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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Legend of the Rovers serves her last hotpot

Betty Driver, who has died aged 91, played the barmaid Betty Turpin in Coronation Street for more than 40 years, appearing in some 2,800 episodes and becoming one of the ITV soap opera's longest-serving and most popular characters; she also found success in an earlier career as a singer.

As Betty Turpin (later Williams, after her screen marriage), Betty Driver served up her iconic lunchtime hotpots at the Rovers Return while dispensing forthright common sense. Her character was gritty, but also maternal and dependable.

Like her TV alter ego, Betty Driver considered herself a survivor. She had, she said, been robbed of her childhood by her tyrannical mother, Nellie, who pushed her into a showbusiness career; while still a young girl Betty was forced to work in variety shows, twice nightly, six days a week.

Nellie Driver insisted that her daughter emulate Gracie Fields, and forced her to sing in a register higher than was comfortable for her.

Although billed in variety shows in the early 1930s as "the new Gracie Fields", each time she reached for the highest notes it put enormous stress on her throat. Eventually it left her in agony, and she was forced to undergo surgery. The operation was, however, only a limited success, and by her mid-30s she had no singing voice at all.

Elizabeth Mary Driver was born in Leicester on May 20, 1920, the elder of two sisters. When she was two, her father, a policeman, moved the family to Manchester. At the age of six her mother pushed her into a career on the stage, and she joined the Terence Byron Repertory Company at the age of nine.

Having turned professional at the age of 10 in a touring production of Mixed Bathing, at 14 Betty landed her first film role and appeared on the London stage.

At the age of 12 she had been offered work in radio, on which she sang with the bandleader Harry Hall. She was signed up after being spotted by Archie Pitt (the former husband of Gracie Fields) and his brother Bert Aza when she was performing in a revue at the Prince Of Wales Theatre.

As her agent, Aza put her into a touring version of the hit show Mr Tower of London, as a double for Gracie. The film director Basil Dean, after seeing her in Jimmy Hunter's Brighton Follies, cast her in the 1938 film Penny Paradise. This was followed by parts in Let's Be Famous and Facing The Music, but her contract was cancelled at the outbreak of the World War Two.

During the conflict she became a darling of the forces, entertaining the troops with Ensa (the RAF named a Spitfire after her). She teamed up again with Henry Hall, singing on and off for seven years in his radio show Henry Hall's Guest Night. She also had her own show, A Date With Betty.

Although Betty Driver's career appeared to be blossoming, there were concerns about her health. She weathered a nervous breakdown in her early 20s. After a time her confidence deserted her and she was unable to carry on working. Encouraged by Henry Hall, she made a comeback before her voice finally disintegrated.

She later travelled to Australia, where she performed in her own show, and to Cyprus, Malta and the Middle East. On her return to England she appeared in several Ealing comedies.

In 1953, when she was 33, she married the South African singer and comedian Wally Petersen, with whom she was appearing on a variety bill. He insisted on taking her back to South Africa and made her give up work. But Petersen turned out to be a compulsive womaniser, and Betty Driver returned to Britain a few months later.

With her singing voice wrecked, she turned to acting, appearing on stage in The Lovebirds, Pillar to Post and What A Racket and on television with James Bolam in Love On The Dole.

In 1964 she auditioned for the role of Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street, only to be informed that they wanted someone thinner.

Two years later Betty played a canteen manageress in the Coronation Street spin-off Pardon The Expression, in which Arthur Lowe re-created the role of Arthur Swindley.

In one episode she pretended to perform a ju-jitsu throw on him; the stunt misfired, and she suffered temporary paralysis, dislocated her hip and injured her back.

Although in time she recovered, Betty Driver's confidence again took a knock, and she decided to retire from showbusiness. With her sister, Freda, and their father, Fred, she took over a pub at Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire, and later another one in Cheshire. In 1969 one of her customers, the Granada producer Harry Kershaw, asked if she would be interested in appearing in Coronation Street.

Betty Driver made her debut on June 2 1969 as the sister of corner shop owner Maggie Clegg.

She never intended to retire. In 2006, when Ian McKellen complained that -- even at 86 -- she drove herself to the studios every morning, Granada executives laid on a car.

In the New Year's Honours List of 2000 Betty Driver was appointed MBE. In the same year she published her memoirs, Betty: The Autobiography, co-written with Daran Little.

Her sister Freda died in 2008, and Betty never remarried.

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