Thursday 19 September 2019

Royle Family star Liz Smith 'loved being recognised' by fans

Liz Smith with her MBE for services to drama
Liz Smith with her MBE for services to drama

Sue Johnston has revealed how Liz Smith "loved being recognised" by fans as she praised the "extraordinary" late actress in a touching tribute.

Royle Family star Smith died on Christmas Eve at the age of 95, and Johnston - who played her on-screen daughter Barbara in the hit BBC comedy series - shared her memories of the TV and film veteran.

Johnston said Smith was not like her Royle Family character Nana, but "she was fun".

She described Smith as an "extraordinary, sensitive woman and very bright" during a chat with BBC 5 Live Daily's Adrian Chiles.

Johnston said: "Her eccentricity was wonderful and it got her through stuff. She had a really tough life coming out of the war and then she was a single parent before people were single parents.

"She had a tough old life but she never moaned about it and she got on with it. When she became Nana it was a total transformation - that's what makes her performance even more remarkable."

Smith, who found fame in later life, would often be delighted at being noticed by fans in public, Johnston added.

She said: "I went down to see her in her home in Worthing and I took her out in her wheelchair and we walked along the prom.

"And people were ecstatic, because Nana and Barbara were walking along the prom, and she thought it was hilarious. She just screamed with delight that everybody was recognising her and coming up and being so loving towards her."

Ricky Tomlinson also paid his respects to the "absolutely lovely" actress.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: " She was wonderful. Actually she was my favourite character in the Royles."

Tomlinson, who played Johnston's husband Jim Royle in the series, recalled memories of their time working with Smith.

He said: "We had a great time together and we were so close as a family.

"She would come in on her days off and just sit there, and of course I'd take the Mickey out of her because she always came in at lunchtime. I'd say, 'you're like your character, you, anything for nothing, you come because it's lunchtime!'.

"And she was absolutely lovely."

He said: "I was fascinated by her, really, really fascinated by her. The stuff I can't even tell you about the out-takes, that me and Liz got up to, because it was hilarious. Because actually I thought she spoke rather eloquently, she spoke really nicely, whether she'd taught herself or been taught. She didn't talk at all like Nana. She used to take the Mickey out of me for being a little bit rough.

"I really, really loved her. When you get a company together like that and you work as a unit together over two or three years like that, you do become a family.

"I'll say this about Ralf Little who played Antony - he adored Liz Smith. He used to go visit her - she was in some sort of sheltered accommodation - he would go and visit her. He loved her."

Director Mike Leigh, who cast Smith in his debut feature film Bleak Moments - her first professional role - praised her during the broadcast.

He said: "I was always a bit cautious. But from the moment I met her she was a complete breath of fresh air. She had no 'thesp' cobwebs about her at all.

"She was not your bog-standard middle-aged actress, she was a great character actress."

Leigh described her as a "consummate character actor" and "eccentric" who was "the most generous woman you could meet".

Smith's death comes in the same year as co-star Caroline Aherne, who died from lung cancer.

A statement issued on Monday night said: "The Bafta award-winning actress Liz Smith has died, on Christmas Eve, at the age of 95, her family has announced."

Following the announcement, Little tweeted: "Devastating to lose two members of my second family in one awful year. RIP Liz Smith. Goodbye Nana. Xxx."

Another of Smith's Royle Family co-stars, Craig Cash, described her as "a real master of her craft".

Co-writer Cash played Dave Best in the series, the partner of Aherne's Denise.

He said in a statement: "Liz was a real joy to work with and a master of her craft. She could turn an ordinary line into an extraordinary one. As huge a gift to her writers as she was to her audiences.

"You felt both reassurance and excitement when handing Liz a script. It was like handing the baton to Usain Bolt: you knew she wouldn't just run with it - she'd practically fly.

"She was loved, will be sadly missed and my thoughts and prayers are with her family."

The Queen Of Sheba - the episode of the sitcom in which Nana dies - was repeated on the BBC days before Christmas.

In 2009, the Prince of Wales presented Smith with an MBE and told her that the sofa-bound TV characters in the show were "nothing like my family, thank God".

Smith was born Betty Gleadle in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, in December 1921, and she later referenced her name in the title of her 2006 autobiography, Our Betty.

She got her first professional roles in her 50s when Leigh was looking for a middle-aged woman capable of improvisation for Bleak Moments.

Her career took off after she played the lead role in his first television film, Hard Labour, and she once said: "I owe everything to Mike."

The actress also played eccentric baker Letitia Cropley in The Vicar Of Dibley, but was devastated when her character was killed off.

At the age of 85 she won a best actress award at the British Comedy Awards f or her portrayal of Nana.

Smith also won a Bafta for best supporting actress for her performance as Maggie Smith's organ-playing mother in the film A Private Function.

Coronation Street star Andrew Whyment, who also appeared in The Royle Family, tweeted: "What a fantastic actress she was absolutely hilarious RIP lovely Liz x."

Smith appeared alongside Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the 2005 version of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, playing Grandma Georgina.

She also played Mrs Brandon in long-running sitcom I Didn't Know You Cared, as well as Bette in 2point4 Children.

She took to the stage to play Nell in a West End production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame.

Smith announced her retirement from acting in 2009 following a series of strokes.

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