Obituary: Actress Shirley Stelfox
Prolific actress who played the village busybody Edna Birch in 'Emmerdale' as well as roles in numerous other soaps
Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30
Shirley Stelfox, the actress, who died on Monday aged 74, appeared in virtually every major soap of the last 50 years, playing several different roles in Coronation Street, Madge Richmond in Brookside, and Melanie Owen's mother in EastEnders, along with appearances in Crossroads and the short-lived Albion Market. But she was best known for her most recent role as the moralising village busybody Edna Birch in the Yorkshire soap Emmerdale.
The widowed Edna arrived in Emmerdale in 2000, along with her two beloved dogs Tootsie and Batley, and pudding-basin felt hats, which she was hardly ever seen without. Although prickly and difficult - one reviewer described Shirley Stelfox as "the Ena Sharples of the 21st century" - Edna won sympathy when, the following year, Batley had to be put to sleep, leaving both viewers and actress reaching for their hankies.
At that year's British Soap Awards Batley (aka doggie actor Bracken) won the Best Exit award, upstaging Coronation Street's Amanda Barrie, who had the nation in tears with Alma's cancer battle.
Although Shirley Stelfox was much warmer than her television alter ego, they were both straight-talking and independent, and Shirley was fiercely protective of Edna's reputation, denying charges that Edna was a monster or a gossip. "Gossips are people who talk behind people's backs and that's the last thing Edna does," she told an interviewer. "She gives it to them straight between the eyes. And I'm not that keen on people calling her an old gossip, either."
Possibly, also, her sympathy for her character owed something to her own experience of widowhood after her husband, the actor Don Henderson, died at the age of 65.
The youngest of three children, Shirley Stelfox was born at Dukinfield, Cheshire, on April 11, 1941 and caught the acting bug as a child, despite suffering from bilateral amblyopia, a condition that meant that she always found it difficult to read small print.
Nonetheless she landed a place at Rada and by the time she began her training she had already made her film debut in an uncredited role in David Lean's 1954 romantic comedy Hobson's Choice, with Sir John Mills and Charles Laughton.
From Rada, where Edward Fox, John Thaw and Sarah Miles were contemporaries, Shirley Stelfox headed for the BBC, where she landed a role in The Case Before You, a courtroom drama in which she was cast as a 15-year-old arsonist.
It was not a great success, she recalled. Her role as the accused required a long pause before she replied to a question, but on the day the usual prompt was replaced by someone else, who thought she must have forgotten her lines and interrupted her pause in an audible stage whisper.
From December 1960, when Shirley appeared in a small role in the first episode of Coronation Street, she was rarely out of work. She returned to the Granada soap in various guises, including as the owner of a dating agency into which Jack Duckworth was comically lured in 1983.
During her career Shirley Stelfox moved effortlessly from television to theatre to films and back again. As well as appearing in all the major soaps, she appeared in numerous popular television dramas, including The Bill, Bergerac, Inspector Morse and the first series of Keeping Up Appearances, in which she played Hyacinth Bucket's (Patricia Routledge's) inexhaustibly randy and embarrassing sister Rose.
Other small screen successes included Wicked Women; Making Out, with Margi Clarke; Heartbeat - in which she played Mrs Parkin - and Jean in Common as Muck.
Her best known film role was as the "$2 prostitute" in the 1984 adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. She played another prostitute in Personal Services (1987), Terry Jones's comedy film based on the life of the sex-for-luncheon-vouchers madam Cynthia Payne.
On stage she played the leading role of a stand-up comedienne in Amanda Whittington's play Stand Up Cherry Pie, directed by June Brown - better known as Dot Cotton in EastEnders - when it premiered at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1993.
By her first husband, Keith Edmundson, Shirley Stelfox had a daughter.
The marriage was dissolved after 17 years and in 1979 she married the actor Don Henderson, best remembered as the television detective George Bulman, whose first wife had died in 1977. They spent many happy years together in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shirley helped to bring up her husband's two young children.
She was devastated when he died from throat cancer in 1997. Subsequently she moved to rural Nottinghamshire.
Shirley is survived by her daughter and her stepson and stepdaughter.