Actress Penelope Keith on her good life as President of the South of England Society

PUBLISHED: 14:28 01 July 2013 | UPDATED: 14:28 01 July 2013

Penelope Keith

Penelope Keith

Archant

Brace yourself for a revelation: Margo Leadbetter, or rather her alter ego Penelope Keith, likes chickens. In fact, it swiftly becomes clear that the well-loved actor has more in common with pig-loving Barbara Goode than parvenu Margo.

We’re speaking because of Penelope’s role as this year’s President of the South of England Society. She will be opening a special exhibition at this year’s South of England Show in celebration of the show’s Poultry theme.

Penelope long ago threw herself into rural life and civic duties – she was High Sheriff from 2002-2003 and remains a Deputy Lieutenant of Surrey. She also has long-standing connections with Sussex – Penelope went to school in Seaford, and 36 years ago she met her husband, a former policeman, in Chichester.

I wonder what Margo would have thought of the poultry theme – she was famously antipathetic to the Goodes’ hens. “Oh yes, but I have kept them for about 24 years. I started because of a film by Compassion in World Farming [she is a long-standing supporter] about battery hens.” I ask which are her favourite fancy breeds, and she says, “mine are just good Beatrix Potter hens”, speculating that the more glamorous breeds are not much cop as layers.

Very much involved in rural life, Penelope thinks that the issues most of concern for country-dwellers are: “Transport, now more and more with the cost of rail fares and petrol. Certainly farmers have had the most appalling year; it’s been a constant struggle,” she says, recalling the painful images of lambs being dug out of the snow.

Although she loves animals, one or two experiences seem to have proved the famous maxim about working with children or beasts. “In Manor Born, I was supposed to offer Peter Bowles a lift in my horse and cart. He accepted, and in the script it said it started to rain. It was a beautiful day, so the local fire brigade were there spraying us with their hoses.” In what she says is a fine example of animals having more sense than humans, the horse steadfastly refused to walk through the spray, while Penelope and Peter sat helpless. Finally, they got their scene – but only after a lot of gentle persuasion.

When asked what has changed since the Good Life years, Penelope immediately names convenience food and imports. “I bought a pineapple today, and of course you couldn’t grow those in this country, unless you lived in a huge Victorian house with lots of available horse dung, but you see apples from Chile and just think ‘why’?”

Penelope recently described herself as “a gardener who acts”. She doesn’t grow food, although she recently read that if you have five apple trees you can say you have an orchard – so she hurriedly bought an addition to the existing four. But the most pride is reserved for the fritillaries around her duck pond.

Keith was at the vanguard of women actresses in the Golden Age of British comedy, playing two strong ladies when we saw far fewer of them on-screen. I wonder what she thinks of the current state of television comedy: “I am an actress and not a comedienne. Those were, to me, two acting jobs, and they happened to be rather splendid.

“I think no-one really takes time anymore.” Apparently people always comment on how it looked like the cast members were enjoying themselves on The Good Life. “But we used to spend a week rehearsing each episode.”

For now, her projects are rather closer to home, and we are not likely to see her on stage this year: “I am concentrating on my garden and the South of England Agricultural Society.” And, she adds, she’s doing a “no-rain dance” to ward off any downpours.

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