Jean Fergusson: Actor who was a staple of Last of the Summer Wine for 25 years

Kenneth Shenton

Jean Fergusson, who has died aged 74, found fame on television playing the peroxide blonde, cycle-loving supermarket checkout assistant Marina, who spent a quarter of a century chasing the love of her life, the hapless Howard Sibshaw, in the BBC’s long-running sitcom Last of the Summer Wine.

She enjoyed a successful stage career, and was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award in 1998 for her solo show, She Knows You Know!, a study of the tortured life of the comedy actor Hylda Baker that she researched, wrote, directed and starred in. She also wrote a biography of Baker with the same title, published in 1997.

The youngest daughter of a Scottish civil engineer, Jean Mitchell Fergusson was born in the Yorkshire village of Woolley, near Wakefield. Initially educated at the local village primary school, the family moved for a time to Scotland before, in 1956, settling in south Wales at Bridgend in Glamorgan.

While a pupil at Bridgend Girls’ Grammar School, already intensely keen on the theatre, she took a lead role in a school production of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Joining the Bridgend Castle Players, in 1960 she then played Abigail in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Despite parental reservations, she subsequently studied for two years at the Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Beginning her career touring schools as a member of Brian Wray’s theatre company, she then spent two years in repertory at Oldham Coliseum, later moving to the Ashton Theatre at Lytham St Annes. For a time she was dresser and wardrobe mistress for Oh! Calcutta!, the infamous nude review at the Duchess Theatre.

Alongside pantomime, her later stage roles included Kanga in Winnie the Pooh and Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals, and she spent a summer season with Terry Scott and June Whitfield in Dave Freeman’s A Bedfull of Foreigners. At the Whitehall Theatre in 1996, alongside Bradley Walsh, Frank Thornton and Brian Murphy, she appeared in Cash on Delivery.

Her television career began in 1964, playing Caroline Herbert in ITV teatime soap Crossroads. Going on to appear in Granada Television’s short-lived series Albion Market, she played a colonel’s wife in BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small, was Joyce Tibbs in The Practice and, in 1985, was in the global hit adaptation of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s blockbuster A Woman of Substance.

She first appeared in Coronation Street in 1987 as Helen Ashcroft, sister-in-law to Dr Lowther. Twelve years later she returned as Gary Mallett’s mother-in-law. In the interim, she was cast as a ballroom instructor in Dennis Potter’s Lipstick on Your Collar.

It was a get-well card that she sent to a producer, Colin McIntyre, that gave her a lucky break. The next day, he called to ask her to spend the 1983 summer season in Eastbourne playing “a blowsy blonde” in a stage version of Roy Clarke’s Last of the Summer Wine.

Moving to Bournemouth the following year, there she was joined for the first time by Robert Fyfe and Juliet Kaplan as Howard and his wife, Pearl. Proving such a hit, all three were soon seamlessly incorporated alongside Holmfirth’s finest in the television series, remaining until it ended 25 years later. Fergusson herself would appear in 216 episodes.

It was while in pantomime in Darlington in 1991 that a colleague remarked how like Hylda Baker Fergusson’s mannerisms often became. Intrigued, she began researching Baker’s life, her efforts culminating in her critically acclaimed solo show, She Know You Know! Heavy on Baker’s malapropisms (“No man has ever dallied with my afflictions and I can say that without any fear of contraception”), the production toured extensively. In 1997, suitably expanded for Saturday Playhouse on BBC Radio 4, it also enjoyed a sell-out season at the Vaudeville Theatre.

After Last of the Summer Wine ended in 2010, Fergusson returned to Coronation Street, playing Dorothy Snape in a storyline that had her unstable daughter and a former convict, John Stape, involved in identity fraud.

Paul Jenkinson, her partner of 30 years, died in 2011. She is survived by her sister and nephews.

Jean Fergusson, actor, born 30 December 1944, died 14 November 2019

Read more

Alison Prince: Children’s author whose big break came with Trumpton