Barbara Lott

Born: 15 May 1920 in Surrey

Died: 19 December 2002 aged 82, in London

THE image of Barbara Lott haranguing the mousey, apologetic character of Ronnie Corbett’s Timothy in the BBC sitcom Sorry! is one of TV’s lasting memories of the 1980s.

As the tyrannical mother, Lott invested the character with just enough bile and horror to maintain credibility. She certainly never allowed her Phyllis to become stereotyped or a figure of fun.

It says much for her professionalism as the temptations to go "over-the-top" must have been considerable.

Lott had a considerable career elsewhere on television and on the stage. Her limited movie appearances included playing Ewan MacGregor’s mother in the controversial 1996 film The Pillow Book.

Barbara Dulcie Lott was born in Richmond. Her father was an executive at Ealing Studios and she was often in small roles or crowd scenes in early films.

She studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art just after the war and found work throughout the 1950s in either repertory theatres or on national tours: many of which came to Scotland.

Her first TV appearance was with the BBC as Viola in Twelfth Night and this was swiftly followed by numerous roles in such dramas as Z Cars, Coronation Street (twice) through to long running series such as The Duchess of Duke Street and The Sandbaggers.

Her first major role came in 1978, when she was cast by the BBC in a new sitcom called Rings On Their Fingers. It starred Martin Jarvis and Diane Keen, who dithered away happily about their marriage plans. Mostly off rather than on. Lott played Jarvis’s mother, who was not at all happy with this unmarried arrangement (and living together in west Acton!): she supported her son in his indecision and made it clear she didn’t much care for the intended.

The series proved somewhat unpopular with the feminist movement, but that did not stop it running very successfully for three series, regularly getting more than 20 million viewers.

The way Lott treated the character must have struck bells somewhere in the BBC. In 1981 the Corporation was casting a new sitcom called Sorry! to star Ronnie Corbett. He was to be got up in unlikely heavy rimmed glasses and a short-sleeved sweater - and in an even more unlikely black wig. Corbett’s character had a mother who couldn’t accept that "her little boy" was an adult and, at the age of 40, had grown up.

Lott’s harridan of a mother treated both Corbett and her husband (played by William Moore) with equal contempt although she reserved her most acerbic screams for Corbett: "Language, Timothy!" was much heard.

Lott’s aghast facial put-downs became something of a feature of the show. She had a way with a smile that could crack nuts within earshot and terrify anyone in range: it was usually Corbett. His inability to find any sort of girlfriend was a constant worry but the sheer fact that the show lasted for seven years (and has been much repeated) is a compliment to the actors involved.

To base a long running series on such a flimsy basis reflects their ability to brighten up their characters and keep them alive. Lott’s Phyllis matched Corbett’s finely constructed Timothy with majestic horror.

Lott’s films had included small parts in the likes of The Party’s Over (1962) and Ballet Shoes (1975).

Then in 1995, the avant-garde director Peter Greenaway cast Lott as Ewan MacGregor’s mother in his oriental tale The Pillow Book.

It was a demanding piece for Lott to get involved with in her mid-seventies, but despite some carnally explicit scenes and some rum goings-on, she delivered a performance which won praise from the critics.

In the 1950s, Lott married the television producer Stuart Latham (responsible for many episodes of Coronation Street). He died a decade ago.