Lynda Baron obituary


Lynda Baron, who has died aged 82, was well known to television viewers spanning the generations, but her comforting presence in comedy and children’s fare belied the fact that in reality she was a multi-talented grafter who excelled in every discipline.

Between 1976 and 1985 Baron played the formidable Nurse Gladys Emmanuel in Roy Clarke’s popular sitcom Open All Hours, continually spurning the nuptial ambitions of the tightfisted shopkeeper Arkwright (Ronnie Barker), with whom she enjoyed a comically fractious relationship.

Arkwright’s lust for Gladys was, Baron felt, a healthy repudiation of the idea that men idolise only slim women. “There are millions of big ladies out there married to men who think they’re wonderful,” she said. Some years after Barker’s death, the show’s other star, David Jason, headlined a revival – Still Open All Hours (2013-16) – which led to a return for Baron’s skilful comedic creation.

If Open All Hours ensured that she was a welcome fixture for the family audience, then Baron’s run as the cheery Auntie Mabel in the much loved and hugely successful BBC educational programme Come Outside (1993-97) meant that she became a firm favourite with children. Mabel, piloting a polka dotted light aeroplane (a Slingsby T67 Firefly) and accompanied by her dog Pippin, would discover how various everyday things worked for the benefit of the young audience.

Born Lilian Ridgway in Urmston, Manchester, to Cyril, an interior decorator, and his wife, Lilian (nee Hawthorn), she started studying ballet aged four and attended Flixton girls’ high school as well as the Royal Academy of Dance. At 15, she said, “I realised there was so little room at the top in ballet, and being determined to get to the top I took up singing.” As a result, she began performing in pantomime at the Liverpool Empire, learning comic timing by watching from the wings every night.

She was soon singing and dancing at end of the pier shows, and by the time she was 17 she was in London performing at the Astor Club in Mayfair. She made her London stage debut in Dora Bryan’s Garrick theatre revue, Living for Pleasure, in 1958. Other revue work followed, including One Over the Eight (1961-62, Shakespeare Memorial theatre, transferring to the Duke of York’s) alongside Kenneth Williams (the writers included Harold Pinter, John Mortimer and Peter Cook) and by 1965 she was the regular chanteuse at the Talk of the Town, becoming its longest-running leading lady.

For television, in 1965 Ned Sherrin wrote the opening and closing numbers of the satirical sketch and revue programme BBC 3 (aired on BBC One) with her in mind, but despite the presence of Leonard Rossiter and Bill Oddie the show was not as successful as Sherrin’s earlier triumphs.

Comedy was a common feature of Baron’s subsequent television career, opposite Bill Maynard in Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt (1977), with Harry H Corbett in Grundy (1980), in a recurring role in The Upper Hand (1992-93), and in episodes of Dinnerladies (1998), Goodnight Sweetheart (1999) and Citizen Khan (2016). In addition, she was good value as herself, guesting on many shows, including Blankety Blank (1983-87) and Countdown (2008).

She also appeared in TV dramas: from the thriller Breaking Point (1966) to Doctors (nine episodes, 2000-14), via guest spots in everything from Z-Cars (1971) to Father Brown (2017). She was part of the ensemble cast of Fat Friends (2002-05) and her intermittent association with EastEnders – playing Jane Beale’s mother, Linda Clarke – lasted from 2006 to 2016.

Lynda Baron singing Who’s That Woman from Follies at the Olivier Awards in 1987
For Doctor Who she belted out the ballad that narrated the action in the 1966 serial The Gunfighters, a Western pastiche, with William Hartnell, and then had a ball as the sadistic, immortal space pirate, Captain Wrack, in Enlightenment (with Peter Davison, 1983). She returned as the cheery shop worker Val, befriending Matt Smith as he battled Cybermen in Closing Time in 2011.

For her tour de force turn as Violet Carson in the BBC Four play The Road to Coronation Street in 2010, she was nominated for a best supporting actress Bafta. Her film work included the Hammer horror Hands of the Ripper (1971), Barbra Streisand’s Yentl (1983), Carry On Columbus (1992), Woody Allen’s Scoop (2006), and Dream Horse (with Damian Lewis, 2020).

On stage she proved adept in musicals including Little Me (Prince of Wales, 1984-85), Stepping Out (Duke of York’s, 1985-86) and Follies (Shaftesbury theatre, 1987-89), in which she gave a showstopping rendition of Who’s That Woman as an ageing but still glamorous hoofer proving she’s still got it with light-footedness, expert tap, cussed verve and sassy elan.

She also proved adept at farce in Ray Cooney’s Funny Money (Playhouse theatre, 1995) and Rookery Nook (Menier Chocolate Factory, 2009), and enjoyed starring opposite Zoë Wanamaker in Stevie (at Chichester theatre, 2014, transferring to the Hampstead) and Orlando Bloom in David Storey’s In Celebration at the Duke of York’s (2007). She was also a regular in pantomime, excelling as a raucously thigh-slapping principal boy.

Her 1962 marriage to the hairdresser and music impresario Carol London (real name Cyril Smith) ended in divorce. In 1966 she married the jazz pianist and musical director John Lee; he died in 2001. Her two children, Sarah and Morgan, survive her.

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Olivia Wilson
By Olivia Wilson


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