Saturday, 21 June 2008

Annie Sugden And Sheila Mercier

From the Emmerdale Farm Celebration Edition 1000 Episodes Magazine, 1985.

Annie Sugden

Ever since she was widowed thirteen years ago, Annie Sugden has felt responsible for Emmerdale Farm and the Sugden family. Life has not been easy for her, coping with financial crises, warring sons and the loss of her only daughter. But she has faced the problems courageously. She's a strong, level headed woman, loyal to her family but not blind to their weaknesses, and she speaks her mind when she feels it's called for. Annie's honesty is usually appreciated and people often turn to her for advice, but the years haven't dulled her sense of humour. She enjoys a joke as much as anyone in the family.

Sheila Mercier

"Annie Sugden has changed a great deal over the years," said Sheila Mercier. "At the beginning she was very terse. She was the head of the family and let everyone know it. She ruled with a rod of iron. She'd had a tough life. She'd had a rough ride with Jacob, who used to drink the money away and sit in the Woolpack until all hours. Jack didn't live at home then and it was Annie who kept the farm together. Until Henry Wilks came along they were poor farmers, living hand-to-mouth.

"But now things are different. Jack has made a success of Emmerdale and Henry's interest in the farm and Annie herself has made her relax. She's mellower now."

Sheila Mercier enjoys playing Annie and has learned to live with the fame it brings her.

"People often stop you in the street and say 'Oh. I'm sorry I thought I knew you.' Or they call out 'Oi! Are you Annie Sugden?' Others write to Annie asking her to solve their problems."

Ocasionally though, the attention is unwelcome.

"I do think it's rude when people interrupt your meal to ask for autographs," said Sheila. "And once a woman with a bag of fish and chips ran after me shouting 'Oi! Oi! Annie! Sign this fish and chip paper for me!' "

Sheila has been interested in acting for as long as she can remember. Her whole family was in love with the threatre. Her mother had a beautiful singing voice and spent a great deal of time organising shows to raise money for the church.

"My brother Brian Rix and I used to hide under the piano and listen to them rewhearsing," said Sheila. "My father was a ship owner and he didn't go on stage himself, but he used to make all the scenery. We had a little cottage in the grounds of our house where he kept all his stuff and he was always sawing and hammering and painting. He loved it."

When her mother wasn't putting on shows, she was throwing lively parties at which everyone did his party piece. Sheila's speciality was the dramatic poem.

"My favourite poem was called 'Ojistoh", about a Mohican woman who is captured by another tribe. It's quite exciting," said Sheila. "I learned it at elocution lessons when I was eleven, and when I recited it the mistress said 'That girl will be an actress.'

"The funny thing is, years later when I was in the airforce I was asked to do something for a concert. I couldn't think of anything to do until I remembered 'Ojistoh'. Anyway, in the audience that night were some tough Glaswegian boys from the Argyll and Sutherland Regiment and when I launched into 'Ojistoh' they started to laugh and they laughed me off stage!" It was Sheila's worst theatrical disaster.

Spotted at drama school by Sir Donald Wolfitt, she was invited to join his company and spent a great deal of time staying in seedy digs while they toured the country.

"The funny thing is when you're young you don't seem to mind," said Sheila, "and the landladies could be kind. In Norwich one of the other girls and I were staying with a Mrs Pigani who discovered that we liked Welsh Rarebit. It turned out to be her husband's speciality and we had it for supper every night!"

Since then Sheila has worked in countless productions, including comedies with her brother Brian Rix. These days, however, she's happy to swap the irregular hours of the theatre for the more settled life of television.

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