Liz Smith, star of the Royle Family, dies aged 95
December 28th, 2016
The Royle Family star Liz Smith has died at the age of 95, a spokeswoman for her family said. The actor, best known for her role as “Nana” Norma Speakman in the hit BBC comedy, died on Christmas Eve.
The Lincolnshire-born mother-of-two, real name Betty Gleadle, starred in the sitcom for its three series from 1998 to 2000 and again in the 2006 special The Queen of Sheba, which told the story of her character’s death.
Some of her other famous roles included as dopey Letitia Cropley in village comedy The Vicar of Dibley, fronted by Dawn French, as Annie Brandon in I Didn’t Know You Cared, as Bette and Aunt Bell in 2point4 Children, and as Zillah in Lark Rise to Candleford.
She appeared alongside Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the 2005 film Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, playing the role of Grandma Georgina, and also appeared on stage in the West End playing Nell in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.
Smith’s death comes in the same year as her co-star Caroline Aherne, who died from lung cancer.
Smith, who was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2009, announced her retirement in July of that year. The then 87-year-old, known for her deadpan comedic delivery, had suffered three strokes within just two days and was subsequently diagnosed with speech-impeding condition aphasia.
Born in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, Smith suffered a series of family misfortunes and heartbreaks. Her mother died in childbirth when she was two years old and her father walked out when she was seven, leaving her in the hands of her widowed grandmother.
“He was a weak man and did as he was told, so he just disowned me,” said Smith, who in later years discovered her dad had left for another woman who insisted he neglect his previous life.
During the second world war she served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and in 1945 married sailor Jack Thomas whom she met on service in India.
Smith, who divorced Jack in 1959 after their two children were born, broke suddenly and unexpectedly into film and TV in the early 1970s.
The then 49-year-old, who rarely gave media interviews, told how she was selling toys in Hamley’s one Christmas when director Mike Leigh OBE, who went on to direct comedy dramas Life is Sweet and Career Girls as well as biopic films including Vera Drake, told her he needed a middle-aged woman to do improvisations.
The former theatre company worker and dressmaker, whose acting experience was limited to small time improvisation plays, starred in Leigh’s first film, Bleak Moments, which cued up an exhaustive list of TV credits.
She featured in Last of the Summer Wine, Emmerdale, a David Copperfield miniseries, before I Didn’t Know You Cared: the story of a working-class household in South Yorkshire. Her casting in 2point4 Children made her a familiar face for a generation in the 1990s.
In Richard Curtis’ The Vicar of Dibley, the fictional story surrounding a boisterous and disorderly female minister in a quintessentially tiny British village, Smith featured as a character known for outrageous flower decorations and peculiar baking.
Her hapless character, often seen knitting, died at the end of the first series in 1996. Her dying wish to vicar Geraldine was that she take over from her as the village’s Easter Bunny.
Liz later admitted she was hurt and bewildered when she learned her character was being killed off by a note stuck to a script that a messenger delivered to her front door.
Ten years later one of her characters again died in the Bafta-award-winning TV comedy The Royle Family, centred around a scruffy television-obsessed Manchester family.
Of the memorable Christmas episode, The Queen of Sheba, Smith said: “I felt it was an ending of a whole thing. It was not just one lift, it was the whole concert of the story. They each say goodbye in a way that it’s almost, ‘Goodbye, it’s being lovely knowing you’.”
The episode was rerun this year on 22 December as a tribute to Caroline Aherne.
A statement from Smith’s spokeswoman on Monday night said: “The Bafta award-winning actress Liz Smith has died, on Christmas Eve, at the age of 95, her family has announced.”
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