Penelope Keith - Why the good life is here in Surrey

One of Britain's best-loved actresses, Penelope Keith has been a loyal resident of Surrey for over 30 years. Currently on tour in The Importance of Being Earnest, which comes to Richmond Theatre this month, Tinx Newton caught up with her between r...

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine, November 07

One of Britain's best-loved actresses, Penelope Keith has been a loyal resident of Surrey for over 30 years. Currently on tour in The Importance of Being Earnest, which comes to Richmond Theatre this month, Tinx Newton caught up with her between rehearsals to find out all about her life in the county

Pictures by Kate Eastman

As a former High Sheriff of Surrey, Penelope Keith had the perfect excuse to explore in depth the county of Surrey, and it simply confirmed what she already suspected. "The Surrey countryside is absolutely glorious," she says. "As patron of the Surrey Hills, I am fully aware of how wonderful much of the county is, but during my explorations as High Sheriff I was struck by the diversity of the landscape. And it's amazing to think that we have more trees than any other county in England." The last time I saw Penelope Keith was at the top of Holmbury Hill, near Holmbury St Mary, when she unveiled a plaque to celebrate a lottery donation for the preservation of an Iron Age settlement. Tall, elegant and very friendly, she has an air of charm that endears her to everyone. I noticed that day how often she laughs, and how people always laugh with her. Penelope has been associated with making people laugh for years, although she is quick to point out that she has taken on many serious roles since she started acting over 45 years ago. Her reputation as a comedy actress stems mainly from playing Margo in the BBC series, The Good Life, the much-loved sitcom about a self-sufficient couple in Surbiton, first televised in 1975. Originally a supporting role to that of Felicity Kendal's 'Barbara', Penelope played the 'nosey next door neighbour' with such panache that the part was developed and remains one of the most recognised and adored TV characters of all time. The acclaimed actress continued to create laughter out of snobbery in the BBC comedy series, To The Manor Born, which attracted viewing figures in excess of 20 million. Indeed, the final episode was seen by almost 24 million people. In the theatre, Penelope has starred in many lauded productions, including two seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company, many acclaimed touring shows and, most recently, The Importance of Being Earnest. She professes that 'live theatre' is her first love and on the opening night of her role as Lady Bracknell at Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, she positively swept onto the stage, creating a gasp of admiration from the audience. Dressed in splendid Victorian costume, and with confident command of her lines, it was easy to see why she remains one of Britain's best-loved actresses. No stranger to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, her first appearance there was in Dear Charles in 1992 and she has returned many times over the years in other productions such as On Approval and Star Quality. "I love performing at the Yvonne Arnaud because it's so near to home!" she smiles. "But, seriously, it's a lovely theatre to perform at. It's always so welcoming and the dressing rooms overlook the river." Penelope lives just a few miles south of Guildford in Milford, and enjoys visiting the town as her main shopping choice. "If I can shop locally I do, but I love to shop in Guildford from time to time. I often cause a stir because I am still using plastic bags from four years ago. I am absolutely horrified at waste nowadays. When I buy a greetings card, it's already wrapped in film - I don't need another bag to put it in. And you see people walking around with plastic bottles full of over-priced water - the whole thing is ludicrous and we really need to encourage people to think about it more." Penelope is also doing her bit for the environment by travelling on trains, rather than clogging up the roads, although is it not entirely to cut down on her carbon footprint. "I actually prefer the train, but I am amazed at how the number of travellers has accelerated over the years," she says. "The packed carriages simply remind me how over-populated this corner of England is. It concerns me that we do not have the infrastructure in place to support that - the hospitals, the schools etc. I am also concerned about the encroachment of concrete into this beautiful county."

A great believer in giving something back to the local community, Penelope continues to direct her energies into many Surrey organisations - including as a patron of the Crime Diversion Scheme operating at HMP Coldingley in Woking. Created to bring together potential young offenders and inmates, in a bid to help the youngsters turn their lives around, it's a cause that is particularly close to her heart. "Another of our concerns is that although prisons do a good job in re-training inmates and giving them some structure, they are then turfed out into the wide world with �40 and two B&B vouchers," she says. "In most cases, they re-offend but a new scheme is offering support once they are released and this has seen a great improvement."

Penelope was also very involved in raising money for the recently launched Surrey Air Ambulance - the county's first helicopter dedicated to helping out with medical emergencies. "I was shocked to learn that there was no air ambulance in Surrey, especially with the nature of our landscape," she says. "South of Guildford in particular is very rural, and difficult to reach. We have two killer trunk roads, although not all the call-outs are road related. In the first month that the air ambulance was in operation there were 60 calls, which just shows how badly the service is needed."

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When Penelope manages to find some spare time, she loves to spend it with her husband, policeman Rodney Timson, and their two sons. She is also a keen gardener and autumn is her favourite time of year. "I can't wait to get out there and start pruning," she says. "It is so satisfying, and once it's done, it's done. Unlike spring pruning, when the shrubs simply grow back and tease you, a bit like a naughty school child." Clearly, Penelope is a person who relishes the outdoor life, and at 67, she looks fit and young and is raring to go. "I'm not particularly health conscious, just blessed with good health. I think it's all in the genes, don't you? I am lucky to come from a line of strong women. I see people pounding the streets and I think, 'thank goodness I don't have to do that'." She will certainly need every ounce of her energy over the next few weeks, touring the UK's regional theatres in The Importance of Being Earnest. "We are getting Christmas off though! Isn't that wonderful?!" she says. "I expect the theatres will be full of panto, and that's not something I am tempted to do now, no, certainly not. I did do it when in rep, but I am far happier in productions such as this. I love wearing the period costumes, and the language of Wilde is so wonderful; such a very rich text." And with that, it's time for her to get back to her hectic schedule - be it rehearsing in the theatre, helping one of the countless charities she supports or simply getting out in the late autumn sunshine in her Surrey garden.


10 things you never knew about Penelope Keith

Born in Sutton in 1940, Penelope has always had a great affection for Surrey and its beautiful countryside. Penelope was sent to boarding school at Seaford in Sussex at the age of six. She later attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Two of her favourite Surrey views are Holmbury Hill and Stag Hill. She received an OBE in 1989. Since 1990, Penelope has been the President of the UK Actors' Benevolent Fund (replacing Sir Laurence Olivier). She is an avid gardener and hosted a radio show on gardening for Thames TV. She describes herself as 'a gardener who acts'. In 1984, she had a rose named after her. Penelope served as High Sheriff of Surrey from 2002-2003 - only the third woman ever to hold the post since the role was created over 1,000 years ago. She was awarded a CBE in the 2007 New Year's honours list for 'charitable services'.

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