Last night’s TV – Wendy Richard: To Tell You the Truth

Wendy Richard

When legendary actress Wendy Richard was diagnosed with cancer for the third time in January 2008, she decided she wanted to make a film to help other people in a similar situation, so in November, she began filming what was to be her final TV appearance, other than those that are thankfully stored for posterity in any number of archives.

“I was terrified about what chemotherapy involved” she said. “I’d heard all sorts of rumours and I was frightened, but yet I knew having refused it when I had cancer the last time, that now I really needed to get stuck in…

“Now that I have, I want other people to see what it’s all about and to tell the truth about what it involves.”

Wendy Richard & John Burns

The film followed Wendy and her husband John through one of the most difficult – and as it sadly transpired, last – times of their lives, but Wendy’s dignity and John’s devotion stood out, and despite the fact that in some ways the film didn’t achieve what Wendy wanted it to – namely that of providing hope in the curative power of chemotherapy – it nonetheless provided some of the things on her list of ‘wants’, such as a demonstration of how to handle both cancer and chemotherapy with dignity and stoicism.

Wendy’s steely determination to carry on fighting her cancer right to the end would’ve made Pauline Fowler proud. She was no push over either, and as James Alexandrou – who played Wendy’s on-screen son Martin – told her, “If I was cancer, I’d be scared of you!”

And rightly so! She was a formidable lady with a fortitude that spoke of her childhood during the war when fortitude and dignity were often the only things one could truly ensure keeping hold of.

With a look of schoolmarmish determination on her thinning and gaunt face, Wendy insisted, “You’re there to give hope and encouragement to other women going through the same thing, so even if you’re just popping out to the shops, you want to look your best.”

“You must never give in” she told Natalie Cassidy, who starred alongside James as Wendy’s on-screen daughter-in-law Sonia.

“You’ve got to fight” she added vehemently, and her finger wagging attitude when talking to Natalie might’ve implied that Natalie had ever dared suggest otherwise… I suspect she hadn’t. This was just one of the many things during the film that raised a smile as much as a tear from me for Wendy.

“Stay positive, don’t give up, it’s not the British way of doing things” ordered Wendy and she was certainly in a position to know that the power of positive thought plays a big role in survival; she’d already achieved it twice before her third run-in with cancer issued the KO blow that she of course neither wanted nor deserved but ultimately accepted with the caveat that she wouldn’t just roll over and give in to its rapacious demands.

Throughout her chemotherapy, and as the killer disease ravaged her body, Wendy’s humour remained and though it was through the ever present tear or two, I had a little titter when, the day before she died, Wendy wasn’t able to talk because of the mouth ulcers she had, so, feeling tired and fed up, she passed John a brief and to-the-point note containing just two words, the second of which was “off”.

If sheer willpower and strength of character could beat cancer, or indeed anything else, Wendy would’ve lived to be a hundred, but sadly, although clearly a positive attitude can keep you alive longer than a ‘victim’ mindset, nonetheless, poor Wendy passed away with John at her side.

And so it was the patient John who was left to explain that Wendy would still have wanted the film broadcast, even though she lost her battle with cancer on February 26th this year and therefore didn’t get to see the finished article herself.

In an interview with the Mirror, John talked about how he’d had to finish the film alone.

“When she died, I had to shoot the ending and talk about Wendy not making it. It was incredibly difficult because, obviously, it wasn’t how I’d hoped to end the film. We’d all dreamed of showing her coming out triumphant. Sadly, that wasn’t to be.

“So I had to go on camera by myself and wrap it up neatly. But I know it’s what Wendy would have wanted. And it’s not all tears. There’s some laughter too. At home and in hospital, it’s just Wendy being Wendy. It sounds ironic, but we so wanted to show that chemotherapy saves lives.”

He forlornly and poignantly added, “She was my mate, my wife, my friend. And I miss her desperately. But I feel lucky to have known her. That she chose me.”

What a brave lady and what a joy and sadness this film was in equal measure. I feel lucky to have known her too John, even if it was through a screen of glass.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.