Heather Chasen, actress known for lively roles in The Navy Lark and Crossroads – obituary
Heather Chasen, the actress, who has died aged 92, played the lion’s share of the female characters in the long-running radio comedy The Navy Lark, and later brought glamour to the Midlands’ most famous motel as Valerie Pollard in Crossroads.
The Navy Lark, which ran for a record-breaking 18 years from 1959, detailed the misadventures of the disaster-prone crew of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Troutbridge. Broadcast on Sunday lunchtimes on the BBC Light Programme (later Radio 2), it was enormously popular with a listenership many of whom had served in the Forces and recognised the kernel of truth in its caricatures of nincompoopish officers and work-shy ratings.
Heather Chasen was the only regular woman cast member. Her main role was the unimaginatively named Wren, Chasen, but she also played dozens of other characters; among her favourites were Romona Povey, the tyrannical wife of the hapless Commander Povey (Richard Caldicot) – “I always thought of her as a feller in drag,” she recalled – and the bibulous Lady Todhunter-Brown.
The Navy Lark made stars of its remarkably gifted cast of character actors, which included Leslie Phillips, Jon Pertwee, Michael Bates and Ronnie Barker, and male egos were rampant.
Judy Cornwell, who guest-starred in some episodes, recalled the advice Heather Chasen gave her: “The men never want to let us in. You have to kick, elbow, push and shove to get to the microphones so you can get your words in on time.”
But although the female characters were initially minor and somewhat two-dimensional, Heather Chasen was so good in the programme that her roles were continually expanded.
In 1982, with her hair dyed red, she joined the television soap opera Crossroads, much mocked for its wobbly sets and shoddy storylines but with viewing figures of some 18 million. She spent a four-year run as the vampish Valerie Pollard, pluckily characterised by the scriptwriters, in emulation of the “superbitch” figures proving so popular in glossy US soaps such as Dallas.
Valerie was obliged to become resident at the Crossroads Motel after her rich husband J Henry Pollard, one of its owners, decided to clip her wings after too many dalliances with handsome young men, and cancelled her credit cards.
Viewers were gripped when she seduced accountant Adam Chance – engaged at the time to the fragrant Jill Richardson – to get back at her husband. Heather Chasen found her time on Crossroads enjoyable, but far from financially rewarding: there was no clothes budget and she would blow her salary on buying suitably glamorous outfits for Valerie in Bond Street.
Soap operas played a large part in her career: she and Stephanie Beacham took the lead roles in Thames Television’s short-lived Marked Personal (1973-74), set in a large industrial company, and she was also Caroline Kerr in The Newcomers (1968-69), Madge Bennett in Family Affairs (2005) and Janine Butcher’s grandmother Lydia Simmonds in EastEnders (2011).
She also played Margaret Thatcher in the Birmingham Six drama-documentary Who Bombed Birmingham? (1990).
Heather Jean Chasen was born in Singapore on July 20 1927, the daughter of Frederick Nutter Chasen, an ornithologist who became Director of the Raffles Museum in 1932, and his wife Agnes.
Heather and her mother left Singapore shortly before the Japanese occupation; her father died aboard HMS Giang Bee when it was sunk by the Japanese in February 1942.
She was educated at Princess Helena College, and fell in love with acting appearing in school plays. She spent a term at Rada, but was not awarded the scholarship that would have enabled her to stay on, and went into Rep, making her professional debut in Doña Clarines at the Castle, Farnham, in 1945 and her London debut in Blood Wedding in 1954.
She toured with Frankie Howerd in Hotel Paradiso in 1957 and gave an acclaimed performance in Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head, with which she went to New York in 1964. She was playing Mollie Ralston in The Mousetrap when she was invited to join The Navy Lark.
Heather Chasen was an exuberant spirit, who usually attended the Sunday recordings of The Navy Lark in dark glasses because she was hung-over.
Her continued devotion to acting was made clear in a short documentary film, A Stage of Development (2013), which poignantly begins with her on the phone to her agent saying: “I suppose I didn’t get that funeral advert?”
In later life she was praised for her performance as the maid in Noël Coward’s The Rat Trap (Finborough Theatre, 2006) and played Madame Magloire in the film of Les Misérables (2012). Always a stylish and individualistic dresser, in 2012 she was photographed by Ari Seth Cohen for his Advanced Fashion project.
Heather Chasen enjoyed a colourful love life; her many partners included the actress Amanda Barrie. She was also a close friend of the complicated American novelist Patricia Highsmith, remaining loyal to her in her lonely old age and claiming to have found “an element of vulnerability and a sweetness” behind the “aggression and vitriol that seeped from her”.
She married, in 1949, John Webster; they had a son, Rupert.
Heather Chasen, born July 20 1927, died May 22 2020