We Ask (Mrs.) Pickles

It’s a double TV date on BBC for Wilfred Pickles this week – in “Ask Pickles” and “Telescope”. How do he and Mabel keep up the pace?

Cover of the TV Mirror
From the TV Mirror for 5 May 1956

WILFRED and Mabel are the royalty of “personality entertainment,” whose private lives delight us all because we feel they are “just like us” — or rather just as we’d like to be.

Away with any idea of mystery making for glamour (and imagine for one second if you can the vision of Wilfred being mysterious about anything!): it’s just not their cup of tea at all. They’ve broken all the accepted rules and made their own, and if you want to know if they’re successful … no, I won’t say it … ask Mabel this time !

When I tried to persuade her to talk about herself she said: “Wilfred knows more about me than I do myself really —don’t you, Wilfred?” To which he replied: “Well… you tell first and I’ll have a go afterwards!”

“Mother wouldn’t let me”

Mabel began: “I was born in Lancashire, as you probably know. All my family were connected with the theatre (my mother was a Tiller Girl) but Wilfred was just the opposite. Nobody in his family had anything to do with the stage at all — the professional stage, I mean to say.

“Mother decided that whatever happened I wasn’t going to marry anyone in the profession — it was too hard work and much too unstable.” Here Wilfred cut in: “She married a respectable builder who chucked it up and went on the stage!”

I asked if Mabel had ever wanted to act herself in those days. “My mother wouldn’t let me. Oh, I’d love to have been a principal boy!”

I wondered what her mother’s feelings were when the “respectable builder” turned actor. Mabel smiled, and said: “It was too late to stop Wilfred by that time, we were married then — we could do as we liked! She’s seventy-eight now, my mother is, and one of his greatest fans … no regrets at all.

“When Wilfred was thinking of becoming an actor, I was all for it. I encouraged him — oh yes, I did. He started broadcasting in Manchester, and of course all the time I knew him he was leading man in the Halifax Amateur Dramatic Society.”

In Wilfred’s book, Between You and Me, the story of his remarkable career is told in his own way — and of course his first meeting with Mabel at the dramatic society. But on a very busy morning (comprising a meeting at ten o’clock, me at eleven o’clock, recording a children’s story at twelve o’clock and the sitting-room table stacked with mail and charity requests) their comments on it were brief and typically amusing: —

Wilfred: “Yes, we met at the dramatic society. She was leading lady and I was looking on… so that was all right!”

Mabel: “We met and married in eighteen months.”

Wilfred: “Weddings are all much alike, aren’t they?”

Mabel: “You either wear white or you don’t.”

Wilfred: “On our honeymoon I gave the porter my only gold sovereign instead of a sixpence! It was because I was ashamed of the confetti in the car — I’d been going to have that sovereign made into a ring for Mabel. I told that story on TV and afterwards I got three of them sent in to me… I was bucked!”

Wilfred says he’s always “liked people — always liked to mix,” and he sat back remembering… “Way back in ’39, doing Billy Welcome you know, I met a tremendous number of people, and I got a knowledge of their trades too. I won’t ever rehearse them either. I learned that early and I’ve stuck to it: Ordinary folk are best the first time off. For instance…

“I said to a fisherman the other day, a man who was telling me about how he’d been in a ninety-mile-an-hour gale, ‘Did you say your prayers?’ and he said: ‘Well, I thought about it, but I was too busy with the compass!’ Of course it got a tremendous laugh. Now if he’d rehearsed that and it had been the second time, he’d have played it up and it wouldn’t have been nearly so funny, would it?”

Mabel Pickles

Successful debut

I asked Mabel when she was going to appear in a play with him. She said: “They want me to, but I’m very happy to be a housewife. Oh, except for Ask Pickles. I enjoy that, but it was an accident that I was ever in it.

“People had heard me on the radio in Have a Go and when Wilfred asked them (as he still does, you know) what they’d like, they said they’d like to see me next. Then after the first one, when I was such a success because of helping with that dog, you remember? well, they kept me on! I’ve been in ever since and I love it too.

“As it is, we’re never apart anyway — twenty-four hours in the day we work together, and then there are Saturday and Sunday charity shows, and Wilfred’s mail, which is over a thousand letters a week, and that’s not counting what goes to the BBC.” (I’d already had some indication of the size of his post-bag because one of my own letters got embedded in the Pickles lot recently — it reached me — with profuse apologies — one month later!)

I asked what they did in their spare time, if any. “Books are Wilfred’s favourites,” said Mabel. “All sorts, novels, plays, biographies, but specially poetry — he’s very fond of that. I wasn’t very interested in poetry but I’ve got very keen now. I like it when he reads it out loud to me. If we do get an evening at home sometimes, we really relax and lie in bed and he’ll read to me. Yes… reads poetry beautifully, does Wilfred.

The Pickles in a pub
Wilfred and Mabel, tireless charity workers, visit a Sussex pub to collect money for Spastics. Customers had donated £100, all in these piles of pennies

Opposite personalities

“We never have time to go to the pictures, I think we’ve seen one film in two years, but we love the theatre — all sorts of theatres — and television naturally. We’re specially fond of ballet. That’s the other way round you see, because I liked that and Wilfred’s got to like it, while he taught me to like poetry.

“I do all my own cooking (Yorkshire pudding’s my speciality, of course!) but I’m a shocker with a needle. I do my best with buttons but even then everybody laughs! Wilfred’s useless at odd jobs; I’m better at those, and he needs all his time and energy for his own job, anyway.”

At this moment Mabel was called to the kitchen and Wilfred went on: “Mabel’s capable… my goodness, yes. I never fill in a diary, she does that. She’s brought common sense to this life of ours. I’m a shocker — just say ‘yes’ to everybody, and no head for figures. But perhaps I taught her to like people, so it’s complementary really. We’re opposite personalities, but we don’t row — that’s unheard of in our house. The only time we ever stopped speaking to each other we had to laugh!

“I suppose you might sum up Mabel and me by saying … we work hard, we love life and people … and we’ve very simple tastes — thank God.”

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Elizabeth Gray was a writer and interviewer for TV Mirror

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