Tuesday 23 January 2018

Ta-ra, chuck: Liz Dawn gave us one of the all-time great soap characters in gravel-voiced gossip Vera Duckworth

‘Coronation Street’ stars Liz Dawn and Bill Tarmey, who played Jack and Vera Duckworth. Photo: PA
‘Coronation Street’ stars Liz Dawn and Bill Tarmey, who played Jack and Vera Duckworth. Photo: PA

Michael Hogan

Generations of Weatherfield watchers will find their hearts tugged by news that actress Liz Dawn has died from emphysema aged 77.

Born Sylvia Butterfield in 1939 but known professionally as Elizabeth Dawn, her acting breakthrough didn't come until her mid-30s, when she was cast in Colin Welland's 1974 drama 'Leeds United', broadcast in the BBC's Play for Today slot, about female textiles workers fighting to get equal pay with men.

This led to a similar role in ITV fixture 'Coronation Street' as factory machinist Vera Duckworth, the flighty, loud-mouthed workmate of Ivy Tilsley (Lynn Perrie).

Dawn was only contracted for two episodes but producers spotted her huge potential and, in 1976, made Vera to a regular character.

When roguish husband Jack (played by Bill Tarmey, who would become Dawn's best friend) joined in 1979, Vera's role was further expanded - until, in 1983, the couple moved in to No. 9 Coronation Street, much to the dismay of their new neighbours. The "Duckeggs" had truly arrived.

A skilled comedy double act, their marital strife and endless bickering became a major feature of scripts.

‘Corrie’ stars Bill Tarmey, Liz Dawn, Daryl Edwards, Sean Wilson, Helen Worth, Lyndsay King and Thomas Ormson in 1995. Photo: PA
‘Corrie’ stars Bill Tarmey, Liz Dawn, Daryl Edwards, Sean Wilson, Helen Worth, Lyndsay King and Thomas Ormson in 1995. Photo: PA

Jack was an inveterate gambler and boozer, forever squandering the housekeeping money. He adored keeping pigeons in the backyard but Vera couldn't stand them. Arguments often ended in her comically asking: "Don't you love me any more, Jack?"

They were the epitome of a long-suffering couple who can't live with each other but fear being apart.

Both spouses engaged in extra-marital affairs, leading to two of their most memorable storylines. Firstly, Vera confided in barmaid Bet Lynch (Julie Goodyear) about Jack's infidelities, unaware that he was having a fling with Bet herself.

Vera later signed up for video dating, only to discover that Jack had joined the same agency. To get even, she posed as a young widow, donned a ginger wig and arranged to meet him at The Rovers Return Inn. As Jack approached her from behind, she slowly turned around to face him - scaring the daylights out of Jack and amusing the rubber-necking pub regulars. "You're no flipping widow, either!" protested Jack. The ever-sharp Vera replied: "No, but I will be when I get you home!"

Liz Dawn with the Queen in 2005. Photo: PA
Liz Dawn with the Queen in 2005. Photo: PA

Vera's despair over wayward son Terry (Nigel Pivaro) was another recurring theme. The Duckworths' longtime lodgers Curly Watts (Kevin Kennedy) and Tyrone Dobbs (Alan Halsall) became surrogate sons. With their help, Jack and Vera's tempestuous relationship grew more steady. They gradually softened into soppy Street stalwarts.

The Duckworths even bought The Rovers in 1995 after inheriting some money. Warm but no-nonsense, Vera suited the role of landlady but after four years, they returned to the other side of the bar.

Dawn's trademark husky voice was thanks to a heavy cigarette habit, along with the smoke-filled clubs in which she'd been a cabaret performer. With cruel irony, the smoke that helped her sound so distinctive would have a serious effect on her health later in life.

At the height of her fame during the 1980s and 1990s, every stage impressionist and playground wag did an impersonation of Vera: throaty, gossipy and cooing: "Eh, chuck. Y'alright, kid?"

Liz Dawn receives an MBE in 2000. Photo: PA
Liz Dawn receives an MBE in 2000. Photo: PA

She and Tarmey won two British Soap Awards for Best Couple, followed by a Lifetime Achievement Award.

As generous off-screen as she was on it, she was awarded an MBE in 2000 ("What would our Jack say?" she joked) and made Lady Mayoress of her home city Leeds for her charity work.

After 34 years on the cobbles, Dawn was forced to quit Corrie due to ill health in 2008. Her character was killed off, with Vera found peacefully in her favourite armchair - an emotionally charged episode watched by 12.5 million sniffling viewers.

She made a one-off return in 2010 for Tarmey's own final scenes. When Jack died in the same chair as Vera, her ghost appeared to take her husband on his final journey. Typically, Vera's spirit scolded him, telling Jack they would be late for the bus. The couple even shared a final kiss and slow-dance together, as Matt Monro's 'Softly As I Leave You' crackled on the record player. Beautifully staged and perfectly judged, it was one of the most affecting soap opera moments in recent memory.

There wasn't a dry eye on sofas. Liz Dawn's passing will similarly touch millions of TV viewers.

Liz with Tony Blair in 2004. Photo :REUTERS
Liz with Tony Blair in 2004. Photo :REUTERS

Ta-ra, chuck.

Liz Dawn and Bill Tarmey in 1997. Photo: PA
Liz Dawn and Bill Tarmey in 1997. Photo: PA

Irish Independent

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