Meet Boat Dweller, Cornishwoman, Susan Penhaligon

Meet Boat Dweller, Cornishwoman, Susan Penhaligon

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Despite having been born in Manila in the Philippines, actress Susan Penhaligon is ‘Cornish’ finds Bruna Zanelli. Even her Twitter biography says so: boat dweller, Cornishwoman.

Returning to Cornwall when she was six, her formative years were spent in St Ives. Then when her parents divorced and her father moved to San Francisco, she and her brother, Michael, went to live with their grandmother in Falmouth. “That is where I get my sense of roots; of being Cornish. I had a very old fashioned Cornish granny who made saffron cake and pasties’. Her grandmother imbued her with a sense of being Cornish. ‘She took it upon herself to teach us about Cornwall: this is what the Cornish do, what they think.”

Penhaligon’s Cornish roots run deep – and all the way back to the 18th century.


“My great, great, great-grandfather worked in the St Austell clay pits. I am completely Cornish on both sides of the family.”

But she doesn’t visit as much as she’d like to. “I’ve turned into a bit of an ex-pat. I sit here in London and comment without really knowing much about it. But Cornwall has changed so much – especially St. Ives…adding “don’t get me started on that…” releasing a groan, “I can’t believe there is not even one Cornish person on the Town Parish Council down there. Unbelievable!  I cannot believe they have allowed so many houses to become holiday lets and second homes. For me, the sense of community that existed while I was growing up is no longer there.” She isn’t against progress. “No! I’m not saying change shouldn’t happen, and I’m not saying that people shouldn’t earn a living. My mother ran a B&B, so I know how important the holiday season is, but I think you have to strike a balance. You have to retain the community as well. That is very important.”

When she was eleven, Susan was sent to boarding school in Bristol where her creative talents were encouraged, “The school was very artistic, even had its own theatre, and that’s where it all kicked off for me.” By the time she was eighteen, she was at drama school in London where she regularly visited the National Theatre, then housed at the Old Vic. She remembers seeing the likes of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, and a few years later, found herself working alongside Judi Dench. “I played her sister, Helen, in the series ‘A Fine Romance’. It was amazing that I got to work with her.  She was, after all, a role model.”

These days she is eloquent in her disappointment over the lack of roles for ‘older’ women.

“There are, sadly, not enough good roles for us but I think things are slowly changing. I think there is an acceptance now that 60% of the television audience is actually over forty and they probably don’t always want to watch ‘young things’ snogging.”

“Trouble is when you get a love story, you have to have younger people. It’s very difficult to have older people carrying a love story.”

Despite the success of ‘Last Tango in Halifax’, which is a love story between two retirees, Susan believes there is still this notion that the audience wants to watch “beautiful young things – especially in movies, that is never going to change”.

As she settles into her sixties, Susan Penhaligon is looking forward to playing more character parts, laughing at the memory of ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire’, the 1976 controversial drama that catapulted her to fame as Britain’s Brigitte Bardot. “I was so young!”

Following its success, she appeared constantly on television, with roles in ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, Bergerac, Dr. Who, Wycliffe, to name a few, and later in ‘A Touch of Frost’, ‘Doctors’ and ‘Casualty’. More recently she played ‘Jean Hope’ for a year in the ever popular ‘Emmerdale’. She also has an impressive catalogue of work in the theatre ranging from Shakespeare to Chekov to farce and comedy.

But acting was not the reason she recently made the newspapers. Although not fiercely political she does have a “healthy interest in politics” and feels her chosen party is moving too far to the centre for her liking. “I can’t get my head around privatising the Royal Mail,” she states, and she was so angered by the Lib-Dems backing of the controversial ‘Bedroom Tax’, she ripped up her Lib-Dem membership card in protest. Her late cousin, Liberal MP David Penhaligon, once tipped as a future party leader before he was tragically killed in a car crash in 1986, would surely be “turning in his grave” over such controversial policies. “If I lived in Cornwall, I think I might be a bit Mebyon Kernow!”

And if she lived in Cornwall she would be pressing the powers-that-be to create one big art festival. “Like something along the lines of the Edinburgh Festival”.  She visualises it being held in Truro and other large towns like Falmouth or Launceston.  “Edinburgh makes a fortune when the festival is on, tourists come from all over the world.  Cornwall should be promoting the Arts not just pasties and saffron cake.  There is so much talent down there.”

But what about funding?  “Of course, funding would be difficult,” she agrees, “but maybe Prince Charles would help. He is the Duke of Cornwall and he is very much for the arts.” Yet she insisted she is not the person to kick start the idea. “I’m not a ‘committee’ kind of person,” she argued, despite her obvious passion for the idea. “What we need is a Cornwall Arts Festival,” she repeated, “taking in all the arts: music, TV, theatre, films, art, writing, books…everything! Can you imagine the revenue it would generate for the county!  And it would be exciting, and would bring a different kind of tourist to Kernow.”

But Penhaligon doesn’t live in Cornwall. For the past twelve years, she has lived on a houseboat on the Thames in Surrey. “My dear little houseboat was originally used to transport grain down the canals of Holland. During World War Two, the crew would hide British airmen in a cupboard in the hold before they were spirited back to the UK.”  Susan bought the Dutch barge, had it fully refurbished, complete with central heating, and the hold which once served to help those airmen to escape, is now the lounge and kitchen. Two perfectly formed bedrooms complete her idyll.

“I love the water,” She explains, “Our house in St Ives was right on the sea, opposite the Godrevy Lighthouse.  One day I was sitting on the boat on the Thames and I looked out one side and thought – well, I have the river – the water, and I looked out the other side and there were people walking up the tow path, and it was exactly like our house in St Ives used to be. On one side was the sea and in front were the holidaymakers walking up and down the road.’ She laughed ‘I’ve recreated my childhood home!”

Recently, her family history has taken on the feel of a television drama. She and her brother Michael knew they had another brother and sister in the US but had never managed to make contact. Coincidently, Michael had married an American and moved to San Francisco, as his father had years before! Unexpectedly, Susan’s half brother, Greg, began to search for her online.

“He found me on Twitter, but I was very new to Twitter, and I had this message saying: ‘I think you are my sister,’ sat in my timeline for a week. In fact, it was my agent who found it.”

Susan recalls feeling stunned: “I was amazed and elated and very happy. I arranged to meet Greg and my sister, Karen, in San Francisco, and meeting Karen was like looking at myself!” They share the same mannerisms and the same shape nose and eyes. “It was a bizarre experience! We are so alike – except she is a scientist. Our father, who died in the ‘70s, had two dominating genes: artistic and scientific. Karen and I are bookends to him.”

Susan had to explain to her American sister that she was half Cornish and what that meant. ‘‘We have become friends and sisters and I can’t wait to visit her again. On Karen’s part, she wants to visit Cornwall and discover where her father came from. She knows very little about his early life.”

As well as her new found siblings, Susan has a grown up son, Truan Munro, from her marriage to filmmaker, the late David Munro. He lives in New Zealand, where he is also a filmmaker and is yet to meet his new family members.

So what does the future hold for Susan Penhaligon?

“I don’t know but I feel like I’m coming into my own. It’s taken me a long time to get to know who I am,” she laughs, “and I know that sounds bizarre but I find being in my sixties rather exciting”.


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