Obituary: Anna Wing, actress: created the role of Lou Beale in EastEnders

Anna Wing. Picture: PA
Anna Wing. Picture: PA
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Born: 30 October, 1914, in Hackney, London. Died: 7 July, 2013, in London, aged 98

Anna Wing was in the first episode of EastEnders as her character – the domineering Lou Beale – helped to make the soap one of the most successful BBC programmes. Wing brought a feisty feel to the soap that echoed the close-knit community in the East End – and, with Ethel Skinner (Gretchen Franklin) and Dot Cotton (June Brown), she created a formidable trio of matriarchs.

Lou ran her house and the Beale family in Albert Square with old-world discipline. Her twin children, Pete and Pauline; Pete’s second wife, Kathy, and their son Ian did not easily contradict her. The tension bristled on screen and it was not surprising that after just eight months EastEnders had knocked Coronation Street off the top of the ratings.

Until Wing got the role in EastEnders, she had been in many repertory companies and worked extensively on television – always, it has to be said, in minor roles. One of the earliest companies with whom Wing worked was at the Glasgow Citizens in the mid-1930s. She returned to the Citz in the 1960s for Happy Days and Phaedra and gave a delightful account of Miss Prism there in 1970 in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Wing came with the Nottingham Playhouse to the 1959 Edinburgh Festival in a play that set out to debunk the legend of Horatio Nelson. The Hero Rises Up by John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy, in which Wing played Mrs Cadogan, was not greeted with unanimous approval by Edinburgh audiences especially after the first line: “You are, I take it, Englishmen.” In 1983 she appeared in Shaw’s Heartbreak House, which was part the Lyceum’s centenary season.

Anna Eva Lydia Catherine Wing was the daughter of a grocer in the East End. She was educated at a progressive Quaker school and considered becoming a missionary before working as an artist’s model. A visit to the Old Vic to see John Gielgud inspired her to become an actress and an unknown sponsor paid for her to study drama at Croydon College. She never found out who had helped her and to repay the generosity Wing gave free lessons to struggling actors in her spare time.

During the Second World War, Wing trained and worked as a nurse, mostly in the East End. She did, however, have an unusual experience in Aberdeen. She had travelled north to visit a boyfriend stationed at Scapa Flow. She returned via Aberdeen the night war was declared and, as she was unknown, Wing spent a night in a cell.

Wing was seen in London’s West End and other theatres, but it was television where she found most of her work. She appeared in such popular programmes as Z Cars, Sorry and Casualty, but also in major drama series like Anna Karenina, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Naked Civil Servant and Smiley’s People.

But it was when cast, in 1987, as Lou Beale that she became a national figure. Wing brought to the grumpy, cantankerous old busybody a real authenticity, but invested her with just enough sympathy that won the public’s admiration. Beale said: “I knew a lot of women just like her when I was a girl. They’re the sort of characters you never forget.”

In fact, Wing underwent a grueling series of auditions. The producers were worried that, at 70, the schedule might be too demanding.

She was asked to bring along something from her past and at the first audition Wing brought her birth certificate to prove that she was a true Cockney. In fact, when cast as Lou, Wing declared: “All my life I’ve been an actress, now I want to be a household name.” The producers named Albert Square after Wing’s father.

She asked to be written out of EastEnders after only three years – and more than 230 episodes – as she had reservations about the direction the writers were taking the soap. She later regretted the decision.

Adam Woodyatt, who played her grandson Ian Beale, paid tribute to Wing yesterday. “Anna was a wonderful lady. We had a long episode where Ian pours his heart out to his gran. Anna was so helpful: happy to rehearse it over and over again and put me completely at ease.”

Away from the studio, Wing was equally feisty. She was a life-long member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and strongly supported the Quaker ideology of open-mindedness, tolerance and pacifism. She was appointed MBE in 2009.

Wing married Peter Davey in 1944. They divorced in 1947. They had a son. She also had a son with her longtime partner Patrick O’Connor. Both sons survive her.