Obituary: Shirley Stelfox, actress

Shirley Stelfox, actress best known for the role of Edna Birch in soap opera Emmerdale. Picture: PA
Shirley Stelfox, actress best known for the role of Edna Birch in soap opera Emmerdale. Picture: PA
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Born: 11 April 1941 in Cheshire. Died: 7 December 2015 in Nottinghamshire. Aged 74.

The squashed woolly hats made Shirley Stelfox instantly recognisable. In fact, she played the feisty church-going Edna Birch for 15 years in Emmerdale and apart from the hats Stelfox created a character who was outspoken with her acerbic opinions. She was one of the doyennes of the soap and endeared herself to audiences and colleagues alike. In fact Stelfox was in several soaps: she was in several different roles in Coronation Street and Crossroads, Madge Richmond in Brookside and as Jane Healy, Melanie Owen’s mother, in EastEnders.

But it was her years as Edna in Emmerdale for which she will be rightly remembered. She made the old busy-body widow (she was dubbed the “Ena Sharples of the 21st century”) a loveable interfering village gossip.

In a poignant last scene, screened in October, Edna was given a present of a walkie talkie by her one-time lodger Sandy Thomas played by Freddie Jones. “You are only the touch of a button away,” he tells Edna. “So you can still disturb me when I am reading,” she remonstrates playfully. Sandy bursts out, “I shall miss you.” With a wry smile Edna quips “You’re a daft old fool: and a very dear friend.” The scene captured Stelfox’s consummate ability to combine comedy and pathos in a gentle and sensitive manner.

Equally challenging was a scene with an erring school girl who had mistakenly taken a photo of a sailor boy who had been a lover of Edna’s in the war. Stelfox snapped and slapped the girl’s face. In a second, Stelfox realises what “a silly old woman I have been” and registers her regret in her face. Not a word was necessary.

Other major story lines included the death in 2003 of Edna’s beloved dog Batley, when she revealed that her late husband Harold was gay.

Shirley Stelfox knew from her youth that she wanted to be an actress and was an enthusiastic member of the local amateur dramatic society. Despite a problem with her eyes she studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had a walk-on role in David Lean’s famous 1954 movie Hobson’s Choice. Her first role of any substance was in 1960 when Stelfox appeared in the historic first episode of Coronation Street. It was only a cameo role but she was often to return to the soap – most memorably as the forthright owner of the Bill & Coo Video Dating Agency in 1983. The accident-prone Jack Duckworth signed on their books with disastrous (and hilarious) results.

Stelfox was much in demand for roles in dramas other than soaps. As well as The Bill, Inspector Morse and Bergerac, she was regularly seen in Heartbeat and as Jean in Common as Muck with Edward Woodward. Stelfox made a huge impression in the first series of Keeping Up Appearances, in which she played Hyacinth Bucket’s (or Bouquet’s) mini-skirted and over-sexed sister in law, Rose.

In 1994 Stelfox was in Victoria Wood’s award winning BBC television drama which reunited two long lost, and very different, sisters. She played the sisters’ (Wood and Julie Walters) mother who had just won the pools.

Her roles in the movies followed a rather similar pattern. She was in the film of 1984 as the “$2 prostitute” with John Hurt and Richard Burton and was a good-time girl in thigh boots with long red nails in Personal Services (1987) based on the sex-for-luncheon-vouchers madam Cynthia Payne.

But it is as Edna for which Stelfox will be remembered. Under the hat and her steel-like intolerance Stelfox brought a sincerity and wit that viewers recognised and understood.

Stelfox was never keen to get too closely identified with one character or show. “For most of my career,” she said in an interview, “I would never agree to do anything long-term. I wanted to do everything from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare through to farce. But, with Edna, I liked the role and I like the people I am working with.”

Stelfox’s first marriage to Keith Edmondson was dissolved. She married the actor Don Henderson,George Bulman in The XYY Man, in 1979. He died in 1997. Stelfox is survived by her daughter, Helena, from her first marriage and two stepchildren.