IN the Seventies, Susan Penhaligon was everywhere. Stunningly beautiful, she smiled from magazine covers, billboards and newspapers alike.
The recognition that came from starring in the ground-breaking ITV drama Bouquet of Barbed Wire even saw the young actress hailed as ‘the British Bardot,’ and led one newspaper to crown her ‘the face of the decade.’
In town to star in Rehearsal For Murder at The King’s, the still glamorous Penhaligon, now in her 60s, reflects that in hindsight she was ill-equipped to deal with the attention the series brought her.
“I had no idea I photographed that well and, of course, never actually believed any of my press,” she says. “I don’t think I dealt with the pressure very well. “At drama school you weren’t taught how to deal with 26 million people watching you on TV every week - you don’t get those figures these days.
“Going into a contract with a TV company meant you had to do publicity and, looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have done some of it. I never really enjoyed it.”
With a laugh, she adds, “I’d enjoy it much more now. I wish I could put my head now on my then 24-year-old shoulders.”
Penhaligon’s coping mechanism was simple - work, work and then work some more, and by the eighties she was equally famous for playing Judi Dench’s ever-patient sister Helen, in A Fine Romance.
“I just kept working. I think I’m probably a bit of a workaholic. It’s still what I do now,” she says. “I believe acting is a bit of a drug.”
That drug brings Penhaligon back to the old Lady of Leven Street in a murder mystery written by the team behind TV’s Murder She Wrote and Columbo.
The story revolves around playwright Alex Dennison, who is left heartbroken when his fiancée and leading lady Monica Welles is found dead, having committed suicide on her stage debut.
On the anniversary of that ill-fated night, Alex assembles the same company in the same theatre for a reading of his new play.
As the reading progresses, the play’s similarity to actual events becomes increasingly uncomfortable and it soon becomes clear Alex believes Monica was murdered.
His new play is a devious chase to uncover her killer...
“It is set in 1989, pre-mobile phones, and audiences seem to love it,” says Penhaligon, adding that director Roy Marsden has done an amazing amount of work.
“I think the attraction is that it’s set in a theatre,” she reflects.
“We all play actors, directors... I’m the producer Bella Lamb, all recognisable types; leading man, chief girl, the film star come back to continue her career after a time in Hollywood...
“Audiences love that it’s a show within a show. Actually there is a bit that is a show within a show within a show, but I’m not giving any more away.”
Penhaligon is joined by a cast of TV favourites including Robert Daws of The Royal as the playwright, alongside Amy Robbins, Robert Duncan, Ben Nealon, Steven Pinder and Lucy Dixon.
“Bob Daws is our leading man and is on stage all night doing the most amazing job, he really is the heart of the show,” she says. “But what I really love about it is that it remains an ensemble piece and that is what theatre is all about.”
Rehearsal For Murder, King’s Theatre, until Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £17-£30.50, 0131-529 6000