Jean Heywood obituary
Jean Heywood, who has died aged 98, was a character actor who found herself catapulted to national fame in 1976 as Bella, the matriarch who holds the poverty-stricken Seaton family together in the BBC TV drama When the Boat Comes In, James Mitchell’s story of a recession-hit Tyneside community between the two world wars.
She and James Garbutt played Bella and Bill, parents of the unworldly teacher Jessie (Susan Jameson) who falls for Jack Ford (James Bolam), a disillusioned war veteran returning to the fictional Gallowshield and leading new battles, as a union leader. The traditional north-east of England folk song When the Boat Comes In provided a memorable theme, performed by Alex Glasgow.
Heywood was herself from the north-east, as were many others in the cast. She and her screen husband cherished the opportunity to mould their alter egos. “We modified the characters quite a lot from the original concept,” she said at the time. “Bella was a lot coarser than she has emerged. For example, she was really fond of the gin and could cut up rough. Bill, too, was a very rough diamond originally.”
They appeared in the first three series, screened in 1976 and 1977. Heywood described Bella as “more like me than I am”.
She was born Jean Murray in Blyth, Northumberland, to Elsie (nee Batey) and Jack Murray, a coalmine electrician. The family moved to New Zealand when Jean was six, but within six months her mother died. Several years later she returned to Britain after her father remarried, and she was brought up in Birmingham.
On leaving King Edward VI grammar school, she worked as a librarian until marrying Roland Heywood, a mechanical engineer, in 1945, moving to Surrey and joining the Camberley Players, an amateur company. Once her three children had grown up, Heywood realised her ambition to act professionally.
She joined the Castle theatre, Farnham (now the Redgrave theatre), in 1963 as acting wardrobe mistress and was given small acting parts. Further work followed with other rep companies. She made her first television appearances in 1968 in serialised adaptations of two Emile Zola novels, Nana and Germinal.
Switching to modern dramas, she appeared in Alan Plater’s Land of Green Ginger (1973) as the mother of Gwen Taylor’s young woman returning to her home town of Hull from London, and in Willy Russell’s Our Day Out (1977) in the leading role of Mrs Kay, a remedial class teacher determined that her children, resigned to the fate of becoming “factory fodder”, should have a good time on a coach trip from Liverpool to north Wales.
In 1990 Heywood appeared throughout the final series of All Creatures Great and Small as the housekeeper, Mrs Alton, and a year later as Hilda Calder, mother of Freddy, in the police series Specials. She also played John Thaw’s mother, Marjorie, in episodes of Kavanagh QC in 1995 and 1996.
In sitcoms, she played David Roper’s landlady in Leave It to Charlie (1978-80) and two mothers – of Barry Jackson’s joke shop worker with learning difficulties in Horace (1982) and Dolly McGregor in The Brothers McGregor (1985-88).
Her stints in soaps were generally short: as Phyllis Acaster, mother of Dolly, in Emmerdale Farm during 1978; Alice Kirby (1982-83), a widow who dumped Chalkie Whitely for a retired all-in wrestler in Coronation Street; Sally Hart (1997), who drowned in a canal, in the first two weeks of Family Affairs; and Kitty Hilton (2000-02), mother of Ray, in Brookside.
In a rare film role she played the aspiring ballet dancer’s grandmother in Billy Elliot (2000). On stage she was Glenda Jackson’s mother in a West End production of Rose (Duke of York’s theatre, 1980) and Margaret, the nurse, in The Father with the National Theatre company (1988-89).
Heywood’s husband died in 1996. She is survived by their children, Bryon and Carolyn, and another son, Ian, from a previous relationship.
• Jean Heywood, actor, born 15 July 1921; died 14 September 2019