Friday 13 December 2019

Obituary: Liz Smith

Royle Family's Nana, struggled for years to make acting her sole career, only hitting the big time in her 70s

LATE STARTER: Liz Smith found fame in The Vicar of Dibley
LATE STARTER: Liz Smith found fame in The Vicar of Dibley

Liz Smith, who died on Christmas Eve aged 95, endured years of rejection before she eventually acquired "national treasure" status on television as Letitia Cropley, the compulsive maker of inedible cakes in The Vicar of Dibley, and as Nana, the dotty granny in The Royle Family.

With her pinched, melancholy clown's face, look of innocent surprise and shrieking cackle, Liz Smith cornered the market in batty old women - "nutty creatures in eccentric outfits", as she called them.

Her genius was to give the grotesques she played a measure of her own quirky and generous nature.

Yet she was in her seventies before she became a household name and her success was all the more remarkable given that it came about despite low self-esteem brought about by a history of abandonment and rejection which had begun in early childhood.

She was born Elizabeth Gleadle at Scunthorpe on December 11, 1921. When she was two years old, her mother died in childbirth and her baby sister died soon afterwards. Her father, an impetuous, unreliable man whom she adored, disappeared when she was seven. She retained a vision of him walking backwards down the garden path. "I'll write, kid. I'll write," he assured her. "He never did. Never," she recorded in her autobiography. She found out many years later that he had married another woman who told him that it must be as if his life before her did not exist.

Afterwards, she was brought up by her maternal grandparents - her grandmother who took pills that had the effect of rendering her urine "a bright jade green" and her beloved grandfather, a manager at the local steelworks who took her to see Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd films at the local cinema. Occasional visitors included cousins who were "sent off to learn embalming".

When her grandfather, too, was carried off in a flu epidemic in 1930, she was left with just her grieving grandmother for company.

She found an escape after her grandmother sent her for elocution lessons and she and her fellow pupils began putting on little plays in a church hall. She discovered that she had a clown's gift for making people laugh - "wonderful after the creepiness of being at home with my sad, lonely grandmother".

Her first job after leaving Scunthorpe Modern and Day Commercial School was at Herbert Clayton's Fabric Emporium in Scunthorpe. When war was declared, she joined the Fleet Air Arm, folding and packaging parachutes under the direction of Ralph Richardson. She was posted to North Africa, Ceylon and Burma, after which she was demobbed with hepatitis.

Her grandmother had died in 1941 and in 1946 she bought a large bomb-damaged house near Portobello Road with her inheritance. She joined the Gateway repertory theatre at Westbourne Grove as a student, accepting her lot as a comic character actress after "people killed themselves laughing when I was in a Greek tragedy".

In 1945 she married Jack Thomas, a would-be playwright she had met in the Far East. She had a daughter in 1951, and a son four years later, after which the family moved to a tumbledown house near Epping Forest.

Not long afterwards her husband left her for another woman and she found herself desperately poor, struggling to raise her two small children with no family support and ostracised by her tut-tutting neighbours.

To make ends meet she got jobs in a factory checking for holes in plastic bags, as a postwoman, and in a deli "selling maggot-infested cheeses and being shouted at by customers". She dealt with her frustration by buying boxes of cheap china to smash.

Desperate to act, but unable to get an agent, in the mid-1950s Liz Smith applied to join a workshop in Fitzroy Square being run by the American method-acting guru Charles Marowitz. She was chosen with several others to form an improvisation group and for the next 18 months she travelled up to London four nights a week to perform unpaid, leaving her children in the care of a friend who had left her husband and whom Liz allowed to live in her house for free in exchange for babysitting duties.

She loved every moment until, one day, someone said, "Marowitz isn't coming. He's cleared off to the RSC with Peter Brook", and that was the end of the workshop. Afterwards she joined the Forbes Russell Repertory Company, which put on mildly risque productions at Butlins holiday camps in the summer season. But by 1970, nearing the age of 50, she seemed no closer to making a breakthrough and her friends were urging her to find a "proper job". "One day," she would tell them, "there'll be a phone call that will alter my life."

That call came in 1971 when she was selling toys in Hamleys and an assistant held up the phone at the other end of the shop. The caller told her that a young director making his first film was looking for an actress who could improvise to play the part of a mother character. The young filmmaker was Mike Leigh and the film was Bleak Moments, in which Liz Smith played a woman who could not leave her bed.

Two years later, in 1973, Leigh cast her again in his first television play, Hard Labour, in which she played a cleaning lady. One of London's leading theatrical agents, Al Parker, took her on.

In the 1970s she went on to appear in numerous television series, from The Sweeney to Last Of The Summer Wine. She also made her mark as the matriarch in Peter Tinniswood's comedy television series I Didn't Know You Cared, as Lady Philippa of Staines in Vivian Stanshall's cult film Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, and as a comic foil in Russ Abbot's Madhouse. Liz Smith started the 1990s by appearing in 2point4 Children, in which she had a regular roles as both Bill Porter's (Belinda Lang's) chain-smoking mother Bette and her Aunt Belle.

In 1994, she got the role of Letitia Cropley in The Vicar of Dibley and she went on to appear in Lovejoy, The Queen's Nose, The Bill and Secrets & Lies.

Then a "little old script" landed on the doormat at her north London home - the first episode of the first series of The Royle Family (1998-2000), a sitcom written by and starring Caroline Aherne, about a family of bone-idle Mancunians devoted to the television. It completed three series, picking up numerous awards on the way, including a couple of Baftas.

Later credits include Lynda LaPlante's Trial and Retribution V, in which Liz Smith went against type as an evil old woman, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Oliver Twist and Keeping Mum. She also played Grandma Georgina in the 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Away from acting, Liz Smith only ever took in stray cats as pets because pedigree ones could "easily get homes". In 2006, she moved into a retirement home in East Finchley. Her wry, idiosyncratic autobiography, Our Betty, was published in 2006.

She is survived by her two children.

© Telegraph

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