Perhaps the most surprising thing about Pam Ayres is that she wouldn’t like anyone to think of her as a poet. “In my life I have written about six poems,” she says with a hint of defiance in her voice. “The rest of it is comedy that happens to rhyme.”
So should we have been thinking of her more like Victoria Wood all this time? After all, there are similarities between the two – Wood rose to fame via the TV talent show New Faces in 1974 while Ayres won Opportunity Knocks in 1975. She hesitates. “Victoria Wood was a good song-writer. And she wrote sitcoms. I see myself as a comedian and a writer. I strove to be somebody who could make people convulse with laughter.”
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However you define her talent, Ayres, who turns 71 this month, has been making people laugh since she first started reciting her verse on the folk music circuit in Oxfordshire in the late 1960s. This week the sixth series of Ayres on the Air begins on Radio 4 (“There’s no message! It’s just entertainment and a bit of fun!” she says of the series that showcases her observations of the foibles of modern life) and later this month Pam Ayres: the Radio Years on Radio 4 Extra celebrates her 40 years on the BBC. Then in May, Picador will publish her illustrated children’s book called The Last Hedgehog.
Her success is quietly enduring. On her 12-date UK tour this year, half of the shows have already sold out. It was happily unaffected by the bad weather earlier this month, which fell during a break in the tour, but Ayres was completely snowed in at her place in the Cotswolds: “Awful foreign snow,” she says in her playful, deliberate way. “Not like our own friendly snow.”
She first achieved fame on Opportunity Knocks, the 1970s’ answer to Britain’s Got Talent with verses like Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth, later voted in the top ten in a BBC poll to find the nation’s favourite comic poems. Back then, it all came as a great surprise. “I never had a clue that a person from my background could do this for a living and be successful at it. We were a nice family but not bookish. I had a couple of Rupert annuals, but that was it.”
She was born and raised in Stanford-in-the-Vale in Berkshire, now Oxfordshire. Her father worked for the electricity board for 40 years. Her mother was in domestic service (“She had to wear a pinny and curtsy, which she hated”) before going on to raise six children. Pam, the youngest, left school at the age of 15 with little clue about what she wanted out of life.
“I went into the civil service, which was skull-crushingly boring. My brothers had done national service, and so I joined the Women’s Royal Air Force.” This was just as unsuitable for her, she admits, “but in the Air Force there were lots of theatre clubs, choirs and folk clubs, and you could get on the stage”. Finally, once she’d worked out that she needed to write her own material that could be delivered in her own accent, she found her place.
Her Oxfordshire accent gets attributed to Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and East Anglia: “Even Geordieland on one occasion,” she laughs. In her early radio career, it was highly unusual. “Regional accents are commonplace now, and they’re not sneered at in the way they used to be. I was in the minority then. Most people on air spoke with received pronunciation.” But she never considered changing her voice: “What does that do to you when you go home? If you go home to your family and you’re talking in some alien posh voice? It says you’re ashamed of the people you’ve sprung from.”
The WRAF clubs led to folk clubs, where she was picked up by local radio. Meanwhile she started selling pamphlets of her material at 40p each. She sold 7,000. At one village hall gig, the organisers said they would put her up for Opportunity Knocks.
“Was winning it life-changing? Of course it was. But I suddenly felt helpless, because previously it had been my baby. I had this cottage industry. If I made them laugh, they bought my pamphlet. Now I was handed over to the pros and shipped off for months around radio and television. On the one hand, I was delighted that people liked what I’d written. But on the other hand, I felt that I’d lost control.”
The best thing to come out of this time was that she met her husband Dudley Russell, who had promoted Fats Domino, Nana Mouskouri and Shirley Bassey, and became Ayres’s agent.
They went on to have two boys, William and James, now in their mid-30s, and have four grandchildren under the age of five, who have provided material for the new radio series. “These little persons are massively interesting to me,” says Ayres. “I heard people banging on about how wonderful it is to be a grandparent, that it’s like falling in love, and I thought that sounded sugary and embarrassing. But it’s magical. It’s a very different sort of love.”
Her great passion in life is clearly performing. But when she’s at home she is glued to the radio. “I like Radio 4, as I feel I had a fairly naff education. I listen to it all because I feel like I’m learning something from it.”
And despite her declaration that she’s not a poet, she marvels at the new generation of performance poets such as Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish. “All power to their elbow. When I came on the scene there was nobody doing it. There is more respect for me now. At first people wrote me off as a bad poet with a funny accent. Now they realise it’s not as easy as it looks.”
Ayres on the Air begins on Monday 19th March at 11.30am on Radio 4