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Elizabeth Spriggs

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Elizabeth Spriggs, actress, was born on September 18, 1929. She died on July 2, 2008, aged 78

Versatile character actress who first blossomed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and won later and wider acclaim for her many roles on television

A large, jolly woman with an ample bosom and twinkling eyes, Elizabeth Spriggs was one of Britain's best and most cherished character actresses, equally at home in Shakespeare and Dickens as in contemporary television drama. Superb in comic roles, she could also give her characters depth and gravitas.

She deserved more than her one theatre award. In an interview in 1996 she said: "I don't feel bitter that I am not a celebrity. I think I'm very, very fortunate that I'm so versatile and I'm lucky that at my age I'm still in demand."

She was born in Buxton, Derbyshire, in 1929, the second of four children. It was an unhappy childhood. As she put it, "I grew up entirely without affection", particularly from her distant, domineering father, a master builder and farmer. She studied at the Royal School of Music, taught speech and drama at Coventry Technical College and was married at 21. But the marriage was a disaster and in "the most painful decision of my life" she left her husband and two-year-old daughter to pursue her obsession to become an actress.

"The desire to act was like a weight within me," she said later, "and I knew if I didn't do anything it would destroy me." Out of the blue she wrote to the Stockport Theatre, asking if there were any openings, and was taken on. When she first stood on stage it was with a feeling of joy. "I am home. I am never going to leave," she said.

She served a long apprenticeship in regional theatre, crowned with spells at the Bristol Old Vic and Birmingham Repertory, where she played Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard. But she was well into her thirties before she achieved national recognition. This came in 1962 when she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Hall and stayed for 14 years, appearing regularly at Stratford and the RSC's Lon-don homes, the Aldwych Theatre and later the Barbican.

Among her Shakespearean roles were the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, an acclaimed Gertrude in the David Warner Hamlet, Calpurnia in Julius Caesar, Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor and a witty Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. She was also in RSC productions of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, Shaw's Major Barbara and Misalliance and Dion Boucicault's comedy London Assurance, where she was wonderfully bombastic as the splendidly named Lady Gay Spanker opposite Donald Sinden.

In 1976 she was back with Hall when the National Theatre under his direction moved from the Old Vic to the South Bank and in the opening season was Madame Arcati, the medium of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, a part that was made for her. Her other plays for the National included Volpone, with Paul Scofield, The Country Wife and the Albert Finney Macbeth.

In 1978 she won the Society of West End Theatre award for Best Supporting Actress for Arnold Wesker's Love Letters on Blue Paper. She played the wife of a dying trade union leader who recalls with startling emotion their early life together. Spriggs created the role on BBC television before Wesker adapted the piece for the National.

Her later stage work included a West End revival of J. B. Priestley's When We Are Married (1986) and Arsenic and Old Lace at Chichester (1991).

On television she did not become a familiar face until well into the 1970s but she soon made up for a late start. She was in Frederic Raphael's The Glittering Prizes (1976), played Connie, head of a battling South London family, in the 13-part series Fox (1980), and was the formidable Nan in the Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran comedy set in the 1940s, Shine on Harvey Moon (1982-85).

Her single plays included Colin Welland's Leeds United! (BBC, 1974), about a strike of clothing workers, and three by Alan Bennett, Afternoon Off (1979), Intensive Care and Our Winnie (both 1982). She was Calpurnia and Mistress Quickly for the BBC Shakespeare series and in 1987 appeared in three episodes of Dr Who as well playing the witch in a children's series, Simon and the Witch.

She produced a memorable study of the God-fearing gossip in Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and in 1992 appeared in television versions of Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils and Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. Her Inge Middleton in the Wilson was tipped for a Bafta award and she was disappointed not to be so honoured. She gave full comic rein to the nurse Mrs Gamp in a fine BBC Martin Chuzzlewit and another of her many costume roles was Mrs Cadwallader in the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch (1994).

She continued to work almost up to her death, playing the mother of Charlie Higson's second-hand car dealer in the comedy Swiss Toni (2003-2004) and providing fresh and delicious cameos in popular series such as Heartbeat, Midsomer Murders (she appeared in the pilot, was murdered and, several years later, turned up as the character's identical twin sister) and Poirot.

Her early film roles came in Work is a Four-Letter Word (1968) and Three Into Two Won't Go (1969), both directed by Peter Hall. She was in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, from the novel by P. D. James, and in 1995 was Mrs Jennings in Emma Thompson's Oscar-winning adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. She played the Fat Lady in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001). Her final film, Is There Anybody There?, starring Michael Caine, has yet to be shown.

Her first two marriages, to Kenneth Spriggs, which produced a daughter, and a fellow RSC actor, Michael Jones, ended in divorce. In 1977 she made a happy third marriage with Murray Manson, a minicab driver and musician whom she had met while playing in London Assurance. He and her daughter survive her.

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  • APA 6th ed.: (2008-07-07). Elizabeth Spriggs. The Times p. 51.
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Elizabeth Spriggs | url= | work=The Times | pages=51 | date=2008-07-07 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=26 February 2024 }}</ref>
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