Josephine Tewson obituary | Television
Actress Josephine Tewson, who died aged 91, was a valiant foot soldier in the ranks of comedy, a gifted performer of great value opposite some of Britain’s biggest television stars during a career that spanned more than 50 years.
No part was worth it more than that of Elizabeth (Liz) Warden, the nervous and restless neighbor of snob Hyacinth Bucket in the hugely popular sitcom Keeping Up Appearances (1990-95). As part of a quality cast of characters orbiting Patricia Routledge’s starring turn as Hyacinth, Tewson assumed a front of forced politeness as Liz dealt with her socially ambitious neighbor’s antics, her expressive eyes growing in barely concealed panic at the order to come and have tea. .
Social obligations at the Buckets were a minefield of performative etiquette and passive-aggressive put-downs, negotiated by Liz with raw nerves. The audience was always on Liz’s side thanks to Tewson’s mastery of when to give and take focus, and she balanced herself perfectly with Routledge’s tour de force performance, helping to ensure the laughs landed in the right places. “Sometimes you have to tell the audience when not to laugh or they’ll run away with you,” she observed.
Tewson was born in Hampstead, north London, the only child of Kate (née Morley), a nurse, and William Tewson, who played double bass for the restaurants in the corner houses of Joe Lyons and the BBC Symphony Orchestra . After high school, she was ready to study English at Durham University when her teacher stepped in and told her parents she was well equipped for a life on stage. Somewhat shy, she gained confidence in taking on characters, and so flourished when she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she graduated in 1952.
She went straight to performance and at Darlington was referred to by the Stage as “a young actress full of charm and promise”: stints at Cleethorpes, Mansfield and Morecambe followed.
While playing the leading boy in pantomime in Salisbury in 1957, she and fellow actor Leonard Rossiter were chosen to appear in the musical Free As Air at the Salisbury Playhouse, which toured and transferred to the Savoy Theater and thus became his debut in London. She and Rossiter married in 1958 but, Tewson later observed, “he was a wonderful actor but a terrible husband”, and they divorced in 1961.
She started appearing on television in No Hiding Place (1963-64), Z-Cars (1963-68) and Emergency Ward-10 (1965-67) and that’s when she aged to play housekeeper Mrs. Drudge in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound (Criterion Theatre, 1968) that she caught the eye of her co-star Ronnie Barker. He was working on David Frost’s Frost project on Sunday and recommended her when sketches for the show needed a versatile female performer who could hold her own against Barker and Ronnie Corbett.
Consequently, she was soon called upon on television to provide her innate sense of timing in sketches on The Charlie Drake Show (1968), The Dick Emery Show (1969-70) and Three Jimmy Tarbuck Vehicles (1973-75). She joined Terry Scott and Mollie Sugden in the TV series Son of the Bride (1973), Roy Kinnear in No Appointment Necessary (1977), and was John Inman’s half-sister in Odd Man Out (1977).
Her association with Barker was the most enduring, however, and he was the person she enjoyed working with the most. She was scatterbrained secretary Mildred Bates in two London weekend TV series, Hark at Barker (1969-71) and His Lordship Entertains (1972), played various roles in The Two Ronnies (1971-81) and was the maid Jane Travers, the object of her affection, in Clarence (1988), a role written especially for her by Barker in his last project before retirement.
She played disapproving landlady Mrs. H opposite Hywel Bennett’s cynical underachievers in the superior sitcom Shelley (1979-82) and was the secretary opposite John Wells’ splenetic doctor in Rude Health (1987-88). Roy Clarke, author of Keeping Up Appearances, provided her with another plum role in the enduring senior citizen comedy Last of the Summer Wine, as high-strung librarian Miss Davenport (2003-2010). Lately, she had three good roles in Doctors (2009-2015), including that of a murderess with Alzheimer’s disease that television told her about.
Alongside her television roles, she continued to pursue her first love, the theatre, and her West End roles included Dotty Otley in Noises Off at the Savoy (1985), the London premiere of Alan’s Woman in Mind Ayckbourn (1986) and Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers (Strand, 1989). As Mercy, a primitive, soulless BBC leader, she was perfect opposite Miriam Margolyes in a touring production of The Killing of Sister George (Ambassadors, 1995).
She was somewhat sorry for the dominance of comedy in her career and the fact that people often assumed she would be like the often dull or temperamental characters she played. In reality, she was a quietly independent and low-key person and a good company member who had a passion for cricket and classical music. In 2012, when she was over 80, she started filming Still Keeping Up Appearances – a one-man show filled with anecdotes about her life and work.
Her second husband, Henry Newman, a dental surgeon whom she married in 1972, died in 1980.