Fresh off the stage at The Grand, Pauline Quirke talks about nerves and her dramatic weight loss.
When Pauline Quirke performed in Blackpool last week, the 52-year-old was not the woman she used to be.
Just over a year ago, she was a size 28 and tipped the scales at nearly 20st.
Today, she is still the Pauline Quirke everybody knows and loves, the down-to-earth, “cor blimey” Londoner who won the hearts of the nation, as Sharon in the hit comedy series Birds Of A Feather, and more recently starred as Hazel Rhodes in Emmerdale. It’s just physically, there’s a lot less of her.
Audiences watching her alongside fellow actresses Lesley Joseph and Linda Robson onstage at The Grand Theatre this week – including their last show tonight - cannot have failed to see the dramatic transformation.
It was so dramatic – a weight loss of eight stone – it had to be written into the script of the 17-week Birds of a Feather tour.
She said: “We kept a few fat jokes in because I’m still fatter than Lesley. She’s lost 16lbs, Linda’s lost three-and-a-half stone and I’ve lost eight.
“There’s a great line when Dorian says, ‘Oh Sharon, you’ve lost weight. What was it? Bypass? Gastric band? Dyno-Rod?’”
Pauline, who suffers from osteoarthritis, says a hip replacement in 2009, aching knee joints and a fall in which she broke her arm, were among a series of catalysts which led to her decision to slim down.
Constant tiredness, no exercise, feeling generally unhealthy and the difficulty she had managing day-to-day events such as buying clothes sent her into an all-time low.
Other humiliating incidents spurred her on, such as the time she and her family went on holiday to Mallorca and she couldn’t buckle her seatbelt on the aircraft.
She had to request a seatbelt extension which arrived in an eye-popping shade of fluorescent orange.
“I dreaded getting on an aeroplane. I used to think, ‘Will it go on this time?’ I could always wangle it by lifting up my belly and doing up the belt, but sweat would be pouring off me and my table would never go down. I just couldn’t get it done up this time. I like to make it a funny story, but it wasn’t.”
She recalls the humiliation she felt in her new book, Where Have I Gone?, which charts her weight loss.
So, Pauline went on a LighterLife diet, a food replacement programme where normal meals are substituted with low calorie packs of powder mixed with water. She didn’t eat normal food for eight months, but lost seven stone in half a year.
At the time, she was living in Leeds, working on Emmerdale and initially she’d privately have her replacement meals while the rest of the cast went to the canteen. Counselling also helped her change her attitude to food – she joined a gym and is now eating normal food, porridge for breakfast, often fish in the evening – but still regularly uses meal substitute packs.
Pauline first appeared on-screen aged nine in Dixon Of Dock Green and gained later critical acclaim for performances in Down To Earth and The Sculptress. But it was the sitcom Birds Of A Feather which brought her the most recognition.
When the idea of reuniting the three women for a theatre show arose, she hadn’t been on the stage for more than 20 years. But with her children grown up – Emily is 27 and Charlie 17– there was nothing stopping her, she reflects, although her lifelong stage fright remains.
“I went through 101 episodes of Birds Of A Feather not sleeping the night before filming them and vomiting before the actual taping.”
Charlie, is also in the stage show, sharing the role of Travis, Tracy’s son, with Robson’s son, Louis.
“As Charlie’s there as well, I don’t want him to see how nervous I get, hyperventilating or being sick. I’ve spent most of my professional life terrified.”