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Brigit Forsyth, actress who played Rodney Bewes’s wife in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads – obituary

Brigit Forsyth as Thelma Ferris, with Rodney Bewes in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads
Brigit Forsyth as Thelma Ferris, with Rodney Bewes in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads - Radio Times

Brigit Forsyth, who has died aged 83, made her name in the BBC sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (1973-74) playing Thelma Ferris, the long-suffering and strait-laced wife of Rodney Bewes’s Bob, craving a middle-class world of dinner parties, badminton and fondue evenings; to younger viewers she was Madge in Still Open All Hours (2013-19), keeping a beady eye as her sister Mavis (Maggie Ollerenshaw) is pursued with ever-increasing mayhem by David Jason’s shopkeeper Granville.

Brigit Forsyth in Poirot,  1989
Brigit Forsyth in Poirot, 1989 - ITV/Shutterstock

Brigit Forsyth was a talented and versatile actress, appearing in everything from Boon and Poirot to Holby City and Coronation Street, where in 1998 she was one of Ken Barlow’s clients when he tried his hand at being a male escort. On stage she was in Calendar Girls and played the Queen in Alan Bennett’s stage show Single Spies.

Her favourite role, however, was as Francine Pratt in the women’s football drama Playing the Field with Ricky Tomlinson – though she confessed to being a Scotland rugby fan. “My dad used to take me to Murrayfield, I don’t know anything about football,” she told The Scotsman.

With Ricky Tomlinson in Playing the Field
With Ricky Tomlinson in Playing the Field - BBC

Brigit Dorothea Connell was born on July 28 1940 in Malton, North Yorkshire, and was delivered by her grandfather, a doctor. She claimed that he used overdoses of morphine to end his dying patients’ suffering. In 2017, when playing a dying musician in Killing Time, written by her daughter Zoe who was also her co-star, she declared herself in favour of assisted dying.

Her mother Anne (née Forsyth), whose surname she took professionally, was a painter, and her father Frank Connell an architect and town planner in Edinburgh, where Anne was brought up. She attended St George’s School for Girls and in her teens saw Stanley Baxter as a pantomime dame at the King’s Theatre, crediting him – and the nuns at Craiglockhart convent school – with setting her on the path to show business.

Brigit Forsyth played the cello from the age of nine until arriving at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She revived her musical interest in 2004 to play the cellist Beatrice Harrison in The Cello and the Nightingale at York Theatre Royal.

After a year at “Miss Dugdale’s” secretarial college in Edinburgh and some waitressing work, her first acting job was at the Gateway Theatre on Leith Walk. She was also one of the witches in the 1965 Edinburgh Festival production of Macbeth; she recalled that the director wanted the witches topless but the Earl of Harewood, the festival boss, insisted they wore nipple caps that often dropped off.

She had been seen two years earlier in Doctor Who as Ruth Maxtible, whose fiancé Arthur Terrall was controlled by the Daleks. Meanwhile, one of her earliest film roles was as a district nurse in Roald Dahl’s adaptation of The Night Digger (1971), alongside Yootha Joyce and Peter Sallis.

Brigit Forsyth and Rodney Bewes in a scene from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads
Brigit Forsyth and Rodney Bewes in a scene from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads - Radio Times

Brigit Forsyth made a brief appearance in the original series of The Likely Lads, but only became well known in the Whatever Happened… sequel and the 1976 film spin-off. “I still haven’t got over the fact that I get paid to do something I enjoy doing,” she said.

In 1972 she was appearing in Adam Smith, broadcast in ITV’s Sunday evening religious slot, when she met the Coronation Street director Brian Mills. He also directed her in the title role of the six-part psychological thriller Holly (1972). They were married in 1975 and separated in 1999; he died in 2006.

She later tried internet dating but only “met some boring old sods who just want to talk about themselves”. She did, however, confide that “if Brad Pitt was at my door, I’d ask him inside.”

Brigit Forsyth is survived by her son, Ben, and daughter, Zoe.

Brigit Forsyth, born July 28 1940, died December 1 2023

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