Interview: Kathy Staff

"God keeps his promises"

JAMES HASTINGS talks to Last of the Summer Wine actress Kathy Staff about faith, family and today's TV

The sight of Nora Batty thundering into church would terrify any pastor.

Will she criticise the sermon or make a complaint about the flower arrangement? Perhaps she’ll throw a sullen look at the organist or whisper that the church steps needed a good cleaning?

But when Kathy Staff walks into her local church, the vicar has nothing but smiles.

As Nora’s alter ego, actress Katy Staff, 77, is used to getting fearful looks from pastors, congregations and passers by. She also inspires a certain primeval fear in the average male.

But away from her on-screen persona as the battle-axe of Last of The Summer Wine, Kathy could hardly be nicer.

“How are you,” she smiles warmly. “Thank you very much for asking for an interview. How can I help you?”

Fans of the world’s longest running sitcom will know that Nora Batty, complete with wrinkled stockings and dangerous broom, appeared in the very first episode of Summer Wine. As the repossession men knocked on Compo’s door for the umpteenth time, she spoke the immortal first line: “They’ve come for his telly, again.”

More than 30 years later, Kathy, who has a long string of theatre and TV roles to her credit, smiles as she remembers those early episodes, believing then she would soon move on to another audition.

“I almost never got the part in the first place,” she laughs.

“They said they wanted a big, stout woman and I was thin, still am. At the audition, I was told they liked me but I was far too thin for the part. Then a producer came up to me and asked, would I mind padding up? I said ‘Not at all’ and I’m still wearing padding today.

“I didn’t base Nora on any particular woman. But I grew up in the north and there were several ladies I remember as a young girl who used to frighten me. They were all very proud of their clean steps and their ability to terrify their husbands. So Nora is a combination of different women who ruled the roost in homes across the north of England.”

The popularity of Last of The Summer Wine is a combination of the sharp scripts, the first class acting and the beautiful scenery of the Yorkshire Dales. Followers will be delighted to know the BBC has commissioned a further 10 episodes for next year and new members of the cast, with an average age of 65, have been recruited.

For Kathy Staff, the role of Nora Batty followed theatre productions such as Within These Walls to films including Camille and Little Dorrit, not forgetting her appearances in Crossroads.

A life-long Christian, Kathy attends her local Anglican parish of St Mark’s, Duckinfield in Cheshire. One of her daughters is a vicar and the entire family has a deep devotion to God.

“Oh, we’re at church every Sunday without fail,” stresses Kathy.

“Life just wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t give God his praise and thanksgiving. My husband John and I also attend weekday services and are very involved at St Mark’s. My faith is the centre of my life – without it I don’t know what I would do.

“Jesus isn’t just for Sundays. I speak to him every day and I hear him speak to me. That’s my first start to the day and how I end it, too. Every success I’ve had has stemmed from Jesus and I never forget to give him thanks and praise.”

Kathy has strong feelings on how British society, in her own words, is drifting away from its Christian heritage.

“Take Sunday shopping,” she says. “Once Sunday was kept special, now everything is open. Families need time to do things together, but now mum has a Sunday shift and dad is tired because he was working all day Saturday.

“Families are growing up not knowing what it means to be together. Children eat microwave meals alone in their rooms and the parents are rarely at home. What has happened to family life?”

When Kathy’s two daughters were born, she was already enjoying a certain success in London’s theatres and was tipped for future stardom. But she decided to take time off to concentrate on her family, believing God would guide her career.

“Oh, he was my real agent, my best friend,” she smiles.

“I had no hesitation at all that what I needed to do was be at home for the girls. Many women might think I was abandoning my career, but that is not true. I do think children do better if the parents are at home, certainly until school age.

“I didn’t want to pay someone to bring up my girls. What is the point of being the best, most acclaimed actress if your family is suffering? God has been good to me. After the girls grew up and were more independent, I got wonderful roles on stage and in film. God keeps his promises.”

Kathy says she enjoys television today but has concerns about the state of some shows.

“Sometimes, you’re just watching the adverts and you feel the need to switch over,” she smiles.

“I was watching something the other night and suddenly the screen was full of nudity and foul language. Then there was profanity and the Lord’s name taken in vain. There’s no need for that if the script is good and the acting professional.

“I think so much is done today for shock purposes. It’s not about cutting-edge drama, it’s just poor taste and ratings. There’s too much violence on TV and children think it’s the norm. We need to be more responsible.”

After 17 straight years doing panto, Kathy took a break this year. She felt she needed a rest and is upset at some panto productions.

“I was once told my character would come down the centre aisle screaming at the children. Well, I saw the look on some of the little ones’ faces when I did that, so I told the producer, never again.

“My job is to entertain children, not scare them half to death. Panto should be fun. I feel society has gone too far with scary movies and nudity. It’s not about being a prude, rather it’s recognising boundaries and good taste.”

As she looks forward to the next series of Summer Wine, Kathy says she thanks God for a fulfilling career and, above all, motherhood.

“For anyone who doesn’t pray, I say just start. Talk to God as you would a friend. Tell him how your day has gone and what your fears may be. Once you engage in a daily conversation with Jesus, you’ll come to cherish that time.

“I know that I couldn’t function without Jesus. Without him, life would seem so shallow.”

As Compo might say: “Hey up, Nora, tha’s got something there.”

James Hastings is a freelance journalist based in Glasgow

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