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by British televisions Dan Abramson
(And lovingly retyped by Carole Jackson)
Conversation flows from Josephine Tewson in a graciously egotistical manner at
odds with her pathetic image as "Elizabeth" on Keeping Up Appearances. Elizabeth is
the ongoing victim of her depraved neighbour Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet).
The real-life Josephine sounds as though she could easily knock Hyacinth into a cocked
hat (or perhaps even a cocked bucket).
This is not to say that Tewson sounds rude or combative. It's simply that she has just
returned home from her latest triumphant appearance in the West End revival of The
Killing of Sister George. The adrenaline is still surging from this night's encores and
Tewson's words fly happily ever after each other as we discuss her career.
Tewson, who has never been to America, tells me she's glad that Keeping Up
Appearances is doing so well here. I explain that the show has a cult following.
How would Tewson summarize the programme's appeal?
She is a bit surprised by the question, asking "Don't you have a Hyacinth in your family?"
I reply that no, most of my female relations are more sedate and friendly.
"You've been fortunate. I have an aunt exactly like that.
We seem to grow Hyacinths over here."
I mention that Appearances, for a sitcom, has an extraordinarily accomplished cast.
It's like watching I Love Lucy performed by The Royal Shakespeare Company."
The actress credits the show's director/producer. "Harold Snoad is very good with
casting. He would never cast one very good star and a whole lot of inexperienced people.
Harold goes for a whole cast of pros."
"How is that financially feasible?"
"He just talks you into it, so you get very little money. But that's the BBC." She
adds that the thought of working with such actors as Patricia Routledge (Hyacinth),
Geoffrey Hughes (Onslow), and Clive Swift (Richard) was one of the reasons she
allowed herself to be "talked into" this project. "It's a chance to work with admirable
people – and we are very different types. No one is vying with anyone else" for stage centre.
As for the new batch of ten Keeping Up Appearances on which she is about to
start work, she explains that "there are no changes in the cast or situation. In one
episode, Hyacinth has to take some poor old-age pensioners to a Fun Fair….there is
another country house sequence….and Hyacinth goes rowing on a river and gets mixed
up with a dredger."
This is the latest in a string of televised comic successes for Tewson, whom many may
remember as the landlady on the sitcom Shelley. She began at RADA and moved from
there into theatre because "at the time, there wasn't much television." Her first TV work
of note was on The Charlie Drake Show, whose star she recalls as "a sort of mad-genius
gentleman." He chose Tewson as his comic partner because "Charlie wanted a straight
actress who knew comic timing and understood that he got the laughs."
Although respected as a serious stage actress, "on television you rarely see me in straight
roles. They tend to type cast one." Amongst her more pleasant experiences was working
with John Inman on the series Odd Man Out, about a step-brother and step-sister who
inherit a sweets factory. On being told that the American version of this series changed
the setting to a pickle factory, Tewson sounds genuinely surprised.
"Oh! I wonder why they did that!"
Of Inman, she has this to say, "He's terribly nice and very good in pantomime as Mother
Goose and other 'Dame' roles." In the sadder moments of panto, "John makes you weep.
He can't help it, because he's very touching. But I've seen him cause theatrefuls
of small children to cry buckets."
Another memorable gig was with the future Sir David Frost in Frost on Sunday,
which combined monologues with sketch comedy. "I was the girl in all the sketches with
the Two Ronnies," she remembers. Those Ronalds, Corbett & Barker, went on to a dual
career, each starring in sitcoms, while joining together for a long-term variety show
called The Two Ronnies. Barker had the greater success in sitcoms like Porridge and
Open All Hours. Also on The Frost Report were two young men named Michael Palin
and Terry Jones. "They were just starting to write sketches then," Tewson recalls of the
soon-to-be members of Monty Python. With such contacts, it might have been expected
that she would have had some roles in the Flying Circus. But this was not to be
"because, of course, the Pythons got in drag themselves. Unless you were one of the
bosomy ones, there was no place for a lady in their shows."
More serious efforts have filled the telly gaps in Tewson's career. She has directed such
stage plays as Brighton Beach Memoirs and Spider's Web, "mainly because people ask
me to." Directing, she admits, "is very rewarding, and also very tiring."
She was also on Coronation Street "for a little while." Keeping Up Appearances
co-stars Patricia Routledge and Geoffrey Hughes have also appeared on that popular
British drama, but Tewson denies that there is any serious connection between the shows,
other than excellent work by Hughes and Routledge.
The most recent sabbatical from Appearances resulted from Routledge's decision
to return to the theatre for a while. What was good enough for Hyacinth proved equally
agreeable to Elizabeth, and Tewson toured first in Arsenic and Old Lace, then in the
aforementioned Killing of Sister George.
Of the former, Tewson uses terms like "the perfect play. You just have to do it
and it works." Her Old Lace role is that of one of a pair of sisters who are doing
yeoman's work in the cause of zero population growth via the mercy-killing of
lonely old men. Tom Baker, the fourth incarnation of The Doctor on Doctor Who
played what the actress terms "the Ray Massey part," while Steven Parcey can be
said to have portrayed Cary Grant. "Patsy Byrne played the other aunt.
We toured all over England and Scotland. Well, anyway, all over England plus
Inverness. It was a ten-week tour."
There was some talk of taking Arsenic and Old Lace to the West End for Christmas, but
the plan "did not gang well agley," as they used to say in Scotland. Tewson, of course,
did make it to the West End in Sister George, playing a persona that greatly differs from
her recent typecast roles in Keeping Up Appearances and Old Lace.
Her part in that drama could be politely described as a "cynical bitch."
The title character of Sister George is the star of a soap opera produced by Tewson's
"Mrs. Mercy," for the BBC. Tewson states that, while Coronation Street did not
prepare her for "Mrs. Mercy," many years of interaction with BBC executives did
provide her with certain useful insights into the character.
The play interested her on other levels as well. Most people remember this as a
film, produced late in the l960s when censorship had been stamped out in Britain.
The play, however, dates from a few years earlier, when ancient taboos still
ruled the theatre. "So we are doing the original script. It still involves
lesbian relations and the basic plot is still the same.
But it is far less explicit than the movie."
Tewson's "Mrs. Mercy" offers her an opportunity to break the sweet, lovable mold that
has formed around her career. "It's nice to play nasty, and with no conscience," she
laughs. She found it even more pleasant when "my Mum said she was amazed I was that
good as a lesbian." Her laughter continues. Very cheerful. Very ego-satisfied.
Not at all "Elizabethan."
Clive Swift Interview