Wendy Emerton – later to take the stage name Richard – was born in Middlesbrough on 20 July 1943. Later, her parents moved to London to manage a Mayfair pub, and she attended St George’s school in Mount Street. Her father, who had been a master mason, committed suicide when she was 11.
With Masonic assistance, she went to the Royal Masonic School for Girls at Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, which she found “strict” rather than congenial. The art mistress called her paintings and drawings “affected, rather like herself”.
Her ambitions took her to the Italia Conti drama school, where she helped fund her tuition by working as an assistant in the great London stores, Selfridges, DH Evans, Dickens & Jones, Fenwicks and the fashion department of Fortnum & Mason.
Her looks and enthusiasm meant that she did not have to wait long for jobs. While at the Italia Conti, she appeared on television with Sammy Davis Jr in the ATV programme Sammy Meets the Girls, and also in No Hiding Place.
In 1960 she had her first speaking part, in the popular television police series Dixon of Dock Green, as a runaway teenager. She then made a pop record with Mike Sarne, Come Outside, that hovered in the Top 10. The single sold over half a million copies but Wendy was paid just £15.
The first television series in which she regularly appeared was Harpers West One, in which she played an office receptionist in a West End store (pictured below left) for two series, ending in 1963 when she made another record, We Had a Dream.
Her first comedy TV series was Hugh and I with Terry Scott, Hugh Lloyd and Mollie Sugden, through whom she met the director David Croft, who was to employ her throughout her career.
Her early film career was not so fortunate. Her small part in the 1964 Beatles film Help! (1965) ended up on the cutting room floor and she had to wait until 1966 for her big screen debut in Doctor in Clover.
In 1971, Wendy played a semi-competent conductor in On the Buses. She was given a role in the film version in the same year. She also appeared in Both Ends Meet, a sitcom that centred around a sausage factory, in 1972 – a year that was to prove especially significant for her.
The pilot program for Are You Being Served? was screened in September, and early in 1973, the BBC decided to make it into a series.
As the bewildered but spirited Shirley Brahms, the junior shop assistant, Wendy played a cockney girl who seemed rather lost amid the well-bred accents and office politics in the genteel department store founded by the Grace brothers.
She was a sympathetic foil to the high-pitched campery of Mr Humphries (John Inman), the inadvertently suggestive ramblings of Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) about her “pussy”, and the constipated efforts of the decorous floorwalker Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton) to keep a semblance of order in front of the shopping public.
The 1977 cinema version was largely seen as unsuccessful, probably because the plot involved the Grace Brothers taking all of their employees on holiday on the Costa Plonka, leaving behind the in-store tensions that had given rise to most of the comedy.
In 1973, Peter Rogers (producer of the Carry On films) asked her to play a girl entering a beauty contest that ended up being wrecked by women’s rights demonstrators in Carry On Girls. It seemed as if she might become a regular member of the Carry On team, but it was not to be.
The women’s rights demonstrators were so realistic in hurling bags of flour and creating mayhem that Richard fled from the stage, a breach of professionalism that ensured she never heard from Rogers again.
A provincial tour of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, in which she played the maid, and some work in pantomime, beginning with Dandini in Cinderella at Dartford, Kent, convinced her that she would not be able to stand long theatrical runs.
With the invitation to play Pauline Fowler in EastEnders she was able to put such reverses out of her mind. She stayed with the show for more than 20 years – during which time she bore the screen deaths of her husband, mother and brother, and supported her HIV-positive son and pregnant teenage daughter – until script disagreements and illness led her to leave in 2006.
“Looking back on my career, I’ve virtually no regrets,” she wrote in her autobiography, Wendy Richard No S: My Life Story (2000), adding: “I’ve had more than my fair share of problems in my personal life.”
This was no exaggeration, for she seemed to have a genius for being exploited financially and emotionally, and her relationships were often marred by alcohol abuse or violence.
Richard was first married, in 1973, to Len Black, an importer. The marriage lasted only a matter of months. She married the advertising executive Will Thorpe in 1976, which lasted for three years, after which she married Paul Glorney, a carpet fitter, only to divorce again in 1994.
She lived with John Burns for 12 years before marrying him on 10 October 2008, just after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Wendy Richard died on 26 February 2009, aged 65.