Kent Life interviews Juliette Kaplan

Last of the Summer Wine's Juliette Kaplan talks about playing the character that made her famous in a solo show at the Margate Theatre Royal this month

Just Pearl

Last of the Summer Wine’s Juliette Kaplan talks about playing the character that made her famous in a solo show at the Margate Theatre Royal this month

She’s a tough little Jewish grandma in black jeans with a swagger in her step and a voice she likens to Donald Duck and claims she was born with, but possibly has something to do with a lifetime spent smoking.

Juliette Kaplan, 72, is a million miles away from the character she is best known for playing - Pearl in Last of the Summer Wine – but she has a great deal to thank the beloved TV series that got axed in 2010 after 26 glorious years, because the BBC wanted “new, young, fresh blood.”

After having the sheer nerve to phone up Roy Clarke, its author, and ask ‘how would you like to write me a one-woman show?’ in 2003 Just Pearl was launched onto an unsuspecting British public. 

And on 28 April Juliette is appearing at the Margate Theatre Royal to perform her solo show in aid of Pilgrims Hospice Thanet - its first outing since touring to packed audiences in more than 40 venues nine years ago.

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“When I first started it took and hour and a half to turn into Pearl and 20 minutes to get ready to go out, now it’s 20 minutes to get into character and an hour and half to go out!” she says.

We’ve met at her flat in Westgate-on-Sea and it isn’t long before Juliette has whisked my photographer and I down to the seafront for some pictures. Just back from a month visiting one of her daughters in Barbados and recovering from a slipped disc, she is craving the sun and can’t wait for the long summer days spent in her beach hut until late with her fellow beachlovers.

Born in Bournemouth to Jewish parents who split up when she was little, Juliette was taken to her father’s native South Africa when she was six months old. She went to Jewish government school in Johannesburg then to a convent in Pretoria before spending a formative year in New York when she was 11.

“I just fell in love with the place. New York turned me into a little guttersnipe and I have never moved on,” she laughs, lighting her umpteenth cigarette. “When we came back I was 12 and hadn’t taken my 11-plus so they put me in a secondary modern because by that time we couldn’t afford private education.

“Because of my Brooklyn accent mixed with a strong South African accent, my mother sent me to drama school in Bournemouth to polish up my voice. And that was it – it was never even discussed. I went to after-school drama classes and my mum said she would let me carry on there if I got a teaching qualification. So I did”

Juliette’s first professional engagement was dancing as Salome in Voice in the Wilderness, which certainly got the film some publicity. It also led to her estranged father reading all about her in a South African newspaper and telling his three children from his second marriage: ‘that girl is your sister.’

An astonishing 35 years later, Juliette’s two half brother and half sister finally caught up with their famous sibling and a highly emotional reunion took place.

Her roots also led Juliette to her husband. Being a good little Jewish girl (on a very small wage), whenever she was on tour she always made sure she got in touch with the local Jewish community.

 “Once you went to a different town all the mothers with unmarried sons would invite you for tea,” she explains. And that’s how she met Harold. “I landed up in Margate for two weeks in Waters of the Moon, playing the juvenile in 1957/8. And I never left.”

The couple got married in Margate and Harold ran a tea gardens and beach caf� before opening Regal Gifts in Margate with a friend, which they expanded into 11 shops from Hastings to Dartford.

Then tragedy struck. “My husband died very suddenly in 1981, at the age of 54, which meant I had to take care of the gift shops with his partner. I knew nothing about shopkeeping. Nothing. At one point I was in the shop during the day then on stage in Folkestone in the evening performing,” she says.

“Then in 1984 I had a meeting about a tour of this play called Last of the Summer Wine and was asked if I could do a Yorkshire accent. I was furious. I am an actress, I said! Then I was told the part requires a very aggressive actress – and I said oh, just give me the script!

“Next day I had a recall, went back to London and told them I couldn’t keep on running up and down the motorway, they either wanted me or they didn’t. It’s no skin off my nose. By the time I got home there was a message on the answerphone – you’ve got the part.

“We were going to do three weeks on tour and then the season at Bournemouth, which was my home town. Pearl was my mother’s name, and I knew something was odd. Apparently it had been performed at Eastbourne the previous year but the actress playing Pearl said the part was too small – so I got the part by default. My kids (she has three) said it was type casting.”

To Juliette’s great delight, she was then written into the TV series as a permanent character after Alan Bennett and Roy Clarke came to see the play and decided they wanted to write the ‘eternal triangle’ into a TV version. “I told my son and all he said was: who’s going to look after the shop?”

From being booked to do one scene in one episode, Juliette’s part grew and grew, though she does say with practised exasperation: “My speciality has always been American Jewish, then I ended up basing my career on a North Country woman!”

So what of her fellow cast members? “We were all based at the same hotel, the Huddersfield Hotel, and used to meet every night for drinks in the conservatory. It was a great time,” she says.  And it must have provided wonderful company, too, for Juliette, who never remarried (“I always say when asked, why make one man miserable if you can make 100 men happy?” she quips.)

She was particularly friendly with the late Kathy Staff, who played the formidable Nora Batty. “I worshipped and adored Kathy, she was a truly nice person, and it was she who told me, this company likes your work, why don’t you ask them about panto? My first panto was in Tunbridge Wells (playing the back end of the cow) and I then did one every year. I loved it.”

Juliette recalls how Kathy, who always had a family conference about every part she was offered, once got one that was far too saucy so she gave it to her friend. “The play was called Dirty Dusting and I got the part. It was the story of three old age pensioner office cleaners who were made redundant by a young lad because of their age, so they take over one of the offices and set up a telephone sex line called Telephone Belles.”

So why is she back on stage again and waking up with nightmares about re-learning a script she hasn’t performed for so long - just for one night?

“I had a very close friend who was in the Hospice last year and I want to make sure the Hospice keep going so they can keep a place for me! I do think the Hospice needs supporting and once the BBC axed Summer Wine, my daughter said – go on, it’ll be a challenge. So I said yes.”

MY FAVOURITE KENT

Favourite place in Kent

The sea, of course – St Mildred’s Bay, and I do love Viking Bay. Driving through the Alkham Valley is just beautiful. I also have a flat in London but I love it here best – as you come back, you can feel the air getting fresher.

Favourite pub or restaurant

The Fayreness in Broadstairs. I always used it to learn my lines there. Have a bit of lunch and smoke like a chimney. Now of course I have to smoke outside. I refuse to give up – I’ve been smoking since I was 14. New York turned me into a slob and I maintain the right to be one.

Favourite place to eat

I’m a carnivore, my favourite food is steak, so the pubs in St Nicholas are fantastic for me – The Rising Sun, The Bell – and in Margate I’m down at the beach caf�s. The Rose Inn at Wingham is very good too.

Favourite place to shop

I love Westgate’s shops, especially Coco’s Boutique, and in this little village area where I am we’ve got everything. Westgate has got my bridge club, a cinema and a railway station in the middle of town, so it’s easy to escape when I need to go up to London. But if I can avoid the shops I will, I make a list twice a year, work out what I want, go out and buy it.

Juliette live

What: Juliette Kaplan in Just Pearl

Where: Theatre Royal, Margate CT9 1PW

How: 0845 130 1786 (box office) or 01227 787787 (ticket agent – New Marlowe, Canterbury) or box@theatreroyalmargate.com

When: 28 April, 7.30pm

How much: tickets �10 and �15, in aid of:  Pilgrims Hospice Thanet