The actor Josephine Tewson, who has died aged 91, was a doughty foot soldier in the comedy ranks, a gifted performer of great value when playing opposite some of British TV’s biggest stars during a career that spanned more than 50 years.
No part encapsulated her worth more than that of Elizabeth (Liz) Warden, the nervy, fretful neighbour of snobbish Hyacinth Bucket in the hugely popular sitcom Keeping Up Appearances (1990-95). As part of a quality ensemble of character players orbiting Patricia Routledge’s star turn as Hyacinth, Tewson assumed a front of forced politeness as Liz dealt with her socially ambitious neighbour’s antics, her expressive eyes widening in barely concealed panic at a command to come round for tea.
Social obligations at the Buckets’ were a minefield of performative etiquette and passive-aggressive put-downs, negotiated by Liz with fraying nerves. Audiences were always on Liz’s side thanks to Tewson’s mastery of when to give and take focus, and she balanced perfectly with Routledge’s tour-de-force performance, helping to ensure that the laughs came in all the right places. “Sometimes you have to dictate to the audience when not to laugh or they’ll run away with you,” she observed.
Tewson was born in Hampstead, north London, the only child of Kate (nee Morley), a nurse, and William Tewson, who played double bass for the restaurants in Joe Lyons’ corner houses and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. After a grammar school education she was all set to study English at Durham University when her teacher intervened and told her parents that she was well equipped for a life on the stage. Somewhat shy, she gained confidence when assuming characters, and so flourished when she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, graduating in 1952.
She went straight into rep and at Darlington was singled out by the Stage as “a young actress of great charm and promise”: stints at Cleethorpes, Mansfield and Morecambe followed.
While playing the principal boy in pantomime at Salisbury in 1957, she and fellow cast member Leonard Rossiter were picked to appear in the musical Free As Air at the Salisbury Playhouse, which toured and transferred to the Savoy theatre and so became her London debut. She and Rossiter married in 1958 but, Tewson later observed, “he was a wonderful actor but a terrible husband”, and they divorced in 1961.
She began appearing on television in the likes of No Hiding Place (1963-64), Z-Cars (1963-68) and Emergency Ward-10 (1965-67) and it was when she aged up to play the housekeeper Mrs Drudge in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound (Criterion theatre, 1968) that she caught the attention of her co-star Ronnie Barker. He was working on David Frost’s project Frost on Sunday, and recommended her when the show’s sketches required a versatile female performer who could hold her own opposite Barker and Ronnie Corbett.
Consequently she was soon in demand on television to supply her innate sense of timing in sketches in The Charlie Drake Show (1968), The Dick Emery Show (1969-70) and three Jimmy Tarbuck vehicles (1973-75). She joined Terry Scott and Mollie Sugden in the TV series Son of the Bride (1973), Roy Kinnear in No Appointment Necessary (1977) and was John Inman’s half-sister in Odd Man Out (1977).
Her association with Barker was the most enduring, though, and he was the person she enjoyed working with the most. She was the scatterbrained secretary Mildred Bates in two related London Weekend Television series, Hark at Barker (1969-71) and His Lordship Entertains (1972), played various roles in The Two Ronnies (1971-81) and was the maid Jane Travers, the object of his affection, in Clarence (1988), a role written especially for her by Barker in his last project before retirement.
She played the disapproving landlady Mrs H opposite Hywel Bennett’s cynical underachiever in the superior sitcom Shelley (1979-82) and was the secretary opposite John Wells’s splenetic doctor in Rude Health (1987-88). Roy Clarke, writer of Keeping Up Appearances, provided another plum part for her in the enduring senior citizen comedy Last of the Summer Wine, as the highly strung librarian Miss Davenport (2003-2010). Latterly she had a trio of good roles in Doctors (2009-2015), including one as a murderer with Alzheimer’s disease whose TV spoke to her.
In conjunction with her television roles she continued to pursue her first love, theatre, and her West End parts included Dotty Otley in Noises Off at the Savoy (1985), the London premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind (1986), and Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers (Strand, 1989).As Mercy, a prim and soulless BBC executive, she was pitch perfect opposite Miriam Margolyes in a touring production of The Killing of Sister George (Ambassadors, 1995).
She was somewhat rueful about the dominance of comedy in her career, and the fact that people often thought she would be just like the often dowdy or skittish characters she played. In reality she was a quietly independent, understated person and a good company member who was passionate about cricket and classical music. In 2012, in her 80s, she began touring Still Keeping Up Appearances – a one-woman stage show full of anecdotes about her life and work.
Her second husband, Henry Newman, a dental surgeon whom she married in 1972, died in 1980.
• Josephine Ann Tewson, actor, born 26 February 1931; died 18 August 2022