Never a household name like her ex-husband Leonard Rossiter, Josephine Tewson was, however, an instantly recognisable face from regular appearances in The Two Ronnies, Last of the Summer Wine and Keeping Up Appearances.
She played snobby Hyacinth Bucket’s nervy neighbour Liz in 43 episodes of the classic sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, forever shaking Hyacinth’s Royal Doulton and spilling the tea in response to some sudden shock, like the telephone ringing.
Tewson had a wonderfully expressive face and excelled at physical comedy. There was an element of pantomime about her characterisation of Liz.
And it was in the pantomime Babes in the Wood at Shrewsbury Playhouse that she first met Rossiter. She was the principal boy, playing Robin Hood, and he was the Good Robber.
West End writer Julian Slade was in the process of casting his new musical Free As Air when a friend told him to check out two outstanding new talents in the Salisbury pantomime. He wound up casting both Tewson and Rossiter and Free As Air gave them their West End debuts in 1957.
They married the following year, but the union lasted only three years.
“He was a great actor, but a terrible husband,” Tewson said.
Rossiter was a comic genius, but a famously difficult person to get on with and Tewson complained of his womanising and lack of care for their relationship.
She had a rather more positive relationship with Ronnie Barker, though not a romantic one. “I entered the world of TV when I was performing in the West End with the lovely Ronnie Barker,” she said.
“I was in my late twenties at the time and was playing an old woman in her sixties [the housekeeper Mrs Drudge in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound]”.
Barker was working with David Frost, at a time when Frost was still very focused on comedy and satire rather than heavyweight interviews with former-presidents. Barker recommended Tewson to Frost. “He needed someone who was versatile, along with Ronnie Corbett as well.”
She became a regular on the show Frost on Sunday throughout its run from 1968 to 1970. She played Barker’s secretary Mildred Bates on the show Hark at Barker at much the same time and later on His Lordship Entertains.
And she turned up on numerous episodes of The Two Ronnies over the next decade. “So that’s how I got into TV and saddled with comedy,” she said.
Such was Barker’s respect and admiration that he wrote the role of Jane Travers on his 1988 sitcom Clarence especially for her. Barker played the myopic removal man Clarence and Tewson was the maid who agrees to a chaste trial marriage with him.
“If you're Julia Roberts or Judi Dench you expect people to write parts for you but not little old me,” she said.
Born Josephine Ann Tewson, she was the daughter of a nurse and a musician, who played double bass in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Her mother’s father was Haydn Morley, a distinguished sportsman, who played football for Derby County and captained Sheffield Wednesday. He also played cricket for Derbyshire. Watching cricket was one of Tewson’s passions and she was a regular at Lord’s.
As a child she was painfully shy, but she came out of herself on stage when she took on the personae of other characters.
One of her teachers encouraged her to think of a career in acting and she abandoned thoughts of studying English at Durham University to enrol at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London.
Tewson acted with various provincial companies before that fateful meeting with Rossiter in Shrewsbury. Before becoming a regular on Frost on Sunday, she did appear in a series of straight roles on television. Early credits include Z-Cars, No Hiding Place and Emergency-Ward 10.
But after Frost on Sunday she became irrevocably associated with comedy.
Tewson was a regular on Dick Emery and Jimmy Tarbuck’s shows and had recurring roles in a string of sitcoms, including Coppers End, Son of the Bride, No Appointment Necessary, Rude Health and Odd Man Out. In the latter she played John Inman’s half-sister, which seemed to inspire the urban myth that they were related in real life.
Many of the shows were short-lived, but she played the prim landlady Mrs H in 23 episodes of the popular sitcom Shelley, with Hywel Bennet, in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Last of the Summer Wine had been going for 30 years by the time she joined as the prim librarian Miss Davenport in 2003. She stayed with it until writer Roy Clarke finally drained his final glass of vino in 2010, by which time Tewson had racked up 62 instalments of the cosy rural comedy. Clarke also wrote Keeping Up Appearances.
In later years Tewson proved a popular after-dinner speaker and developed a one-woman show drawing on her life in showbiz, entitled Still Keeping Up Appearances.
Tewson had married for a second time in the 1970s. Her husband Henry Newman, a dental surgeon, predeceased her. She did not have any children.
If you would like to submit an obituary (800-1000 words preferred, with jpeg image), or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]
Subscribe at www.scotsman.com/subscriptions