Interview: Penelope Keith, actress

"Do sit down," says Penelope Keith, as if we were in the drawing room, with sunlight streaming in through the French windows and the best tea service laid out. "Anthony will bring our tea in a moment."

It doesn't really matter that we're in the basement of a church hall in Lambeth, where Keith is rehearsing a play. Clearly sensing some decorum was necessary, Anthony (the producer, not the butler) has spread a length of carpet across a box for us to rest our mugs on.

Even here, Keith effortlessly plays the lady of the manor. Demurely dressed in shades of beige and cream, she looks like the kind of unflappable Englishwoman who stands for good manners, cheerfulness and not letting the side down. One feels she would be a dab hand in a crisis.

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Of course, all this is caricature. Keith has suffered from it throughout her career, thanks to her regal bearing, beautiful voice (the result of elocution lessons, her upbringing was far from upper-class) and a lifetime of playing elegant, bossy, snobbish women. It's too easy to confuse the actress with the parts.

Interviewing her is like having afternoon tea with a distant aunt, a lady who knows how to keep a conversation moving, finds all sorts of things "absolutely fascinating", and occasionally tells a great yarn and bursts out into conspiratorial chuckling.

We're here because Keith is rehearsing the lead in Entertaining Angels, a touring production of Richard Everett's play about a vicar's wife who finds a little freedom after the death of her husband. I suspect Keith might dislike touring, being uprooted from the comforts of her home, a manor house in Surrey, and the garden she tends passionately. I am wrong.

"I love touring, I really do. You see the country. You're in a place for a week and you're lucky enough to have most of your days free so you can get about. I try to drag the company to see things. The last time I was in Edinburgh, I took them to see the Falkirk Wheel. Have you been? Isn't it amazing?"

At 69, Keith cherry-picks her projects, including voice-overs, audio-book recording, theatre and occasional television. "I don't think actors ever retire, they just stop being asked to work," she says. These days she works chiefly in winter, when there is less to do in the garden, dividing summer between Surrey and Easter Ross where she and her husband have a house. "I adore the Highlands, gorgeous."

When selecting work, she is attracted to writing, not parts. Entertaining Angels struck her as unusually good – she starred in the premiere in 2006 – and also caught her eye because it has "four smashing parts for women, which is rare, especially in modern plays". After the tour, a West End run is mooted.

She has also been doing a little research among the vicars' wives of Surrey. "You can find out quite a lot by being aware of what's going on around you. I get to meet an awful lot of people who aren't actors, which is very, very useful. So often actors only mix with actors, which is quite incestuous, and doesn't give them the insight into how other people work."

In the business she's known as a hard worker, doing her homework and then getting on with the job. At one point, she was rehearsing The Good Life in the morning, recording Emma for a BBC audio book in the afternoons and appearing on stage in the West End in the evenings. She says she has never been away from the theatre for longer than 18 months. "I keep the posters of my plays on the walls to remind myself where I've spent most of my life."

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Keith grew up in Clapham, South London, the only child of a single mother (her father left when she was two). Later, there was a stepfather, with whom she didn't get on. She was sent to a convent boarding school at the age of six. For some, that would be memoir material, but Keith is not given to emoting. Cheerful and resolute, she copes, and moves on.

When I ask her about the greatest influences on her life, it is to school that she turns. "Sister Celestine was marvellous, I was encouraged a lot to take the lead in plays and enter the Brighton Festival. I suppose my school had an enormous influence on me."

She knew she wanted to be an actress at the age of five. "I always say that when I was young, there weren't the opportunities, you could be a secretary, a teacher, a nun, a nurse or an actress. People were always asked as children what they wanted to do, and you were expected to have an answer. I show my age when I ask someone who's on their third masters degree, 'What are you going to do?' and they say, 'I dunno'."

This article was first published in The Scotsman on 17 October 2009

She applied to the Central School of Speech and Drama but was turned down because she was too tall, and went instead to Webber-Douglas, and on to an apprenticeship in rep. Perhaps the first in a long line of strong-minded woman was Wenda Padbury, the "rich bitch" (her words not mine) in the early 1970s television series Kate, about an agony aunt, starring Phyllis Calvert. One newspaper reported that Wenda had taken over from Coronation Street's Ena Sharples as the most hated woman in Britain.

Strong women are rarely popular, she says, and that was even more the case in the 1970s. "But it's far more interesting playing someone with a bit of guts, rather than just looking pretty. I was never small and pretty so I wasn't liable to get those parts."

In her early television career her height was a challenge. She describes how a TV director asked her to bend her knees coming in to a scene. As she talks about it, the hurt still smarts in her voice. "I was very conscious of my height. I remember this man saying: 'I'm not going to get you in shot' and I had to walk with my knees bent. Isn't that a dreadful thing to say to a young person?

"But I knew I was alright when I was doing another television thing (a few years later] and the director asked the male lead to wear lifts. I thought, 'I've arrived! Or if I haven't arrived, I'm part of the way there."

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Her big break was in 1975 in The Good Life, where she played Margo Leadbetter, the posh neighbour of Tom and Barbara Good, a couple who decide to turn their suburban home into a self-sufficient organic small-holding. I confess to Penelope that I'd watched some on YouTube the previous evening and nearly split my sides.

"Did you?" she laughs heartily. "Oh dear! But this is an extraordinary thing about comedy. With a play, you do it and it's gone. Films always date. Television drama always dates. Television comedy, for some reason, seems to go on. I watch Dad's Army and laugh my socks off. If it's good, and I think The Good Life was good, it does seem to stand the test of time.

"I get letters from people saying 'I grew up with you', which is fine. I also get letters from people who say 'My mummy tells me she was allowed to stay up when you were on', which is lovely! It's something one is really very grateful and proud of."

When the series first started, Margo Leadbetter was a bit part, a toffee-nosed social climber who was a foil to Felicity Kendall's natural warmth. But as the writers realised the potential of Margo in the hands of an outstanding comic actress, her role increased. In 1977 Keith won the Variety Club of Great Britain's Award for Showbiz Personality of the Year, and TV Times TV personality of the Year.

As her character grew, so did the flamboyance of her costumes. "Well," says Keith, "I must tell you about that. Richard and Felicity were supposed to be giving up everything, so they were to wear the same clothes throughout. And the lady who did the costumes said we had to use up the budget, so Paul (Eddington, who played Margo's husband Jerry) had very nice suits made for him, and Margo had clothes for every single scene. I spent half my life in Harrods and Knightsbridge, buying clothes! It was great fun."

The Good Life was part of a golden age of British sitcom. The 1970s produced classics such as Fawlty Towers, Are You Being Served?, Last of the Summer Wine, Rising Damp, George and Mildred, Porridge, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and Open All Hours. The small screen has not seen their like again.

Why are good sitcoms so much scarcer today? "What I think is that people were allowed to fail," says Keith. "Now (a new show] is trumpeted for quite a long time, usually showing all the best bits (in trailers] and if there isn't a big, big laugh within five minutes, people say 'What's this rubbish?' and they take it off."

She says even The Good Life didn't get good reviews at first, but the BBC believed in it. The third series is considered the best. "Things were allowed to grow. I'm a gardener, and I always get worried when I watch television programmes on gardening because everyone thinks you can have an instant garden, you can have instant success, instant everything. And if you've been around for as long as me, you know that most things need to grow."

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All four stars of The Good Life went on to success in other shows, Keith in To the Manor Born, which had the kind of ratings today's shows can only dream of – 24 million at its height. It is still the second most watched British sitcom of all time (Only Fools and Horses takes the top slot). Keith played Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, a lady of the manor fallen on hard times who has an on-off romance with millionaire wholesaler Peter De Vere (Peter Bowles) who buys her estate. The show was revived for a Christmas special in 2007.

Keith is adamant that she wasn't worried about being typecast as a snob. "To me, all the people I play are totally different. I suppose if I played thousands of different accents they might think: 'Isn't she clever, that she can do that?' But it isn't something that's worried me. It's something that people would like to think would worry me. I've been lucky enough to play two of the greatest parts in situation comedy written for women, and that was wonderful."

Since To The Manor Born ended in 1982, Keith has appeared in a slew of other sitcoms – Sweet Sixteen, Executive Stress, No Job for a Lady, Next of Kin – but none has reached the status of her earlier shows.

By the time Audrey fforbes-Hamilton was falling for De Vere's debonair charms, Keith had become caught up in a romance of her own. She was rehearsing in Chichester in 1976 when she met her husband, Rodney Timson, a policeman who was checking the theatre's security. She smiled at him because she thought that was the polite thing to do. He took it as an invitation to ask her out and did so. After a two year romance, they married.

The tabloids pounced on the story of the posh girl falling for the rough diamond Lancastrian, twice divorced and several years her junior. Yet, 31 years later, their marriage remains one of the most solid in showbusiness. There is a strong sense of partnership. Timson is Keith's manager, both protecting her and giving her a life outside the world of acting. Together they raised two adopted sons, now in their twenties.

So what's the secret of 31 happy years? "It's wonderful isn't it, 31 years? Gosh! Someone asked me that, and I don't know. I said home-made marmalade. I don't know what the secret is, I just think you have to be aware of what other people think. Life isn't about you, it's about everything."

Entertaining Angels, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 19-24 October. Tickets, priced from 12.50 to 25. Call 0131-529 6000, or visit

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