Doreen Mantle obituary

<span>Photograph: Radio Times/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Radio Times/Getty Images

Doreen Mantle, who has died aged 97, found fame in her 60s as Mrs Warboys, the hapless, naive best friend of Margaret, the grumpy Victor Meldrew’s longsuffering wife, in the sitcom One Foot in the Grave. The much-loved programme, created by David Renwick, starred Richard Wilson as Victor and Annette Crosbie as Margaret, and ran for six series between 1990 and 2000.

The character of Mrs Warboys was initially devised for a story in the first episode, in which Renwick needed a guinea pig for the forcibly retired Victor when, looking for ways to fill his time, he tests his conjuror’s rusting guillotine, recovered from the attic after 12 years. Feeling that the scene would not be as funny with Margaret suffering the humiliation, Renwick substituted her friend. “I want to get out – I feel extremely dizzy,” Mrs Warboys says, lying flat on her front, shortly before the blade falls and she survives the ordeal.

Renwick noted in his journal that “a rather conservative-looking” Mantle gave a “weighty, truthful reading” in her audition, adding that she was “amusing in a subtler way than I’d envisaged, like a classy version of Doris Hare”.

Mantle became the perennial victim, alongside Crosbie and Wilson, whose character’s constant irritation with the world around him was embodied in his catchphrase: “I don’t believe it!”

Of Mrs Warboys, Mantle told the author Richard Webber: “She always wanted to help and meant well all the time. It’s just that she was tactless and not very bright, although occasionally she’d have these strange streaks of knowledge, like the time she knew all the answers while playing Trivial Pursuit.” Mrs Warboys beating Victor at board games was a running joke in the show.

'BILLY LIAR' PLAY AT THE CHURCHILL THEATRE, BROMLEY, LONDON, BRITAIN - 26 MAY 2004Mandatory Credit: Photo by Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock (454153d) Paul Copley, Ralf Little, Tracie Bennett and Doreen Mantle 'BILLY LIAR' PLAY AT THE CHURCHILL THEATRE, BROMLEY, LONDON, BRITAIN - 26 MAY 2004
Mantle with, from left, Paul Copley, Ralf Little and Tracie Bennett in Billy Liar, 2004. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock

Mantle’s newfound fame led to appearances in shows such as a Weakest Link sitcom special in 2002. Asked by the host, Anne Robinson, for her most memorable moment, she replied, deadpan, as in the mode of her character: “I was rolled down a hill and mounted by a dog.” The studio audience roared with laughter.

Doreen was born in Johannesburg, to English parents, Hilda (nee Greenberg) and Bernard Mantle, who ran a hotel. When she was six weeks old, the family moved to Britain, returning to South Africa four years later, in 1930, shortly after the birth of her brother, Alan.

While taking a social studies degree at the University of Witwatersrand, she acted with its dramatic society and appeared on the South African amateur stage and radio, before becoming a social worker. On a visit to London in 1949, she performed at the Gateway theatre.

Back in South Africa, she married Joshua Smith in 1951 and, not wanting to bring up a family under the apartheid regime, the couple settled in Britain. “I wanted to see new places, to get away from parochial views and to change the world,” Mantle said; she had met Nelson Mandela when he was a young lawyer. She became a volunteer with a legal aid organisation: “I really wanted to make a difference and stop injustice.”

She acted at Colchester repertory theatre (1954) before taking a break from the stage after the birth of her first son. Shortly after her return, she had a small role as a wedding guest at the Aldwych theatre in a 1967 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Jules Feiffer’s play Little Murders.

After a lean spell during which she worked as a London tourist guide, Mantle’s career was kickstarted by William Trevor’s play Going Home at the King’s Head theatre club, Islington, in 1972. The Stage praised her “uncannily truthful” performance as a school’s repressed under-matron expressing a desire to care for an insolent boy she is accompanying on a railway journey. The London Evening Standard critic Nicholas de Jongh described it as “the most shattering performance to be seen in London”.

Various - 1992Mandatory Credit: Photo by Shutterstock (10666863ix) Doreen Mantle c.1992 Various - 1992
Mantle in 1992. Photograph: Shutterstock

Mantle continued playing women consumed by loneliness in other fringe plays written by Trevor, A Night With Mrs da Tanka (King’s Head, 1972) and The 47th Saturday (Open Space theatre, 1973). She also starred in Miss Fanshaw’s Story, a 1973 TV version of Going Home.

Later, her portrayal of Linda, the dignified wife of the title character (Warren Mitchell), in a revival of the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre (1979-80) won Mantle an Olivier award as best supporting actress.

Shortly afterwards, she starred as Helene Hanff, alongside Ronnie Stevens as Frank Doel, in the suitably charming West End production of 84 Charing Cross Road (Ambassadors theatre, 1982-83).

By then, television casting directors had spotted her skills as a character actor and kept her busy on screen for more than 40 years. Many of her parts were one-offs, but she had a short run as Mrs Catchpole in the first series of The Duchess of Duke Street (1976) and played Karl Marx’s wife in the first two parts of the Eleanor Marx trilogy (1977) and Rita Sterne, mother of the detective (Ivan Kaye) in Sam Saturday (1992).

She also appeared as Queenie, the school crossing attendant, in the first two series (2006 and 2008) of the sitcom Jam & Jerusalem, written by Jennifer Saunders. Then came a stint in Coronation Street (2010-11) playing Joy Fishwick, mother of Colin, a teacher who died and was buried below the Underworld factory after John Stape stole his identity. She came looking for her son, only to end up dying at Stape’s hands herself.

Mantle’s later stage roles included Florence Boothroyd, grandmother of the daydreaming undertaker’s assistant (Ralf Little), in a 2004 tour of Billy Liar and Mrs Voysey opposite Julian Glover in The Voysey Inheritance at the National Theatre in 2006.

Her marriage ended in divorce. She is survived by her two sons, Quentin and Nicholas, and her brother.

• Doreen June Mantle, actor, born 22 June 1926; died 9 August 2023