The nation’s favourite Grandma says ‘Goodbye’.
Liz Smith was one of those actresses you immediately recognise, then struggle to think what she has been in. ‘Oh she was in .. that .. er ? It is because she appeared in so many parts in TV & Film in the last forty years we don’t always necessarily identify her with just one or two roles. However, most will think of her as Nana on the hit TV sitcom ‘The Royal family’ without recognising the considerable amount of work she has completed elsewhere in film and television, before and after. This may be due to her seemingly playing the same character rolls, the middle-aged mother or elderly Grandma, but played them extremely well, finding something different in each of the parts that endeared her to the audience.
Smith worked for the Women’s Royal Navel Service in World war 2, marrying a sailor in 1945, having two children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1959, she never married again. She found acting an emotional release, having been introduced to the art form at school, but on leaving found a job as a dressmaker. Some professional theatre work followed in rep but it was only when working in the Toy shop Hamley’s did her break come. Mike Leigh was looking for a middle-aged actress to do some improvisations, which ultimately turned into the TV play ‘Bleak moments’ (1971), that was well received and gave her the confidence to continue, ultimately becoming very successful. Liz had been involved with an improvisation acting group before, so was partially prepared for Leigh’s style of directing, keeping her bed ridden character laying on a mattress for six weeks during rehearsal and shooting. She had also experimented with ‘the method’ form of acting with an American director and had a spell in rep but with like many other performers was struggling for regular work. It was unusual for an actress to get such a break at the age of 50, but it is one that ‘changed her life’. Finding a strong Agent in 1973, work never stopped coming in, playing numerous cameo roles on screen, from Dicken’s dramas to episodes of ‘The Sweeney’ alongside foils for comedians such as Russ Abbot (1980) and in episodes of ‘A Bit of Fry & Laurie’ (1990), ‘Bottom’ (1991) but then creating characters in some important sitcoms BBC’s ‘2point4children’ (1991-93), ‘Vicar of Dibley’ and ‘The Royal Family’.
Film work began to happen for her with parts in ‘Britannia Hospital’ (1982) and Alan Bennett’s ‘A Private Function’ (1984) alongside Michael Palin and Maggie Smith. Her performance won a BAFTA for best supporting actress and the offers of acting work kept coming with work in Peter Greenaway film ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’ (1989).
She played Letitia, who made awful cakes in the sitcom ‘Vicar of Dibley’. This popular character was killed off by writer Richard Curtis rather suddenly. The first Liz knew of this was when the script was delivered for the next weeks filming with a note saying ‘Here is a script for the next episode, which contains your death.’ She confessed to being hurt and bewildered. Such disappointment Smith was use to and quickly carried on, continuing to work extensively in television. She appeared as Miss Lory in Alice in Wonderland (1999), in two versions of A Christmas Carol (1999 and 2000, the latter a modern version with Ross Kemp and Warren Mitchell), as Peg Sliderskew in the Charles Dance version of Nicholas Nickleby (2001) and in the series Lark Rise to Candleford (2008). She was Grandma Georgina in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and the voice of Mrs Mulch in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in the same year. When well into her 70s, she said she was always “completely energised” by work.
She was wonderfully normal, modest and chatty, never showing pretensions of her success and seldom doing interviews. Smith also had an ability to draw and enjoyed sketching people as a hobby and became the nation’s much loved Grandma.
Liz Smith (Betty Gleadle), actor, born 11 December 1921; died 24 December 2016. Aged 95
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.