Denise Coffey, the actress, director and playwright, who has died aged 85, was best known to television viewers as the sole female member of the comedy line-up on Do Not Adjust Your Set, the ITV series whose surreal, anarchic humour foreshadowed Monty Python.
Tiny and eccentric, she starred alongside three of the future Python gang — Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin — along with David Jason, performing satirical sketches, interspersed with musical interludes by Vivian Stanshall’s Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and, later on, bizarre animations crafted by Terry Gilliam.
In a popular series of mini-adventures Denise Coffey would play Mrs Black, “the most evil woman in the world” — nemesis of David Jason’s spoof superhero Captain Fantastic. Jason would be seen wielding his gadget-stuffed umbrella and sporting a bowler hat, while Denise Coffey would clutch her “horrible handbag”, creating plans for world domination.
In a Christmas special, Do Not Adjust Your Stocking, she appeared in feather boa, sequins and Thora Hird glasses to introduce Terry Jones doing an impersonation of the London Symphony Orchestra going up the Zambezi in a storm. Though conceived for children, Do Not Adjust Your Set won a following among adults and ran from 1967 to 1969.
Denise Coffey continued to enjoy a modestly successful career on television, though she became better known in later life for her radio work, including two series by Sue Limb. She played Dorothy Wordsmith in her parody of the Lakeland poets The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere (Radio 4, 1985-87) alongside Geoffrey Whitehead as William Wordsmith, Tim Curry as Lord Biro and Simon Callow as Samuel Tailor Cholericke.
Later, she teamed up with Miriam Margolyes in Alison and Maud (Radio 4, 2002-04) as two sisters who set up a haphazard bed-and-breakfast establishment in Norwich. Joss Ackland played their irascible, bed-ridden father. As a playwright, Denise Coffey collaborated with the Scottish comedian Rikki Fulton on A Wee Touch o’ Class, translating Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme to 19th-century Glasgow, in which they also starred.
A huge success at the Edinburgh Festivals of 1985 and 1986, it was hailed in the Telegraph as a "knockabout tartan-and-Hogmanay romp”.
Denise Dorothy Coffey was born at Aldershot, Hampshire, on December 12, 1936 to Denis Coffey, an RAF officer, and Dorothy, née Malcolm.
She began a career in rep, then worked as a BBC radio interviewer. She played Lynn Redgrave’s friend in Georgy Girl (1966) and the following year appeared in John Schlesinger’s Hardy adaptation Far From the Madding Crowd. She was a member of the Young Vic repertory company scripting children’s shows and touring widely in various roles.
As well as supporting roles in film, on television she was a regular on the Stanley Baxter Show, while in the ITV sitcom Girls About Town (1970–71) she and Julie Stevens starred as bored housewives trying to get their husbands to take more notice of them. In the children’s slapstick sitcom Hold the Front Page (ITV, 1974), which she wrote, she was Gloria Glamorsox, an investigative journalist on the hunt for Mr Big.
After a role in The Burkiss Way, a BBC Radio 4 comedy sketch series, in 1979 she appeared in End of Part One, LWT’s television version of the series. In 1998 she was the repulsive Edna, manager of Alexei Sayle’s Scouse comic Bobby Chariot, in Sayle’s Merry-Go-Round. She also appeared on game shows such as I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and Just a Minute.
A vegetarian, Denise Coffey refused to appear in commercials, believing it was wrong to try to persuade people to buy things they did not need. She was unmarried and retired to Salcombe, Devon, where she liked to fish from her small boat.