Actress, 100, turns poet for breast cancer charity

By Phil Chapman, BBC Look North

Helen Russell Helen Russell reclining on a sofa after performingHelen Russell

One of the last surviving members of an elite troupe that entertained the military during World War Two has penned a book of poetry at the age of 100.

Helen Russell lied about her age to get into the Entertainments National Service Association (Ensa) in 1939 when she was just 15.


After moving from London to South Shields, she enjoyed decades of success touring clubs and theatres.

Ms Russell survived breast cancer when she was 82 and has marked becoming a centenarian by publishing the book in aid of Breast Cancer Now.

“I’m 100 and I’m lucky to be here. I’ve got wonderful friends and family and I’m the luckiest person in the world,” she said.

Helen Russell at the publication of her book

Ms Russell said she had dreamed of joining Ensa for years, while doing impressions of film and music hall star Gracie Fields.

To be accepted among the elite, she pretended she was 16 years old.

“Entertaining the troupes was hard work, but I just loved it because it was all I ever wanted to do,” Ms Russell said.

“Even when at school I was always doing impressions.

“I was auditioned by Joan Collins’ father who was a big agent at the time, but I never met her.”

Helen Russell Helen Russell entertaining the military during WW11Helen Russell

After being accepted, she spent five years singing and dancing on tours of the country.

In 1946, Ms Russell moved to South Shields with her husband Colin and enjoyed years of success including, much later, roles in Emmerdale and Spender.

She also performed in clubs across the North East and recalled a man shouting out to her from the audience “Are yee the stripper or what?” to which she quipped: “I’m the what.”

She was also toured in the North East-based play Dirty Dusting until the age of 90.

Helen Russell Helen RussellHelen Russell

Her granddaughter Kate Hemingway said: “She’s pretty amazing – the most resilient person I’ve ever met.

“She taught me how to play guitar when I was 12 years old and just has a positive mindset.”

Helen Russell Helen Russell on top of a piano toasting the audience after singingHelen Russell

Ms Russell said writing Oh! Life is a Joy took her a couple of years and she was proud the proceeds would go to charity.

“I’m the luckiest person in the world to have so many people interested in what I have written,” she added.

An extract from one of her poems reads: “It’s too late for autographs, but it’s not too late to have some love, so have this one last laugh on me and I’ll join in where e’er I’ll be.”

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