She rose from Co-op cashier to become the TV star everyone – including the Queen – adored. So why has English Heritage refused Thora Hird a blue plaqueShe was eight weeks old when she made her first stage appearance in her mother’s armsMade
a dame in 1993, back when the honour was reserved for theatre
heavyweightsFamous names including Maureen Lipman and Tory MP David Morris back calls for plaque
23:15 GMT, 1 May 2012
Thora Hird was more than just a national treasure — she was one of the British crown jewels, a walloping great diamond on a firmly knotted headscarf.
When she died in 2003, aged 91, one obituary summed her up perfectly as a cross between the Queen Mum and a Donald McGill saucy seaside postcard.
But she was also a superb character actress and, for many, as host of Praise Be!, the real face of Sunday worship.
Treasure: Thora Hird's 90-year career was not enough for English Heritage
So a decision by English Heritage to deny her the honour of a blue plaque isn’t just stuffy and pompous — it’s downright incomprehensible.
When the advisory panel, which includes Stephen Fry, former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion and former Arts Council chairman Sir Christopher Frayling, ruled that Dame Thora’s contribution to theatre might be forgotten in 20 years or less, they betrayed their total ignorance of a career that stretched across an incredible nine decades.
She was eight weeks old when she made her first stage appearance in her mother’s arms. ‘It was the first and only job I ever got through influence,’ she said. (Her father James ran the Royalty Theatre in Morecambe.)
At the other end of her life, she
played a centenarian in a Talking Heads play by Alan Bennett, called
Waiting For The Telegram. Talk about a lifetime devoted to theatre: Dame
Thora packed enough into her career for two whole lifetimes.
is baffling that English Heritage can’t see this. It’s not, after all,
as if accolades weren’t forthcoming during her lifetime. Thora was made
a dame in 1993, back when the honour was reserved for theatre
heavyweights such as Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike.
Staying power: Thora Hird and actor Freddie Frinton at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia in 1965
It helped, of course, that she played the Queen’s favourite character in the Royal Family’s favourite TV show, Last Of The Summer Wine.
Thora was Edie Pegden, the hectoring, house-proud president of the local ladies’ coffee morning. Thora’s artful performance delighted in Edie’s snobbish side — when there was company, her voice would lose its coarse edge and turn quite snooty.
Hugely amused, writer Roy Clarke was
inspired to base a whole sitcom on the trait — and Hyacinth Bucket in
Keeping Up Appearances was born.
character was inspired by the socially anxious, lower-middle-class
women whom Thora had observed during her early years working behind the
till at the Co-op in Morecambe.
She spent ten years as a cashier, working by day, acting in the evening and learning lines deep into the night.
Potential: This publicity picture of 'actress Miss Thora Hird' was issued in November 1953
She never lost her sense of those humble roots. ‘I scrubbed my mother’s doorstep when I was a young woman,’ she liked to tell reporters. ‘Now go and fetch me mink!’
She married James Scott, a drummer in
the theatre orchestra, in 1937, after a four-year courtship, and their
only child, a daughter called Janette, was born a year later.
Thora always claimed that, because there were no forceps handy, the midwife used a pair of fish knives.
later life, her son-in-law was the crooner Mel Torme, and she visited
her daughter’s family in Beverly Hills at least two dozen times. She was
never tempted to make a home in California, though.
‘There’s no corner shop, love,’ she would say.
Surely the English Heritage committee cannot be prejudiced against her Lancashire accent and working-class humour
Legends: Thora Hird in June 1970 with comedian Tommy Cooper who collapsed on stage during a live televised show in 1984 and soon after died
It’s true that Thora was salt-of-the-earth, while recent blue plaques have been awarded to the sprinkling-of-chopped-tarragon- and-a grated-truffle type: Sir Terence Rattigan, playwright of the drawing room, for example, or the aristocratic Indian poet Rabindrinath Tagore.
Her rejection has provoked outrage among fans. Maureen Lipman, herself a sitcom actress with strong claims for national treasuredom, called the decision ‘imbecilic snobbery’. Tory MP David Morris immediately announced he would table an Early Day Motion in the Commons to force the committee to reconsider.
But it seems unlikely to succeed: there’s a rule applications cannot be reviewed for at least ten years.
The most puzzling aspect is that Dame Thora’s case met the criteria of English Hidebound (sorry, Heritage). The rules state that to be considered blue-plaque-worthy, a person has to have been dead for 20 years or the centenary of their birth has been passed.
The centenary of her birth was reached last year, on May 28: she would be 101 this month.
She had lived and worked in London, moving there when the musical hall star George Formby asked her to audition for a film with him at Ealing Studios, during the Blitz in 1941.
She didn’t get the part, but the test led to a 1942 film called The Black Sheep Of Whitehall, opposite comedian Will Hay. Incidentally, Hay has got a blue plaque, so has the film’s producer, Michael Balcon. And she died at Brinsworth House, a retirement home for actors in South-West London.
Hird is so much a part of her adopted city that she is one of the few actors to have inspired a piece of Cockney rhyming slang.
Popular: Thora Hird pictured in 1987 when she was starring in long running British sitcome Last of the Summer Wine which went for 31 series
University students who scrape through their exams are said to get a Thora Hird — or third, as in third-class degree.
If that seems disrespectful, you should hear the stories Thora liked to tell about herself.
Alan Bennett noted one of her favourites in his diary — she claimed that when she was a girl growing up next-door to the theatre in Morecambe, an alley ran along the back where the seaside town’s only lady of the night, Miss Nellie Hodge, would take her clients.
One night, Thora heard a man’s complaining voice: ‘Ee Nellie, I wish you’d stop nodding your head.’
‘I can’t help it,’ Nellie replied. ‘You’ve gone and got tangled in me scarf.’
It’s not the sort of tale Thora would have told on Praise Be! — the Sunday evening collection of viewers’ favourite hymns she hosted, which ran for 17 years on BBC1 in the teatime ‘God slot’. Like former Goon Show entertainer Harry Secombe who presented Songs Of Praise, she became an unofficial symbol of the Church of England.
Varied: Thora Hird also appeared in the TV show In Loving Memory, set in an undertakers business, which ran from 1979 until 1986
It was no stretch to imagine Thora reading her Bible at home and being comforted by familiar verses, or being moved to tears by the plain poetry of well-loved hymns.
Each week, five million people tuned in. She had a wisdom in her voice that was rooted in common sense, something that audiences could recognise and cherish.
It was that quality which Bennett captured in his 1988 short play, A Cream Cracker Under The Settee, written for Thora.
She played an elderly widow who had suffered a fall. Gradually, in a monologue that becomes mumbled as her life slips away, Thora revealed her fall was the consequence of climbing up on to the furniture, trying to do the dusting.
It was a portrait of abandonment and loss, depicted with such heart-rending pathos that Thora’s postbag was bulging for days after the broadcast with letters from people begging her to come and live with them.
How can English Heritage fail to see how beloved this woman was And why would they think she might be less warmly remembered in a couple of decades
A look at recently approved names on plaques provides a clue: they are largely male. So, too, is the committee: seven of the ten, including the chairman, historian Professor Sir David Cannadine, are men.
Glamour: This picture taken in 1966 shows Thora Hird enjoying a night at the fashionable Dorchester Hotel in London's Park Lane
Plenty of plaques have been granted to actors in the past few years. Alastair Sim, a star of Ealing comedies, was honoured with a blue plate at his Hampstead home.
Sim was a lovely, lugubrious comic, but he is hardly a household name — never the star of TV’s longest-running sitcom, for instance.
To test the theory that there’s a sexist bias at English Heritage, I suggested a couple of candidates — both actresses. One was Hattie Jacques, the matron of the Carry On movies. The other was Diana Dors, the only bona fide sex-bomb of British cinema’s golden era.
Both were younger than Thora. Both have been dead for more than 20 years. Both lived and worked in London. In other words, they meet the criteria.
A spokeswoman for English Heritage admitted last night that neither Hattie nor Diana had ever been considered.
That’s a disgrace. But for a committee that is incompetent enough to deny an honour to the Queen’s favourite actress, it’s probably not surprising.
Or as Dame Thora might have said: ‘Them’s too numb to know they are numb!’
CHRISTOPHER STEVENS compiled The Masters Of Sitcom: From Hancock To Steptoe (Michael O’Mara Books).
Friends: Thora Hird arriving at the memorial service for entertainer Sir Harry Secombe at Westminster Catherdral in October, 2001