In 1960s Britain, you could count the number of openly lesbian pop singers on one hand – or indeed one finger: Polly Perkins. Although she is better known for her TV work, particularly for her later roles in TV soaps Eldorado and, more recently, EastEnders, Polly also had a pop career, albeit a not-overly-successful one.
Polly Perkins was born Gillian Arnold on 31 May 1943 in Paddington, west London.
Her parents were successful vaudeville performers who encouraged their daughter’s theatrical leanings. This may go some way to explaining why, aged just 15, she became the youngest woman to go nude at London’s Windmill Theatre.
A new name
After a spell as Danee Arnold, she settled on a stage moniker that she has stuck with – borrowing the name from the music hall song Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green.
Having been taken under the wing of manager Lena Davis, Polly launched herself on the wider general public.
After landing a record deal with Decca, Polly started out with the novelty number I reckon you. Issued in February 1963 and credited to Polly Perkins and Bill, the song was an ‘answer record’ to Mike Sarne’s chart topper with Wendy Richard, Come outside.
Despite promotion on shows such as Juke box jury and Discs a go-go, however, the disc failed to sell.
Decca wanted to keep Polly in the novelty vein, but manager Davis was having none of it. Instead, Polly moved to the smaller Oriole label later that year. There, she was teamed with arranger Charles Blackwell, the man behind Mike Sarne’s hit.
Sweet as honey, a credible track she wrote with Davis, was issued as Polly’s first release for the label. Accompaniment was provided by no less a figure than Ivor Raymonde, the man behind many of Dusty Springfield’s hits. (The B-side, a second joint composition, I’ve gotta tell you, was also strong.)
Is she or isn’t she?
Davis worked hard behind the scenes to make a star of her act – and Polly soon became a TV regular, compering early editions of Ready steady go! before making way for Cathy McGowan. To ensure Polly went out with a bang, Davis paid a young man in the audience of the live show to jump on stage, grab Polly and swear his undying love. The stunt made all the newspapers but wasn’t enough to prompt a reprieve for Polly.
Polly never hid her lesbianism, though she would take part in almost any stunt dreamed up by her manager. Thus, her supposed on-off-on-again relationship with 1950s rock ‘n’ roll star Terry Dene kept Polly in the headlines.
The following spring, Polly returned to the recording studios to cut the Paul Anka-penned Young lover as her follow up 45. Issued in May 1964, the record found its admirers, though for many, the flip – the catchy You too can be a Beatle, which had been written by Johnny Worth – proved the more interesting side.
However, despite Davis’ best intentions, the disc kept Polly at the gimmicky end of the market. This may have lain at the heart of Polly’s failure to connect with the record-buying public. For some, the fact that she smoked cigars and sported pinstripe men’s suits from Carnaby Street’s John Stephen left her tarnished by the brush marked ‘novelty’.
A third single, I went by our house today, issued in December 1964, went unnoticed in Britain, though it was flipped in Germany to greater effect. That’s because the B-side was Falling in love again, a version of Marlene Dietrich’s Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß.
When it failed to sell at home, Polly parted ways with Oriole.
She continued to perform, but didn’t return to the recording studios until 1969, when she took lead vocal duties with folk combo The Academy. An LP, Pop lore according to The Academy, fused jazz with folk and psychedelia. Munching the candy and Rachel’s dream are generally considered its standout tracks.
In 1973 she cut her first solo album, Liberated woman, for the Chapter One label. However, the single Coochie coo is understood to have been banned by the BBC, though its bosses denied the rumour. Either way, its lack of success cost album sales.
A second LP, Polly, issued on Greasepaint Records, followed four years later.
The 1970s also saw Polly take bit parts in TV shows such as The Sweeney and Menace. She gained more recognition for her cabaret work in London’s West End clubs, including her own Polly’s Candelight towards the end of the decade.
TV soap stardom
She continued to make further minor TV appearances. She moved to Spain with her girlfriend and her son in the 1980s – making her the ideal casting for the role of past-her-sell-by-date nightclub singer Trish Valentine when the BBC launched its TV soap Eldorado, in 1992. The series gained Polly nationwide recognition but, despite gaining audience share as it went on, it was shelved after just a year.
Roles proved thin on the ground following the show’s demise – indeed, Polly had to wait almost 20 years until it was announced that she would join the case of long-running soap EastEnders. In it, she played Rose Cotton, the estranged half-sister of Dot Cotton. She would remain in the role for almost a year.