Sitting inside a theatre foyer in Cardiff, Ruth Madoc is recalling her real-life encounter with Dorothy Squires five decades ago.
Madoc was in London at the start of her career when she spotted the Welsh singing starlet with her then husband, Bond actor Roger Moore.
“I never saw her performing live but she was at a restaurant in Soho which I had very kindly been taken to,” she remembers.
“It was a lovely restaurant which was a bit exclusive in those days. She was sitting at one of the tables with Roger Moore and I was fascinated by her. I didn’t want to rubber neck but I couldn’t help myself,” laughs Madoc, moving her head to the side to illustrate. “She was quite loud, I remember that about her, and she was very glamorous. It was a glamorous persona which she had obviously cultivated – but we all do that.”
It may be early morning when I meet Madoc – best known for playing Gladys Pugh in ’80s sitcom Hi-de-Hi! – at Sherman Cymru but she is the epitome of glamour herself.
Wearing casual clothes but with immaculate make-up and perfectly coiffed hair, she’s sipping coffee just before rehearsals begin.
For she’s currently portraying the woman she was once so captivated by in the new theatre drama Say It With Flowers.
Penned by Squires’ friend Johnny Tudor and playwright Meic Povey, it is the real life rags to riches story of a young girl escaping the drudgery of the Llanelli tin works and her struggle to reach the highest pinnacle of showbiz, ending with her sad demise, penniless back in the valleys of Wales.
Squires was one of Britain’s most successful stars of the ’50s and ’60s and lived in the media spotlight but her fame was overshadowed by her tempestuous marriage to Roger Moore and her predilection for litigation and battles with newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch, which left her with no money.
The touring stage show features Madoc as Squires during her twilight years looking back on her colourful life.
“When I was growing up in Llansamlet, I would hear her on the radio. My grandmother would say to me, ‘She’s from Llanelli you know.’ She has a very big Welsh voice, just like Tom Jones,” says Madoc, releasing a guttural sound. “She did very well as amplification wasn’t so good in those days but she didn’t need it.
“And, of course, she was glamorous. During the ’50s, we were still living in a grey world so to have someone with sparkles on who was larger than life was devoured by audiences who had had so much austerity.”
Madoc admits that while the show draws on facts about Squires’ life as well as Tudor’s memories of her, no one can be 100% sure of what a person was thinking or the conversations they may have had. And, of course, the dramatic moments have to be amplified to appeal to audiences.
“When you’re doing something like this you have to take the essence of her life and heighten it but it’s absolutely as true to life as it can be,” says Madoc.
“She had the persona of a goddess but she also had a heart of gold. There was a generosity about her so if she did behave like a diva, she was forgiven.”
The mother-of-two spoke to people who had known Squires, listened to recordings of her and did online research as she prepared for the play, which opens at Sherman Cymru next week before touring.
“She remained feisty when she was older – there was no sign of any frailty on camera. She was a consummate star.”
Madoc has been enjoying preparing for the premiere and even celebrated her 70th birthday in the rehearsal room.
“I can’t believe I’ve survived to 70 in this business,” she says. “I was working here on the day and they gave me a nice birthday cake which I didn’t expect as we’d only all met the day before.”
Madoc, who started her career with the entertainment troupe The Black And White Minstrels, says she can empathise with Squires.
“Rejection is 50% of the emotion in our business – you have to believe in yourself. I believe in myself and she believed in herself.
“She had a heck of a life. She was a sort of Piaf,” says Madoc, glancing out of the window and recalling the French singer. “In fact, I’ve never thought of that before – yes, she was the Welsh Piaf.”
Say It With Flowers is at Sherman Cymru, Cardiff, May 15 to 25; Clwyd Theatre Cymru, Mold, June 4 5; Torch Theatre, Milford Haven, June 11 12 and Theatr Ffwrnes, Llanelli, June 14 15