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Saturday 21 April 2018

Janet Brown

Actress and impressionist, whose mimicry of Margaret Thatcher led to a friendship with the British PM herself

Janet Brown, who died on Friday aged 87, was an actress best known for her impersonations of Margaret Thatcher on radio and television in the Seventies and Eighties. She managed to perfect not only the British prime minister's manner of speaking but also her mannerisms and style of dress.

Perhaps her finest performance was when she was in New York to appear on The Tonight Show. In the VIP lounge at Kennedy Airport she convinced the acid-tongued American comedienne Joan Rivers that she was indeed Mrs Thatcher. Rivers became obsequiousness itself, and apologised to "the prime minister" for berating the British royal family. When told of the deception, she asked Brown: "If you're not Margaret Thatcher, for God's sake who are you?"

Brown admired the prime minister as a politician and as a woman, and the admiration was mutual. The two women struck up a friendship and occasionally met at No 10 Downing Street. When she was prime minister, Mrs Thatcher also invited her "alter ego" to stay for the weekend at Chequers. Brown was preparing to go to sleep in her bedroom when there was a knock on the door. It was Mrs Thatcher -- concerned that her friend's quarters were on the chilly side -- bearing a hot-water bottle. On one of the occasions when Mrs Thatcher was re-elected to government, she wrote to Brown: "I half expected to find you at No 10 before me!"

Brown was first asked to do her famous impersonation by Eamonn Andrews, for Thames Television's Today Show, shortly after Margaret Thatcher had been elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. After Mrs Thatcher was elected to government four years later, demands for Brown's impersonation snowballed.

Janet McLuckie Brown was born on December 14, 1923, at Rutherglen, near Glasgow, the daughter of a shipyard worker. She left school early and worked briefly in a local branch of the Co-Op before leaving Glasgow, with the blessing of her father, to tour in a show with Hughie Green.

During the war she served with the ATS, joining a Stars in Battledress entertainment ensemble which gave shows for troops serving in Europe. Among those she worked with were Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd and Harry Secombe.

She then sought to make a career in London working in radio, and in 1946 received an offer to join a summer revue show at Scarborough. It was there that she met her future husband, the actor Peter Butterworth, best known for his roles in the Carry On films. They married in 1947, and worked together on a number of occasions, including on children's television.

She continued to be in demand on radio -- she later appeared on The Goon Show -- and she also appeared on stage in Mr Gillie, with Alastair Sim. She later recalled: "He taught me to always 'feel' myself into a character from the inside."

On television, she appeared in Rainbow Room, Where Shall We Go? and Friends and Neighbours before the Seventies' taste for impressions led her to concentrate on the showbusiness niche that would make her famous.

On shows such as Who Do You Do? (in which she app-eared with Freddie Starr) and Mike Yarwood in Persons she gave impressions of the Coronation Street character Hilda Ogden, the entertainer Tessie O'Shea, Noele Gordon and Pam Ayres, among others.

In 1981 she was given her own show, Janet and Co, making an impact with her impersonations of Mrs Thatcher and the celebrated dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse. She also played Margaret Thatcher in a comic coda at the end of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981) and on Roy Hudd's The News Huddlines on Radio 2.

She continued to work until late in life, and had recently appeared in shows such as Midsomer Murders (2004), Casualty (2005) and Hotel Babylon (2009).

Nothing gave Janet Brown more pleasure at the end of her life than watching sport on television, particularly snooker and tennis -- she was always keen to follow the progress of her fellow Scot Andy Murray.

In 1987 she published an autobiography, Prime Mimicker.

Janet Brown died at a nursing home in Hove, East Sussex. Her husband Peter Butterworth died in 1979, aged 59, and she is survived by their son; a daughter predeceased her.

Sunday Independent

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