PRETENDERS (1972)

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Pretenders

13-part historical adventure series (set in 1665) with a factual background starring Frederick Jaeger as a German mercenary who assists Elam (Curtis Arden), a boy who believes he is the illegitimate son of The Duke Of Monmouth, who in turn is the illegitimate son of Charles ll, and therefore claims to be rightful heir to the throne.

The historical fact is that Charles passed the throne over to his brother, James, much to the displeasure of Monmouth who immediately set sail from Holland to arrive at Lyme Regis, Dorset and start a rebellion against his uncle. He was, of course, defeated (at the Battle of Sedgemoor) before being incarcerated in the Tower where he was ultimately executed.

The fiction part of this series concerns Elam and his sister, Perfect (Elizabeth Robillard), who are told by their dying mother of her romance with Monmouth and her last wish is for them to seek him out. Thus their struggle to meet the Duke begins as they risk life and limb dodging all the king's men and outsmarting a devious merchant by the name of Fast Jack (played by John Thaw).

HTV pulled out all the stops for the climatic battle scene, employing no fewer than 150 extras, thirty horses, muskets, cannons and all. Filming took place near the town of Bridgewater, just a short distance from the site of the original battle.

Elizabeth Robillard very nearly didn't get chosen for the part of Perfect, due to her less than best behaviour at school: "I almost missed the audition for Pretenders," she told Television Heaven "as the headmistress (known as 'the white tornado' due to her badly bleached hair) had banned me from auditioning because I'd been bad. I ran and told my mum who rang the schools' agent-husband of the 'tornado' Mr. John Martin, who was fond of me and my mum-he ensured I got my audition. I think I won it (from around 2,000 girls and a lot of call-backs) because I had a bad giggle and I made the producers laugh. They also thought I'd be professional. I fought hard to win the role of 'Perfect' - and it's been hard to live down that name."

Liz had been acting since the age of two beginning with voiceovers, catalogue modelling and TV ads. Her first was for France (she was born in Montreal, Canada). Father was Larry Robillard, a Spitfire ace who was awarded the George Cross in WW11, (which was personally presented by The King) and mum was Judy Allen (Londoner), a singer & dancer who worked with Nat Allen and most celebs in those days. She was an all-round entertainer and also worked for the American Red Cross during the latter half of WW11. Later she owned and ran a nightclub in Leicester Square, London, called 'The New Chez Moi'. Before appearing in Pretenders Liz had a small part in an episode of The Avengers (Take Me to Your Leader), which she has fond memories of. "The Avengers was great fun to do too. It was great watching the choreography at work." She says she loved working but hated school with a passion and was often on 'probation' for behaving badly and bunking off. "My friends and I spent some great times with Iggy Pop and others at Blakes Hotel in South Kensington, London (I was apparently the original 'wild child') and at the Serpentine Lido in Hyde park."

Just before Pretenders, Liz landed a prestigious role in the critically acclaimed movie A Day In The Death of Joe Egg which starred Alan Bates and Janet Suzman. Based on Peter Nichols' play, this story centres round an English couple struggling to cope with and raise their only child - a severely handicapped young girl with whom they cannot communicate. Faced with the imminent collapse of their marriage, they eventually agree that euthanasia may be the answer to their troubles. The plight of this English couple struggling to raise a disabled child is given a darkly humorous treatment. Liz, who played the part of Jo, and Bates (who played her father) became good friends and remained so for many years. "I miss Alan Bates a lot, he stayed a good pal throughout my life and is sorely missed. Now and then I'm still in touch with Peter Medak (director of Day In The Death of Joe Egg) but not often.

"I think it helped me land the role of Pretenders as in Jo, I wasn't bad (the only thing I was good in really) - people often tell me they thought the child in 'Joe Egg' was really disabled. It was a pretty gruelling film to make but Peter Nichols was passionate about getting it right, as was Peter Medak - Peter Nichols daughter suffered from cerebral palsy - I used to rehearse alone with him and it was a sobering experience to have this man-this desperate father-implore me to get the part just right. I studied a lot of children in specialist units across the South East and realising the responsibility we had - I think we all gave it 101 per cent. All of us were present at shooting of every scene whether we were in front or behind the cameras. It was a work of love and has remained close to all our hearts."

Liz looked to be set on the path to a long and fulfilling showbiz career but unfortunately ill health kept her away from our screens for many years. In 1981 she returned in an episode of the BBC drama series Angels. It was her last TV appearance. "I had the giggles there too and botched it but it was fun." In spite of her illness most of her adult life Liz managed to have a wonderful son, Jamie, who is now aged 12. These days Liz takes a very serious interest in law reform and refers to herself as 'a frustrated lawyer' "A lot of law in the UK is draconian and savage, especially in the Family arena." One day she hopes to write about it. Apart from acting, spending a lot of leisure time painting with oils, "A great passion", Liz has done a fair amount of modelling, has sung some and is a huge fan of Bobby Womack. She is also a Chelsea FC supporter.

"My memories of Pretenders are all good." Says Liz. "We didn't work very hard, often just glancing at a script before running in front of the cameras to 'perform' - I was most unprofessional but we had a great time. As it was, the series had publicity as the most expensive ever made for the day-sadly I didn't care much as we spent 6 months in 4-5 star hotels - different ones each week - all over the West Country. It was one big long party and a wonderful experience. There is nothing like the West Country for all round beauty and good vibes. I deeply regret not rehearsing enough though - I never did and I did lose out as a consequence. I was a terrible actress and would throw rotten tomatoes at me any day!"

Review: : Laurence Marcus and Elizabeth Robillard. May 16th 2005

for Television Heaven