Women on British Television: Top 10 Female Icons
Updated: Jul 16
This feature on iconic women from British TV was commissioned for Classic Television magazine in 2001. The publication sadly folded before it was used and the following year I published it on videovista.net, which now seems to have seems to have closed.
So re-posting it here, so it once again has a home.
I leave it here, as originally published in June 2002...
Women on British Television: Top 10 Female Icons
Any writer drawing up a ‘Top 10 list’ is always going to be subjected to the ‘How could you have forgotten X?’, or ‘They’re not icons!’ reader responses.
So, up front I’m stating that this list of Ten Female TV Icons has been compiled entirely by me and so, if you have any violent disagreements, well frankly tough luck! In my defence, I’d like to state that it was a near impossible task to draw up such a list. The first had over 60 names, with everything from Angela Rippon on Morecambe & Wise to Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I. It was more of a question of who to leave out rather than who to include.
Some actresses like Liz Smith and Juliet Stevenson have graced our screens for years, playing a whole range of different characters, each one memorable and endeared by millions. Whilst others, like Julie Goodyear have lit up our screens for decades playing the same role; we know Bette Lynch as though she was part of the family, we have seen her through her ups and downs, her good and bad times. When I worked in the press office at Granada Television each week at least one letter would arrive, addressed to Bette at ‘the Rovers Return’, advising on her most recent drama and passing on precious words of wisdom. When speaking to these ten wonderful actresses, again and again the dreaded ‘typecasting’ word sprang up. The quandary of being thought of as actually being their most famous creation rather than versatile actresses, and the pleasure at being involved in such a successful series where their involvement was taken so unanimously to heart is a difficult one for actresses to overcome when a beloved series comes to an end. This feature will be highlighting only ten of these actresses whose images have flickered across our TV screens and who have been successful in creating a role that has been so taken to heart. From Julie Goodyear to Juliet Stevenson, Pam Ferris to Pam St Clement, read on…
Julie Goodyear as Bette Lynch, in Coronation Street (1966, 1970 – 1995) Julie Goodyear first appeared on our television screens in Coronation Street, back in 1966 and returned permanently to the show in 1970. For the next 25 years, Goodyear, with her tell-tale blonde hair-do and her never-ending supply of dangly earrings was barmaid Bette Lynch – the reigning queen of the soaps. I asked her why she accepted the role, all those years back. “I wanted to learn and try and perfect my trade as an actress, and of course the money! I was a single mum with a very young son to bring up. In 1970 I was paid £50 per episode, and then we were making two episodes per week. A £100 per week, wow we were millionaires! I bought my son his first bike out of my first weeks’ wages on the condition I had the first ride. “I instinctively knew that the series would run and run. But I just prayed they’d let me stay with it. I never fully understood that my role as Bette was so loved to the extent that she was, until I left five years ago. Sometimes you have to distance yourself to be able to see more clearly.” The success Julie achieved as Bette has been a double-edged sword. She finds that producers, directors and writers are not able to see beyond Bette and therefore make her a prisoner of her own success. She describes this as “a great pity and very frustrating.” But she adds, “Coronation Street will always be number one to me, that’s why I did the spin off of it last year. I’m very proud of the contribution I was able to make as Bette. It was an absolute joy to see her evolve in so many different situations. For me to play comedy and drama combined is wonderful.”
Wendy Richard as Pauline Fowler, in EastEnders
(1985 - 2006) In 1985 Wendy was cast completely against type as the rather frumpy and miserable Pauline Fowler, mother of two teenage children, with a third child on the way. It was a shock to the nation, as only the previous year she had been tottering around on high heels and wearing short skirts as Shirley Brahms in the hugely popular Are You Being Served? Her role in this sitcom and her occasional appearances in Dad’s Army had made her a household name and was the only well-known actress to be cast in this new series EastEnders. “I finished Are You Being Served? at the beginning of the year, by August/September I was working on EastEnders. It was a golden opportunity, I would have been off my head to turn it down. I had a gut feeling about it. I remember seeing these big trucks driving about with ‘The EastEnders is coming’ on the side. I got such a sense of pride about it, because I thought ‘nobody knows what its about, but I do because I’m in EastEnders.’ We worked on it for six months before it started to go out because everything had to be just right – all the costumes, the make up, the sets had to right everything. Julia Smith, our creator, was such a stickler that everything had to be absolutely spot on. It had to be right and it was.” Pauline has had a lot of heartache in the series, her teenage daughter became pregnant by Dirty Den, and her elder son got AIDs. Her husband, Arthur, was arrested and jailed and later he had an affair with another resident of Albert Square. Although Pauline has had her fair shares of downs, she has remained a stalwart and a focal figure on the Square. Wendy says: “It upsets me when Pauline gets knocked in the press, because she’s not miserable, she’s a grafter, she’s had a lot of problems in her life but first and foremost is her family and she will fight tooth and nail for them, that is the most important thing for her. I’ve never actually had a bad review for my acting. They might have criticised me and said I’ve got bags under my eyes, or that I’m always looking miserable. Fine, that’s up to them if they wish to say that, but they cannot say I’ve turned in a bad performance.” Wendy herself has had her fair share of downs which she candidly re-examines in her autobiography Wendy Richard ‘no S’ My Life Story published by Simon and Schuster, last year. She talks about her growing up as the daughter of publicans, her private school education, her early career and her unsuccessful marriages as well as her career in showbiz from her early performance in Sammy Davies Jnr’s TV special Sammy And The Girls, to her recent work in EastEnders and the Are You Being Served? spin-off Grace And Favour. It is this honest and open account which makes for an entertaining and refreshing look at her career in showbiz and her recent battle against cancer.
Linda Thorson as Tara King, in The Avengers, Two series, 33 episodes (1968 – 1969)
The Tara King episodes were always my favourite from The Avengers. The plots were the most bizarre, and the relationship between Tara King and Steed was far more fun. Having Tara as a young novice being trained by the ‘old pro’ gave Patrick MacNee the opportunity to show greater strength than pervious partners had allowed him to. The flirting between the two allowed for a greater sexual tension that plays well alongside the surreal plots. Unfortunately, most critics have tended to favour the Emma Peel series and as a consequence Linda has suffered a tough mauling for daring to step into Diana Rigg’s kinky boots! Considering that Thorson was only 20 and fairly inexperienced her being chosen to play Steed’s new sidekick was quite remarkable. “I was seen by John Huston while I was still at RADA. He had come to find an unknown for his film Sinful Davey. He liked me and he offered me the role. Subsequently, he cast John Hurt as the male lead and I was deemed ‘too tall’. Pamela Franklin gained the role and to make up for this John Huston sent me to ABPC to meet with Robert Leonard who was head of casting as he knew they were searching for a replacement for Diana Rigg. I went along for the interview thinking I would be in competition with a few others. They were actually seeing 200 actresses for the part. I just somehow stayed the course until it was 50, then 25, then eight, and then three. Mary Peach, Tracy Reed, and me. We were all screen tested and in the end I got it.”
Making the role her own was not a problem that Linda had to concern herself. “I had never seen The Avengers. I had no television in my flat and in fact only had the radio (which I adored) for entertainment and news since I had first come to Britain three years before. So, as they say, ‘ignorance was bliss’. I feel sure I would have been infinitely more intimidated had I actually seen Diana. But at 20, I was blessed with great confidence and optimism and felt I had the enthusiasm and energy the job required.” Following The Avengers, Linda returned to the other side of the pond, and has worked in America on both film and television, as well as a number of Broadway shows. It is New York that she’s hoping to return to next year in a musical. Being a single mother of a teenage boy keeps her pretty occupied but she has also found the time to work on a book of poetry, which she hopes will be published sometime this year.
Liz Smith as Nana Royle, in The Royle Family (1998 – 1999) Liz Smith is one of those wonderful character actresses that have been so successful in British television comedy. She seems to have been on our screen for decades playing mad aunts or mothers who turn up on the doorstep unwanted and unloved. Following her occasional visits to the 2.4 Children family, Liz has now taken up residence in the Royle household. The Royle Family was a breath of fresh air in the stale BBC schedules when it was launched two years ago and it quickly became cult viewing. Caroline Aherne had already caused considerable public adoration with her caricature Mrs Merton in the offbeat chat show. The Royle Family, set on a sofa in Manchester, concerns a family who sit and look at their own flickering box in the corner of the room. Liz Smith as Nana Royle is a frequent visitor to this cluttered and mismatching sitting room. Her penchant for the occasional tipple is a running joke as the drinking of said tipple is usually accompanied with the dialogue “You know me, I don’t drink, just a stout at night, a short at Christmas and whiskey at New Year’s.” Well it must be Christmas every day in the Royle household. With many families recognising something of their own granny in Nana Royle, Liz has enjoyed a certain adoration. Her views on the show are enthusiastic. When she was first sent a script, she knew it was a project that she wanted to get involved with. It was quite simple: “I just wanted to say the dialogue as soon as I saw it.” She knew that the series was good when they were filming, but she had no notion that the series, and her role in particular, would be taken to heart on the scale it has done. Unlike younger actresses who become associated with a particular role early on in their career and find it difficult to break free, Liz has a along and healthy career as a character actress, appearing in both comedies and dramas alike including The Vicar of Dibley, Trial And Retribution and last winter’s modern-day version of A Christmas Carol.
Mollie Sugden as Mrs Slocombe, in Are You Being Served?, 10 series, 69 episodes (1972 – 1985) “Over the years one has become associated with the role, but I’m not going to complain,” said Mollie Sugden on her well-loved role as Mrs Slocombe. When one of Britain’s most popular actresses leaves such a message, calling back is a pleasure. Are You Being Served? is one of the those sitcoms that audiences will never tire of, it is as funny today as it was 20 years ago. It is a perfect example of an ensemble cast working together to create a simple light-hearted atmosphere where the ‘saucy postcard’ humour that the British do so well, can flourish. I asked Mollie how the role of the multi-coloured haired Mrs Slocombe came about. “David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd wrote the part for me. I’d first worked with David in a TV series for Tyne Tees – Under New Management. He moved to the BBC and worked on Hugh and I and he cast me as a snooty woman. After that I played Mrs Hodgkinson in The Liver Birds, David again cast me in a Comedy Playhouse, which he was directing. It was a small part, about five or six lines, and after the show he came to the dressing room and I said that he had something in the pipeline that he had written especially for me. He wouldn’t tell me anything else about it; a few days later I got the script and thought, ‘this is it’.” Gut instinct told Mollie that Mrs Slocombe was a part she could play, “She came straight off the page, you couldn’t play her any other way.” Everyone knows someone like Mrs Slocombe, which is why the series has been such a worldwide success, and continues to attract sizeable viewing audiences every time it is repeated on BBC television. There are two things that everyone immediately recalls when thinking of Mrs Slocombe; one is her ever-changing hair colour and the other was Mrs Slocombe’s pussy. Mollie was eager to talk about both. “When the pilot was transmitted I thought I looked awful, so dull and dingy, when it went into series, I got the bright idea about my hair. I went to David on the first day of rehearsal and said ‘Do you think it would be a good idea if I changed hair colour each week?’ He thought it a great idea, he was always very good at listening to suggestions and was happy accept any bright ideas the cast came up with.” The subject of Mrs Slocombe’s pussy generates a different reaction altogether “The irony is, is I’m not a cat person – I get sent lots of cat paintings, embroidered cats, stuffed cats, porcelain cats but I’m really more of a dog person. I’m getting on a bit now, and I’m too old to have my own dog, but when my son comes to visit, get to play with his border-collie – my ‘grand-dog’.” One of the reasons why the series has remained so popular is that the warmth and affection between the actors comes across. “Filming was always such a laugh, but not really something you can share with others. You really had to be there.” As our conversation drew to a close she summed her life up “I’ve had a happy career which I’ve enjoyed enormously and for which I am very grateful – what more could I ask for!” What more indeed!
Pam St Clement as Pat Butcher, in EastEnders (1986 - 2011) “Roles for women on TV drama are hard to come by – if you are glamorous it’s not so bad, but for older character actresses it’s a different story” was Pam St Clement’s matter of fact statement on the state of TV drama industry. She went on the add that “The joy of an on-going drama [like EastEnders] is that it has to be about women and their men. Women have to be central and the men revolve around them. There can be action and car chases, but ultimately the drama has to come back home to its roots.” Central to the ‘roots’ of the actors in EastEnders is the Queen Vic, where for many years Pat Butcher has been at its core. Pam first moved into the square in 1986: “I liked the series, and was very keen to be involved. I told my agent to keep an eye open for a part for me. I got a call from the director, telling me that there was a role coming up and would I be interested, I read the script and agreed straightaway. I had a good feeling about it, the show would be a winner and I’m not even a clairvoyant!” Prior to EastEnders, Pam had been kept busy in a number of small roles in popular TV series like Minder, Angels and Within These Walls. But when she walked onto the Square, and became Pat, she instantly became a force to be reckoned with. Pat has had a hard life on the Square and Pam’s powerful performances have given her the opportunity to be constantly challenged: “It is wonderful to be working on a production with such old-fashioned production values, to be working on a TV show which does tell a story, and that as an actor I can tackle the highs and lows.” One of the perils for an actor once they have left a series is that they find the future rather bleak. But regardless of the success an actor has made for themselves there are always career worries, even those Pam has worked with in the past forget that – “I can do other things. Casting directors have short memories, not the audience… Audiences are very accepting. If a part is good enough and written well, for the first few minutes they might say she was Pat in EastEnders, but then hopefully what you’re doing has gripped people and they ride the journey with you.”
Pat Butcher has been on an emotional ride recently, with some powerful story-lines that have made the front pages of the papers. When I asked her about the future in EastEnders she was suitably cagey “The future? It’s not in my hands, but in the production and in those who employ you. As for me, I have to ask myself is there something left with the character, is there anything more to give? It is important to retain the integrity of the role and not tread water. I have to ensure that the audiences get a return on their investment in both the series and me.”
In addition to EastEnders, Pam has done two series for Anglia Television on Whipsnade Zoo, which are also being shown on Discovery Channel.
Pam Ferris as Ma Larkin, in The Darling Buds of May, three series, 20 episodes (1991 – 1993) I was working for a rival ITV company when LWT first broadcast The Darling Buds of May. The series was an instant success reaching unheard of ratings (18 million +) and substantial and positive newspaper coverage. It was a happy, sunny series that you couldn’t help but enjoy. David Jason, a familiar face to TV from Open All Hours and Only Fools And Horses, headed up the Larkin household. Pa was a bit on the shady side but worked hard to support his wife and large family. Ma Larkin was played by Pam Ferris, and as with the rest of the cast, she was a relative unknown to TV audiences.
When I asked Pam what the key factors were in her accepting the role, she laughed, saying “That makes it sound like I was a star who could pick and choose her work – no, I was very glad to be offered it. Most jobbing actors see a series as a way of earning enough money to pay off some debts – and I was no exception.” There were three series in total, the series only losing its lustre when they left their home turf and headed to France. The beauty of the series was in the seeing a rural idyll with Ma Larkin in full control of her brood and the interaction with the other eccentric villagers. She believes that Ma was taken so much to heart during the early 1990s because social and political climate at the time, what “with Gulf War and Thatcher’s exit, the nation was in need of mothering.” The typecasting curse doesn’t appear to affect actors as much as it does the fairer sex. David Jason has continued to star in high quality TV dramas and comedies, winning Best TV Actor awards many years in succession. For Pam, although she has continued to work both here and the States, has not managed to retain the same high profile that Darling Buds of May brought her. On this dilemma, Pam said: “I’d always hoped to be a practitioner of the art that conceals art – but I succeeded too well with Ma Larkin, as most people think I’m really like that and don’t realise the many choices that were made to create her. However, I’m so grateful for being put into public awareness. “[I was also] delighted to be working with David Jason – so sad we’re not likely to work together again because of associations with Darling Buds.” Although not working with David Jason, Darling Buds of May fans this year saw Pam playing the horrid Mrs Squeers in Nicholas Nickelby for ITV, and also a solo piece for Carlton TV playing a toilet attendant in the First Signs of Madness series.
Vicki Michelle as Yvette Carte-Blanche, in ‘Allo ‘Allo, nine series, 85 episodes (1982 – 1992) For ten years Vicki Michelle was on our screen as the beautiful but seemingly rather dumb Yvette in ‘Allo ‘Allo. She charmed the German soldiers and viewers alike. It is almost 10 years since the last series, and yet Vicki is still recognised and remembered for the this one role. Prior to ‘Allo ‘Allo, Vicki had with her elder sister Anne gone to Ada Foster Stage School. Their mother was the actress Rosanna Lee whose most well-known role was as the young bride in The Glass Mountain (1949) and so they’d always done singing and dancing lessons. After leaving school, she began working getting small parts and one-liners here and there.
“It was when I did a series with Dick Emery that things began to take off this lead to cameo roles, and sketches with all the great comedians of the late 1970s, early 1980s: Ken Dodd, Les Dawson, The Two Ronnies, Little and Large and Cannon and Ball. Once I was on the comedy scene, I found that I had good comedy timing and I became quite in demand.”
Her first meeting with David Croft who wrote ‘Allo ‘Allo was when Vicki and her sister Anne both went for an audition for David’s sitcom Come Back Mrs Noah.
“We were both up for the same part and they chose Anne. I was in one episode playing a French maid robot, so when they were casting around for ‘Allo ‘Allo, they invited me in to read for two parts, the French Resistance worker Michelle, and Yvette. I had to wait six months before hearing that they were going ahead to film the pilot, and then another six months before we began working on the first series.”
The beauty of ‘Allo ‘Allo, as with other Croft and Lloyd sitcoms, is that they create good parts for women, and pull together a cast of relatively unknown actors who, through their comedies, become household names. It is a formula they have created over and over again, from Are You Being Served?, to ‘Allo ‘Allo and Hi-de-Hi. With ‘Allo ‘Allo they created an extremely artificial (but very funny) vision of France and the French Resistance during the second world war. The dialogue was quick, with the very best of schoolboy humour thrown in. It was fast and funny and the public loved it. Viewing figures increased with each series so that by the third year when they went on tour, they played to packed houses all over the country.
Yvette, as she frequently told us, was “doing it for her country.” She used her sexuality to fraternise with the Germans to get information, as well as to try and take Rene away from his wife. Men related to Rene, thinking that if he could pull the girls and not be wonderfully handsome then there was hope for them. For Yvette, the rather two-dimensional role evolved over the years.
“I asked David if I could have a catchphrase – he said that there were too many already – ‘listen very carefully I will say this only once’, ‘Oh, you are so stupid’. Over time, my line ‘Oh, Rene’ became more of a growl which was hell on the throat. On one occasion I was hidden behind the bar and the growl started and just went on and on and so my ‘catchphrase’ was born.”
Yvette was flirtatious, whereas Vicki is flirtatious in a much more subdued way
“Yvette is me personified, with her I could be larger than life, as soon as I put on my costume I became Yvette, out came the French accent, I walked differently, wiggled, threw my hands, pouted.” But with the success of the series, out came that double-edged sword. “The series brought me to the public eye and I had to learn to cope with the success. It doesn’t matter how old you are, the transition is always hard. When I walked into a bar and got chatted up I wondered whether they were talking to me or Yvette. People stare whilst I am eating, now I don’t notice it, but friends still point it out – I’m oblivious to it. Celebrity can get to you, I had to work hard to keep my life in perspective. I have seen people change, really nice people who are now full of their own self-importance – fame does change you, but I’ve kept my feet on the ground.”
In terms of her career, Vicki feels that she has been typecast, “to casting directors I am still Yvette. I have to remind people that I am an actress first and foremost.” However she quickly adds that “The alternative would have not to have been in a wonderful series.”
After leaving ‘Allo ‘Allo, Vicki set up her own business Trading Faces, which organises celebrities for after dinner speaking and personal appearances. “I ran it on my own for three years, but it became so successful that now I run it with two of my sisters.” She adds “It is hard being a working mum. I do turn down work if it takes me a way from home for too long. I have to tread the fine line between not turning down work too often otherwise people won’t offer it me thinking that I won’t do it because of I have children. My daughter can come with me when I’m doing summer season and panto, and jobs near London. She comes first, the career second.”
Lesley Joseph as Dorien Green, in Birds Of A Feather, nine series, 102 episodes (1989 – 1998) Although it is Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke who are the Birds Of A Feather, and who are the series’ two leads, it is Lesley Joseph’s role of Dorien that audiences remember and have taken so much to heart. Dorien is the over the top (and over the hill) Jewish temptress whose cuckolding of her accountant husband was a weekly event that has gripped the nation for ten years. They saw her through her various lovers, and when the table was turned on her, they were there for her. The series’ beginnings were humble especially for Lesley, she was an unknown and unproven television actress. “When we filmed the first episode we thought it might do well. We didn’t realise how big it would become – also, I know that if my character hadn’t worked I would be gone at the end of the first series.” Luckily, Dorien didn’t disappear at the end of the first series, she remained a friend and neighbour throughout the 102 episodes.
Lesley said “a gift of a part” as Dorien was a larger-than-life character who was at once vulnerable and a complete bitch. The series has brought Lesley instant recognition, when she went to visit Chigwell, Essex (where the series is set) for the first time, there was a stampede of ‘Mrs Greens’ all clamouring to meet their icon.
Juliet Stevenson as Flora Matlock, in The Politician’s Wife (1995) Juliet Stevenson is one of the country’s most respected and versatile actresses. Her roles in both film and television have always been stunning and moving performances, and her role in The Politician’s Wife was no exception.
This mini-series caught the public imagination and sparked debate and analysis of the morals of the Conservative party, who were struggling to maintain the clean ‘family values’ image they so hoped to create. It was a topical subject matter considering the many wives of Tory MPs who had had to ‘stand by their man’ after a betrayal. For Juliet the key factor in accepting the role was her desire to play what she considered a rather unsympathetic character:
“I liked the journey the character went on, she had the chance to develop and change as she went through the series. I had no idea the series would be so popular, taken to heart in the way it was. But when you are filming, you don’t often have a sense of what the end product will be, and you can never second-guess an audience’s response. You can only go on hunches. I just hoped future audiences would respond as I did to the original script.”
Juliet was delighted to have worked on a such a high profile and good quality TV project. Since then she has continued to work on TV, film and theatre both in the UK and the States. Following on from her powerful and emotive performance in Truly, Madly, Deeply, Juliet has recently been reunited with
Alan Rickman in two feature films which are waiting for release dates: a film version of Samuel Beckett’s Play directed by Anthony Minghella, and an American comedy with Janeane Garofalo.