Josephine Tewson

We chat to ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ star Josephine Tewson

by Karen Shaw

Elizabeth is remembered for her clinking of tea cups and overwhelming nervous energy

People who know me well, know me as ‘last minute Lily’, always on the last ‘push’. I was the same when it came to homework being submitted; on the day it was due, there I’d be manically scribbling away sweating over my Sugar Puffs… anyway I digress. After returning from my holiday in early September I was conscious about the interview I was doing the first day back in the office. I had every intention of preparing my questions whilst holidaying, however all best laid plans etc. So on the morning at the allocated time I tentatively rang star of ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ and ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, the lovely Josephine Tewson, about her one woman show she is currently on tour with. Imagine my surprise when she picked up the phone and exclaimed: “Is it Monday today? I thought it was tomorrow. I’ve got it down for tomorrow.” Gulp! For the first time in my life I was early for something….

Luckily for me Josephine went ahead with the interview. The furthest up North Josephine has travelled is Morecambe, where she spent a happy 18 months at the Royalty Theatre. “Some of my best anecdotes come from there, so I’m sure the people will enjoy it, there’s some very funny stuff in there.

“My show is about my life and career. I’ve always done after dinner speeches for charity. The audience have always found them funny. I once did a talk at a media club and a chap there suggested I do a whole evening, to which I said ‘Oh, no, no.’

He said “Yes. You don’t have to get laughs all the time, you just have to be interesting the rest of the time.”

“So I thought ‘why not?’

Many of you may not be aware but Josephine was married to the actor Leonard Rossiter, the ‘Reginald Perrin’ and ‘Rising Damp’ star, is mentioned in her show. “He was a wonderful actor and a terrible husband,” she sighs. “That’s it, that’s exactly it. That absolutely sums him up completely.”

How did you meet Leonard, I ask “We met when we were both at Salisbury Rep, when we were both in ‘Free as Air’ but I’m not telling you anymore; because I’ll end up giving away the whole show…” she laughs.

“My show offers people the opportunity to ask questions afterwards, but the three good anecdotes are about his mother, who came from Liverpool, she was a character and a half, so there’s lots of stories there!”

Despite her time in the theatre and TV, Josephine admits to getting nervous before performing. “It never wears off. It’s not like acting in a play, however I feel more relaxed about it now after performing it four times. I can guarantee everyone a good evening.”

I was curious to learn how Josephine felt how stage and screen compared.

“I’m so very old” she says. “When I started there wasn’t much TV work about anyway, so you’d go to RADA and then join repertory company, with the hope of being spotted by an agent.

“I entered the world of TV when I was performing in the West End with the lovely Ronnie Barker when he was doing ‘Frost on Sunday’. I was in my late twenties at the time and was playing an old woman in her sixties and he needed someone who was versatile along with Ronnie Corbett as well, so that’s how I got into TV and saddled with comedy. The only serious part I’ve done on TV is recently when I played a woman with Alzheimers in ‘Doctors’, but even then she had some very funny lines.”

I can hear her voice fill with affection when she talks about Ronnie Barker. “He was absolutely adorable; he was the person I most enjoyed working with. He was so good; he wrote all the scripts and could act any character instantly. He never needed to practice. He would play the character perfectly from the beginning. Leonard (Rossiter) was the same that way. He could pick up a script, read through the play and he would be the right character.”

On a more sombre note, her voice drops when I mention the recent sudden death of her ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ co-star Geoffrey Hughes. “It’s terrible. Geoffrey went to live in the Isle of Wight which cut him off from any form of socialising with the rest of the cast.

“I was terribly shy as a child – most actors are – and when we get behind a character, the shyness goes.”

“He didn’t have any children and never came to any staff parties as his wife Sue was very shy, so we didn’t find out straight away about his death. We knew he had had prostate cancer but he had recovered. Rumour has it he died of a heart attack. We all missed his funeral because because apparently the funeral was done the day after his death, which I find hard to believe. We were rather hoping his agent may have held a memorial service at the actors’ church at St Pauls’ Covent Garden. Maybe he will.”

Her role as the rather nervy and unstable Elizabeth in the hit TV comedy ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ used to have me in stitches on a Sunday afternoon and I was saddened when I heard the show was finishing. Why did the show end?

Josephine Tewson

Josephine with ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ co-star David Griffin

“I honestly don’t know. It’s maybe that Pat (Routledge) felt that it was getting repetitive and maybe she fancied a new challenge, because after leaving she went on to play Hetty Wainthropp.”

Elizabeth is remembered for her clinking of tea cups and overwhelming nervous energy, I was interested to discover if her character had any similarities to her…“Oh definitely, I think we were all cast rather well in that series!”

After her time on ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ in 2003 Josephine joined the cast of ‘The Last of the Summer Wine’ to play the part of Miss Davenport, a role she held for seven years until its shock cancellation. “For the people who had been in longer – it really hit them hard. I just thought ‘What a shame, I enjoyed that.’

“For them it was a way of life. It was a terrible shock to them all. I remember when I first joined, I was filming a scene where I was painting on the moors and the moor sloped down to a lake. There were people walking about on my side of the moor, but on the other side there was nobody, I thought this was rather odd, until someone told me that the moor was Saddleworth…” Her voice trails off.

Rumour has it that the actor John Inman was her cousin. “Oh my goodness,” she exclaims, “is that on the internet?” she asks.

“It certainly is.” I reply. “It’s absolute rubbish, my age is wrong there, but I’ve left that because it’s slightly in my favour! But when John Inman died, someone asked if I’d been to his funeral and when I said ‘No’, they were aghast. I’d worked with him the distant past and played his half sister in a TV series.”

Josephine has ‘clocked up’ over 50 years acting, she was considering going to Durham University to study English, however her teacher, Mr Chapman told her dad that she should be an actress. It never crossed her mind.

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to be an actor. You’re not going to put anyone off who really wants to do it, you’re really not. However, if they are happy having a nine to five job there are plenty of wonderful amateur companies. You can get all the satisfaction of playing and get your enjoyment that way.

“In a way I regretted that decision and wish I had gone to university, a university education offers you something you can’t get any other way.

“I was terribly shy as a child – most actors are – and when we get behind a character, the shyness goes. Someone who was also very shy was Ronnie Barker. He was terribly shy; he would never talk about himself.

“I owe an awful lot to Ronnie Barker,” adds Josephine thoughtfully. “He was a lovely man. He did all the right things. He put his family first; he never worked during the school holidays.”

“When he and Ronnie Corbett would chat and talk to the audience, Ronnie Corbett was a natural. However, Ronnie Barker hated every minute of it because he was being himself and not playing a character.

After talking with Josephine, I don’t detect any nervousness, and with her latest show she won’t be hiding behind a character, what you see is what you’ll get, a warm, engaging and funny lady ready to entertain.