Obituary: Rosalind Knight, British actress known for St Trinian's films

Rosalind Knight, actress. Born: December 3 1933 in London. Died: December 19 2020, aged 87
Rosalind Knight in 2009Rosalind Knight in 2009
Rosalind Knight in 2009

Born into a distinguished acting family, Rosalind Knight made her film debut in her teens, she was a schoolgirl in one of the original St Trinian’s comedies in the 1950s and was still acting until recently, with appearances in popular Channel 4 sitcom Friday Night Dinner and Netflix mega-hit The Crown, in which she played the Duke of Edinburgh’s mum.

She might have become one of the regulars in the Carry On series. She was a nurse in the second instalment, Carry on Nurse, and a rather stern school inspector who almost comes to blows with Joan Sims in the staffroom in the third film, Carry on Teacher, way back in 1959.

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But she had the audacity to ask for a pay rise and was not entirely surprised when the notoriously stingy producer Peter Rogers sacked her on the spot – when he died the Daily Mail called him “the Carry On Scrooge”.

She married a theatre director and wanted to take her career in a different direction and follow in the footsteps of her father, the Shakespearean actor Esmond Knight.

Although she never became a household name like Barbara Windsor or Sid James, Knight acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Court Theatre and enjoyed a career on stage and screen spanning almost 70 years.

And she secured some of her most memorable roles in later life, playing the former prostitute landlady of vile flatmates Kathy Burke and James Dreyfus in BBC2’s Gimme Gimme Gimme and Cynthia Goodman in the hit sitcom Friday Night Dinner, in which her nickname of Horrible Grandma says as much about the rest of the family as it does about her.

Rosalind Marie Knight was born in London in 1933. Her father was the actor Esmond Knight and her mother was Frances Clare, a star of musical theatre. They divorced when she was in early teens. Her stepmother, Nora Swinburne, was also an actress.

Knight had no particular ambition to become an actress as a child and found her parents’ continual talk about theatre rather dull.

It was only when she started going to the Old Vic in the second half of her teens that Knight developed any enthusiasm for theatre. “I wanted to be part of it with all my soul,” she said later.

She attended Cheltenham Ladies College, trained at the Old Vic Theatre School and honed her craft as an actress and assistant stage manager with companies in Coventry and Ipswich.

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One of the other Ipswich stage managers was Joe Orton, who would later enjoy considerable, but short-lived, success as a playwright.

In 1987 Knight would appear in the film Prick Up Your Ears, in which Gary Oldman was Orton and she played a RADA judge.

She had an uncredited part in the 1950 film Gone to Earth, was a lady-in-waiting in Richard III, alongside her father and Laurence Olivier, and she played a schoolgirl in Blue Murder at St Trinian’s in 1957, even though she was 24 by that time.

That same year she and her father played the Charles Dickens daughter-father pairing of Fanny and Wackford Squeers in a BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. After the Carry On films she concentrated on theatre for many years.

She met her husband, Michael Elliott, while working on Nicholas Nickleby and he directed her in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of As You Like It. Rosalind was Celia and, perhaps a little ironically, Vanessa Redgrave was Rosalind.

Knight played Mrs Fitzpatrick in the Oscar-winning film of Tom Jones, with Albert Finney, before taking time off to concentrate on her family.

Elliott was one of the founding artistic directors at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and the family relocated to the area.

She appeared in several Royal Exchange productions, as well as appearing regularly in films and television in the 1970s and 1980s, including the comedy Eskimo Nell, as a sort of moral guardian, not unlike Mary Whitehouse, The Lady Vanishes and The Wildcats of St Trinian's, as a teacher.

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She often played rather austere authority figures and made guest appearances on Coronation Street, as an adoption society officer who tells the Faircloughs they are too old to take on a child, and the 1989 Only Fools and Horses Christmas special, as a guest house landlady.

Between 1999 and 2001 Kinght was a regular on Gimme Gimme Gimme, which took her to a large new audience, though its attitudes now seem as dated as those of the Carry On films and a lot less funny.

She first appeared on Friday Night Dinner in 2012 when she arrived for Christmas with her ancient dog, its oxygen cylinder and her own turkey, because she considered her daughter-in-law’s turkey too dry. She ends up in a physical fight with her daughter-in-law’s mother.

The family speculate on when she is likely to die. They are almost as horrible as Horrible Grandma and include two “grown-up” sons who are always fighting.

But Grandma was still there earlier this year, telling them everything was “crap”, though she does finally pass away, rather spoiling her son’s birthday meal.

Knight’s husband died in 1984, aged 52, and she is survived by their two daughters, one of whom works in theatre and the other for the National Trust.

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