Maria Charles, actress acclaimed for her performances in Bar Mitzvah Boy and Agony – obituary

Maria Charles as Maureen Lipman's overbearing mother in Agony - ITV/Shutterstock
Maria Charles as Maureen Lipman's overbearing mother in Agony - ITV/Shutterstock

Maria Charles, who has died aged 93, was an actress with immaculate timing and an air of twinkling naughtiness, whose career spanned seven decades and ranged from stage musicals to television comedies.

She was perhaps best known to TV audiences as the constantly telephoning and overbearing Bea Fisher, mother to Maureen Lipman’s chaotic agony aunt, in the LWT sitcom Agony (1979-81). She got the role after her performance in Jack Rosenthal’s Bar Mitzvah Boy, a 1976 BBC Play for Today directed by Michael Tuchner. In a beautifully judged coming-of-age comedy which was also a gentle exposure of boyhood pressures and societal hypocrisies, she excelled as Rita, the bundle-of-nerves matriarch with all the problems of the world weighing as heavily on her shoulders as her towering hairdo.

She was born Maria Zena Schneider in west London on September 22 1929, the elder of two daughters born to David Schneider, a hairdresser, and Celia (née Ashkenaza). Her father had arrived in England from Poland aged four, changing the family name during the Second World War.

Impatient for a stage career, Maria was expelled from Burlington school in Fulham for truancy (though she was invited back many years later to give a prize). She graduated from Rada in 1946, having completed her first professional job the previous Christmas as the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland at Worthing Rep, a show which included free performances for ex-prisoners of war and their families, the children being waited on by the cast during the interval.

After her West End debut as what one critic described as an “admirably conceived glamour puss” in Elsa Shelley’s The Pick-Up Girl (Prince of Wales, 1946), she worked in rep and revue. In 1951, while in the repertory company at Buxton, she met and subsequently married the actor Robin Hunter, with whom she had two daughters.

With Michael Hordern in Tom Stoppard's Enter a Free Man in 1968
With Michael Hordern in Tom Stoppard's Enter a Free Man in 1968

Her first big break came at the Players’ Theatre in 1953, as Dulcie in the original production of Sandy Wilson’s Twenties pastiche, The Boy Friend. She stayed with the show for four years and 1,464 performances, and 40 years later directed an anniversary revival.

The 1960s were a tougher time, however; she divorced in 1966 and worked to sustain her career as a single parent, making ends meet doing house cleaning and understudying.

Richer pickings were to come with substantial television roles in Country Matters (1972), Secret Army (1977), the Upstairs Downstairs spin-off Thomas and Sarah (1979), as Maria in Disraeli (1979), in Brideshead Revisited (1981) and a superb BBC production of Somerset Maugham’s Sheppey (1980) in which she played the wife of a cheerful barber (Bob Hoskins) horrified at his decision to give his enormous lottery win to the poor.

Even in smaller parts Maria Charles was a scene-stealer, notably as a harridan neighbour in Shine on Harvey Moon (1982) and in 2000 as the dotty mum of Charles Hawtrey (Hugh Walters) in Cor, Blimey!, an ITV drama about the stars of the Carry On films.

The stage roles continued, playing Miss Hannigan in Annie (Victoria Palace, 1979); in the original production of Steaming (Comedy, 1981); as the matchmaker Yente in the first London revival of Fiddler on the Roof (Apollo Victoria, 1983); as Solange Lafitte in Sondheim’s Follies (Shaftesbury Theatre, 1987); alongside John Thaw in David Hare’s The Absence of War (National, 1993); and as Madame Pernelle in a fizzing touring production of Molière’s Tartuffe (1998).

Through the 1990s and 2000s, Maria Charles won the respect of a new generation through teaching and directing, and was a machine gun-wielding granny in the big-screen comedy Hot Fuzz (2004). As well as a stint on Coronation Street, she threw herself into fringe theatre, in such plays as Carole Braverman’s Yiddish Trojan Woman (Cockpit, 1995).

Maria Charles as Solange Lafitte in Stephen Sondheim's Follies
Maria Charles as Solange Lafitte in Stephen Sondheim's Follies

Her later roles were as an incorrigible old lag in the musical of Bad Girls (Garrick, 2007), and a parting shot in Channel 4’s youth drama Skins (2007).

Known to everybody as “Mus” (from “mazel tov”), Maria Charles was as towering in personality as she was diminutive in stature. Her flat in Barnes, where she kept never less than three beloved cats, was a theatrical grotto. Taken out to lunch by Michael Hordern when the pair were appearing in Tom Stoppard’s Enter a Free Man (St Martin’s, 1968), as she opened her menu, she balked at the prices. Hordern, with his trademark fruity gusto, declaimed: “Darling, let joy be unconfined.” It became not only the favourite toast at her dinner table, but also her mantra.

Maria Charles is survived by her daughters, Sam, a production stage manager, and Kelly, an actress and director.

Maria Charles, born September 22 1929, died April 21 2023