Obituary: Patsy Byrne, actress

Patsy Byrne, left, was Shakespearian actress best-known for the comic persona of Nursie in Blackadder
Patsy Byrne, left, was Shakespearian actress best-known for the comic persona of Nursie in Blackadder
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Born: 13 July, 1933, in Kent. Died: 17 June, 2014, in North London, aged 80

PATSY Byrne will forever be associated with the role of the much put-upon Nursie alongside Miranda Richardson’s ebullient Queen Elizabeth I in the second series of Blackadder, the cult series dating from the 1980s. She is the show’s second star to die recently – Rik Mayall, with whom Byrne shared several classic scenes, died only eight days before her.

Byrne gave the kindly but slightly dim Nursie a rotund geniality. She and Richardson became a double act bouncing lines off each other with a joyous ease. Indeed, they became so identified with their roles that the scriptwriters wrote scenes around the characters that they had created on screen.

Byrne was never other than a professional, though, and brought to even the dottiest lines a sincerity that made them believable and plausible.

Nursie seemed to be forever whooping with delight or bursting into tears over some new tragedy. None more so than when she is told that her fiancé, Captain Redbeard Rum (Tom Baker), has died at sea. Rowan Atkinson sympathetically announces they have a memento for Nursie: his beard. Amidst all the screams of des­pair from Nursie, she dons the beard with pride: “I shall wear it always to remind me of him.” It was all done by Byrne with immaculate timing and a straight face, to maximum comic effect.

Byrne, plump with a homely round face, was known as every­one’s mother during filming of Blackadder. She considered all the young men in the cast as “her boys” and joined in the fun and horseplay between sets, becoming a much-loved and admired institution.

Patricia Byrne grew up in Ashford, Kent, and attended Ashford School for Girls and the Rose Bruford Drama College. After years at repertory theatres, Byrne joined the Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square and, in 1960, ­appeared in the premiere of ­Arnold Wesker’s Roots and then The Wesker Trilogy, with Joan Plowright, directed by John Dexter.

Over the next decade Byrne was often seen with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford and was cast in numerous important productions. An early appearance was with the company when it visited the Edinburgh Festival in 1962 with the world premiere of Christopher Fry’s Curtmantle. The play was directed by Stuart Burge and starred John Nettleton and Roy Dotrice with Byrne as Blae.

Byrne gradually got more rewarding parts and joined a memorable production of Love’s Labours Lost at Stratford in 1965 with a cast led by Janet Suzman and Timothy West.

Byrne soon also became recognised as a film and television actress of considerable stature: her ability to capture a character with fine vocal delivery or a facial grimace made her ideal casting in a host of dramas. In 1962 she was cast as Audrey in BBC TV’s production of As You Like It with Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind and in 1971 in Chekhov’s Platonov with Rex Harrison. Other television dramas included I, Claudius, All Creatures Great and Small, The Old Curiosity Shop and Miracles Take Longer. In 1992 Byrne, with her Blackadder co-star Tony ­Robinson, appeared in the ­children’s sitcom Maid Marian and Her Merry Men.

But it was the 1986 series of Blackadder that brought Byrne lasting fame.

Her playing of the loveable but eccentric Nursie (also known as Bernard) epitomised the zany nature of the show. The first entrance of Mayall as the over-the-top Lord Flashheart in flamboyant blond wig, moustache and full of sexual energy is now a classic. The lothario makes advances to all the ladies at court – including Redgrave’s Queen Elizabeth and then turns his attention to Nursie. “Am I pleased to see you or did I just put a canoe in my pocket?” he roars. Nursie bursts with ecstatic delight.

Byrne inhabited the character with such obvious pleasure that when she had to say the somewhat obscure line (also now a classic), “My brother, he had this brilliant idea of cutting his toenails with a scythe, and his foot fell off” it was done with total conviction.

John Lloyd, the Blackadder producer, paid tribute to Byrne yesterday. “The rehearsals were interminable, with us changing our minds all the time and she was always on top of it and never complained. We had famous actors walk out of rehearsals because it was such a nightmare and shambles. But with Patsy there was never a peep of complaint.”

After Blackadder Byrne appeared in numerous TV dramas (Heartbeat, Casualty, Peak Practice etc) and returned as Nursie for the Blackadder Christmas Special (1988) and Blackadder Back and Forth (1999).

Byrne died in Denville Hall, the actors’ home.

She was married to Patrick Seccombe for 33 years: he died in 2000.