Obituaries: Lynda Baron, versatile actress best known for Open All Hours
Lynda Baron had been singing and dancing professionally in provincial seaside shows for three years when she decided to head to London with less than £10 in her purse and advice from her parents that if she had not found work by the time it ran out she should just head back home to Lancashire.
Fortunately she landed a job in a pantomime chorus line within the week and went on to carve out a successful career on the London stage and in television, though it would be years before she got the part with which she is most widely associated, that of Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, the buxom object of Ronnie Barker’s desire in the hit sitcom Open All Hours.
She played the character in 26 episodes over four series between 1976 and 1985, with Barker as the stuttering grocer Arkwright and David Jason as his downtrodden nephew and assistant Granville, and in another 13 episodes when the show was revived as Still Open All Hours in 2013, long after Barker’s death.
Still Open All Hours was another hit, but she had to drop out after two series because the production dates clashed with those of EastEnders, on which she played Jane Beale’s mother Linda Clarke, a part she played on and off for ten years, from 2006 to 2016.
She was born Lilian Ridgway in Urmston in Lancashire in 1939. Her father was a painter and decorator. She started ballet lessons when she was just four and was keen to make her career in entertainment, but concluded she had little chance of making it to the top as a ballet dancer, took up singing as well and found work in provincial shows before her big break in London.
After that first stint in panto, she graduated to more prestigious engagements and by the early 1960s was appearing alongside Kenneth Williams in Peter Cook’s revue One Over the Eight.
By the mid-1960s she had regular work as a singer at London’s Talk of the Town, was one of the resident singers on Ned Sherrin’s satirical show Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life and sang the opening and closing numbers on BBC-3, satirical shows in the style of That Was the Week That Was. Sherrin wrote songs specifically for her.
She first appeared on Doctor Who in 1966 as a singer in the Wild West story The Gunfighters, with the original Time Lord, William Hartnell. And she was back on the show playing a space pirate, Captain Wrack, in 1983, during Peter Davison’s stint as Doctor, and as shopworker Val in 2011, befriending Matt Smith’s Doctor when yet again the Time Lord has to vanquish the Cybermen.
Baron’s appearance on the Sherrin shows established her comic talents. By the mid-1970s she was one of the regulars not only on Open All Hours, but also on the sitcoms A Roof Over My Head, with Brian Rix, and Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt, with Bill Maynard.
On Open All Hours she played the district nurse Gladys Emmanuel, who lives across the road from Ronnie Barker’s character, the stingy Yorkshire grocer Arkwright. She appears resistant to his charms – though it transpires in later episodes that they are engaged.
It seems she cannot actually marry him as long as she has to care for her elderly mother, though when the show was relaunched as Still Open All Hours Gladys joked that Arkwright would have been glad to have died before they had gone through with the wedding because it saved him the cost of it.
On the big screen Baron appeared as an ill-fated prostitute in the 1971 Hammer horror film Hands of the Ripper and she shared the screen with Hollywood superstar Barbra Streisand in Yentl, but complained that Streisand “rewrote and cut my scenes till I became the highest-paid extra in film history”.
Baron was part of the ensemble in Carry On Columbus, an ill-judged attempt to restart the classic comedy series with a new cast, and she had a small role in Woody Allen’s Scoop.
She also had a fine stage career and enjoyed great success in the 1987 West End production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, with Diana Rigg and Julia McKenzie.
In the 1990s Baron played Auntie Mabel in the children’s educational series Come Outside. She embarked on a series of exciting adventures with her dog Pippin in a polka-dotted little plane, stopping off to explain to her young audience exactly how objects worked. It was one of the BBC’s most watched children’s programmes of all time and was regularly repeated on CBeebies.
Her first marriage, in the early 1960s, was short-lived and ended in divorce. In 1966 Baron wed jazz musician John Lee, who she met while they were working together. On one occasion she was supposed to jump onto his piano while singing Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey?, but she went right through it. He died in 2001. Lynda Baron is survived by two children, one from each marriage.
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