered with terrible homesickness at boarding school. I use to imagine the sound of the trees outside the dormitory window was the sound of the sea in St Ives. But looking back, it was at The Collegiate School that my confidence in acting started. It was a very artistic school with its own theatre. We had poetry classes and did plays every term. There was a ritual on Sunday evenings that the boarders had to perform in the head mistress’s drawing room, like a Victorian parlour evening, either by playing music or singing or reading. I took to speaking verse. I was told I was good at it and that’s all a child needs to get the acting bug. By the time I was 17 I knew what I wanted to do with my life and came up to London after auditioning for drama school. That year they auditioned 1000 and took 30. It was that hard to get a place! And it still is!
“In those days, my generation got grants and living expenses to go to colleges and universities. It made the dream possible. It’s tough for aspiring young actors today. There’s a great danger that only the children of well off parents are able to afford the drama school fees and London is ridiculously expensive.
“I live on a houseboat moored on The Thames. It’s the way I cope with living in London. Our old house in St Ives was right on the sea opposite Godrevy Lighthouse. One day I was sitting in my houseboat and I looked at the tow path with people strolling along, then I looked out the other side at the water, the tidal river, and I thought it’s exactly what I had as a child in St Ives, the road packed with holiday makers peering into the windows on one side and the ever changing sea on the other. I’d recreated my childhood home. I also fly the St Piran Flag at the bows. A Cornish boat on the Thames.”
It was the controversial Bouquet of Barbed Wire that brought Susan to our attention in 1976 when she was described as Britain’s Brigitte Bardot.
‘It seems so long ago, I was a very different person. I wish I had believed at the time I was Britain’s Bardot. It seemed a joke and embarrassing and it’s often quoted. But now, I look at pictures of me in my twenties and I think, I really ‘was’ pretty. I wish I had deep down believed it, I might have stayed in Hollywood, instead of running back to London.
“When I was at drama school in the sixties, we all hoped to become classical actors and audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre. Doing a commercial was considered very down market. We used to go to the Old Vic (then the National Theatre) and watch Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins, they were our role models. Many years later I worked with Judi playing her sister in the comedy series A Fine Romance. I couldn’t believe I was actually acting with her and on the first day I was very nervous but Judi was brilliant, down to earth, funny, encouraging and supportive.”
Susan has had an impressive career with many roles on TV over four decades, Upstairs Downstairs, Doctor Who, Bergerac, a Touch of Frost, Casualty, Doctors and a stint in Emmerdale to name a few. In the 1970s she also played leading roles in many films like The Land That Time Forgot, The Uncanny and the Australian horror film Patrick. She also appeared in an episode of Wycliffe filming in Cornwall.
“Wycliffe was one of the best; to be back home and doing my job in Cornwall. I remember driving down to St Just for the day’s shoot thinking, I’d be quite happy to do this for the rest of my life.”
Susan also has an impressive array of theatre work ranging from the classics of Shakespeare and Chekov to pantomime and ‘fringe’ theatre like the Edinburgh Festival.
‘I love the theatre, it’s what I was trained to do. I never imagined when I was at drama school I’d do so much TV and film work. It’s good that I love the theatre because the theatre is much kinder to older actors and I’m not young anymore.
“I’m at peace with myself. I believe success isn’t the fame and fortune, which is transitory and in the end, meaningless, it’s doing the job you trained for and hopefully getting better,” she says.
“Acting essentially is creative work and I’ve been exceptionally lucky. I’ve never been forced to do another job. I’ve earned my living, acting. That says success to me and I am grateful for it.”