MORE THAN JUST A GOOD LIFE
Penelope Keith has secured her place in British television as one of its premiere comedy stars. Not only is she extremely popular in Britain, but also through her numerous television roles she has achieved enormous popularity and recognition in both the USA and Canada. Born April 2, 1940, in Sutton Surrey, Penelope Keith rose to fame playing likeable but pompous, and slightly ridiculous, upper-class women in such series as The Good Life and To The Manor Born.
The sitcom that brought Penelope Keith to the attention of television viewers on both sides of the Atlantic was The Good Life (retitled for the North American market as The Good Neighbors). Here she played Margo Leadbetter, the snooty, yet lovable wife of Jerry, the next-door neighbours to Tom and Barbara Good.
The Good Life concerned Tom and Barbara Good, a middle-class suburban couple who turn their home into a self-sufficient farm-cum-allotment growing their own food, keeping animals and making their own tools and equipment. The series starred Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall as Tom and Barbara, with Paul Eddington as Jerry Leadbetter. The show was an instant hit and proved enormously popular with viewers who found the whole back-to-the-land scenario alluring.
While each of the characters proved extremely popular in their own right, it was the character of Margo who viewers couldn’t get enough of.
In the initial episodes, Margo was merely a peripheral character there to make the odd comment on the episodes events. But when one of the episodes was running short, the series writers added a filler scene with her talking on the phone. Allowed more screen time than usual, Keith showed the characters worth to the series writers, who quickly gave the character longer and longer scenes effectively building the character up from a two-dimensional snob, to that of a fully realized three-dimensional character. Margo quickly established Penelope Keith as a top comedy actress and as they say, the rest was history.
The Good Life enjoyed 4 extremely popular seasons, and 2 specials, on British television from 1975 to 1978, and as a result, each of the series stars went on to star in their own highly successful sitcoms.
If The Good Life launched the career of Penelope Keith, then it was her next series that cemented her status as one of the premiere ladies of British comedy.
In To The Manor Born Penelope Keith played Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, a well-to-do, upper-class elitist who falls on hard times following the death of her husband. So desperate are her financial straits that Audrey is forced to sell her husband’s huge Grantleigh Estate and move out of its stately manor house and into its small, yet humble, coach-house on the grounds. To make matters worse, the new owner of the manor is nouveau-riche businessman, Richard DeVere, a man of Czech ancestry, whom Audrey views as rather common and vulgar because he made his millions in the wholesale grocery business.
While Audrey tries to come to terms with her new life, she has comfort in knowing that she still has her loyal, yet decrepit butler Brabinger and her close friend Marjory Frobisher. But because of her deeply ingrained feelings of superiority, and her natural tendency to want her own way, Richard and Audrey frequently clash. After the initial love-hate relationship that ensues, over time, Audrey mellows and begins to consider that she may have misjudged DeVere as a romantic interest begins to develop. Finally, in the series final episode, Audrey and Richard marry and she is reinstated as the lady of the manor when Richard’s fortunes changed for the worse.
To The Manor Born ran for 3 highly successful seasons from September 30, 1979 to November 29, 1981 on BBC. Starring alongside Penelope Keith were Peter Bowles as Richard DeVere, Angela Thorne as Marjory Frobisher, John Rudling as Brabinger, Daphne Heard as Mrs. Polouvicka, Michael Bilton as Old Ned and Gerald Sim as the Rector.
Penelope Keith was next seen in the BBC sitcom Sweet Sixteen where she played 41-year-old Helen Walker who was the hard-headed boss of a building firm. A no-nonsense woman who was use to getting her own way, she suddenly passionately falls in love with Peter Morgan, a man 16 years her junior.
Debuting on October 16, 1983, this six-part series from Midsomer Murders writer Douglas Watkinson centered itself on the comic happenings in a generation gap romance. While the series had moments of drama, its premise was firmly based in comedy despite the relationship moving from encounter to courtship to marriage and pregnancy in just six episodes. The central dilemma of the series primarily lay with Helen and whether she would be able to retain her status as the big boss while embarking on a new life as a wife and mother to be.
The series featured Christopher Villiers as Keith’s love interest Peter Morgan and John Rapley as Arthur Poole, Joan Blackham as Jane, Victor Spinetti as Ken Green, Mike Grady as Doctor Ballantine and Matthew Solon as Helen’s son James. The series ran for six episodes on BBC from October 16 to November 20, 1983.
After her initial successes on BBC, Penelope Keith was lured away by rival British network Thames Television, where she starred in four sitcoms, each which were specifically created for her talents. The first of these appeared in January 1985.
Written by Stanley Price, Moving was adapted from the popular comedy play of the same name. Sarah and Frank Gladwyn have weathered the storm: they’ve raised their children and now they’re alone, rattling around their big family house. However, the time has come for them to realize their capital, move to a flat and put the surplus cash to good use, like investing in a new career for Sarah. But first, they must sell their home, however Sarah doesn’t want to sell it to just anyone. It has to be the right person. Though, as it turns out, this is the last of their concerns as the prices drops out of the housing market, buyers don’t come through, cracks start appearing throughout the house and in their marriage. Disaster strikes even further when daughter Jane suddenly returns home from college, and Sarah discovers that her sister is Prozac-happy. Everything is far from being sweetness and light.
Featured alongside Keith was well-known British actor Ronald Pickup as husband Frank, Prunella Gee as Liz Ford, Natalie Slater as Eileen Lewis, Roger Lloyd-Pack as Jimmy Ryan, David Ashford as Bill Lomax, Eliza Hunt as Beryl Fearnely and Babara Wilsher as daughter Jane. Moving debuted on the ITV network on January 9, 1985.
Sadly Moving is largely viewed as a flop and was largely criticised by the British Press for wasting the talents of its two leads. The series quickly disappeared on February 13, 1985 after its initial six-episode broadcast where ratings were rather lacklustre.
Keith’s next sitcom was the ITV/Thames sitcom Executive Stress where she played Caroline Fairchild. Married for more than 25 years, Caroline and Donald Fairchild have seen five children grow and leave home. Donald commutes into London each day by train from their home in Buckinghamshire to his job at publishers Ginsberg, while Caroline has been a stay at home mum. Now 30 years later Caroline decides to return to work. While Donald thinks a nice part-time job at a florist shop will suit her fine, Caroline has other plans. She has in mind a return to her former career as a book editor. Much to her surprise, Caroline quickly lands a job as an export sales director with the glitzy Oasis Publishing, owned by a US conglomerate called Frankland Corporation and the pushy Edgar Frankland III. But, on the same day that Caroline is to start her new job, Oasis takes over Ginsberg Publishing and much to each other’s shock, Caroline and Donald find themselves working for the same company. Because Edgar Frankland refuses to allow his staff to fraternize, the new sales and marketing director (Donald) and the editorial director (Caroline) must work closely together, but keep their marriage secret, arriving and leaving separately, alluding to different-name spouses, having separate home phone numbers installed and so on.
The weekly plots revolved around this scenario until the middle of the second season when Edgar finally learned the truth. Surprisingly, he not only decides to keep both Caroline and Donald on, he makes them joint managing directors of UK operations. Executive Stress debuted on October 20, 1986 and ran for 3 consecutive seasons consisting of nineteen 30-minute episodes. Geoffrey Palmer initially starred alongside Keith as husband Donald, but left after the first season, and was replaced by Peter Bowles for the remaining two seasons.
The series was highly praised on its initial transmission. The pacing of the episodes was wonderful, with a great deal of material, and some memorable sequences and one-liners peppered throughout. The Times newspaper had this to say about the series third season:
George Layton's sitcom Executive Stress (ITV, 8:30pm) returns with its amiable mixture of old-fashioned jokes and mildly progressive theme of a wife trying to be her husband's equal in business. Effortlessly played by Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles, the couple follow the classic sitcom tradition of people who find it difficult to live together but for the sake of the series must never live apart. The mutual sparring may threaten to upset the relationship but in the last resort it never does. We know that when Donald takes his secretary away on a business trip, wife Caroline will leap to the wrong conclusion. We equally know that it will only be a comic ripple. As for the tension between her feminism and his male chauvinism, this is diffused into less than momentous matters like whose name should come first on the company notepaper. For all its subversive promise, the show is as comfortable as a favourite armchair.
Perhaps the most successful of the sitcoms Penelope Keith did for Thames Television was No Job For A Lady, which saw Keith cast as newly elected Labour MP, Jean Price, making her first footings inside the Houses of Parliament. Life was far from glamorous for Jean. As the MP for an inner-city seat, she was extensively lobbied by her constituents and as a woman she also had to hold down three other positions – mother to her children, wife to her husband Geoff and running the family home.
The series focused mostly on the parliamentary activities outside the main chamber with most of the action-taking place inside Jean’s office - which she shared with Scots colleague Ken Miller - in the lobby and in the various Westminster lounges. Representing ‘the caring face of politics’, Jean was an idiosyncratic soul, her rebellious tendencies ensuring that her political friends and foes were sometimes indistinguishable. Her most recognisable opponent was Tory MP Godfrey Eagan played by George Baker. Other cast members included: Paul Young as Ken Miller, Garfield Morgan as Jean’s party whip, Mark Kingston as Geoff and Nigel Humphreys as Harry.
No Job For A Lady was likened to Yes, Minister and proved quite popular with viewers not only in the UK but also in North America. The series ran for 3 seasons, consisting of 6 episodes apiece from February 7, 1990 to February 10, 1992. The highest ratings the programme enjoyed were actually for the opening episode of the first season, Who Goes Home? which achieved 14.4 million viewers and was ranked the ninth most popular programme of the week.
After a two-year break, Penelope Keith returned to British television in 1994 with the short-lived sitcom Law and Disorder on ITV from the pen of Alex Shearer. In this series, Keith starred as widowed barrister Philippa Troy, who when not turning in appearances at court was writing children's books which featured the central character of Prickly Peter the Hedgehog (accompanied by a wide range of other bizarrely named characters). Her sparring partner in court was the oily Gerald Triggs (played with aplomb by Simon Williams), and all their cases over the course of the series were presented before Judge Wallace (a memorable turn from Charles Kaye). Eamon Boland appeared as Arthur Bryant, the instructing solicitor, whilst other series regulars were Philippa's clerk in chambers, Steven (John Junkin), and Emma Davies as her junior, Susan.
Episodes took commercial breaks during recesses in the trials being presented, and usually the commercial break would only take place after the Judge had made a recommendation to the Jury of a decent restaurant in which to eat lunch.
The Sunday Times newspaper had this to say about the show:
In No Job For A Lady, Alex Shearer created an amiable comedy in which Penelope Keith played a battling Labour MP. In Law And Disorder (ITV, 8:00pm), his new series, Keith plays a battling barrister. The job may have changed but not the humour, which is the same gentle, inoffensive stuff about a bossy woman holding her own in a male world. Keith's antagonists this time include a sniffy fellow barrister (Simon Williams) and a stupid judge (Charles Kaye). The script often reads as if Rumpole had been hijacked by the Carry On team. "I can't get no satisfaction, my lord," says Keith's learned counsel, correcting the title of the Rolling Stones' hit. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," comes his lordship's reply. It is only a pity Sid James is not around to add his filthy guffaw. With No Job For A Lady, Alex Shearer established himself as a sitcom writer who could do more than stitch together Christmas cracker gags, especially if he had Penelope Keith to deliver the dialogue. Shearer wrote this especially for Keith, casting her as a barrister who cannot fail to be sharp and bright next to such old comedy chestnuts as the deaf court usher and the bumbling court judge (Charles Kay), possibly based on the real one that, in 1981, asked someone to explain "exactly what is a Bananarama?”
While Law and Disorder was a reasonably good sitcom, the series failed to find an audience and quickly disappeared after its single season of 6 episodes.
After the rather disappointing Law and Disorder, Penelope Keith returned to the BBC where she starred in Next Of Kin in 1995 with William Gaunt.
Maggie (Keith) and Andrew Prentice (William Gaunt) have taken early retirement and are looking forward to spending their last decades sipping good wine and enjoying the fine cuisine and clement climate in their new home in France. But their plans are interrupted by the death in a car crash of their estranged son Graham and his humourless wife. As the next of kin, the Prentices become the legal guardians of their three grandchildren, Georgia (13), Graham (11) and Jake (5), and their menagerie of pets. It’s a situation that doesn’t prove to be great, especially for Maggie who readily admits that she loathes children and was never cut out for motherhood. To make matters even worse, the children are essentially miniature versions of their parents – indoctrinated as haters of humankind, anti-smoker crusaders and champions of various modern-day concerns: whales, trees, the environment, etc.
Next of Kin was essentially a variation on several of the Thames sitcoms Keith had starred in where an elder couple is unexpectedly recast in the role of parents. Despite this, the series proved to be reasonably popular airing for 3 seasons from 1995-97 consisting of 22 episodes. Alongside Keith and Gaunt, Ann Gosling, Matthew Clarke and Jamie Lucraft played the children, with Tracie Bennett playing Liz the housekeeper and Mark Powley as handyman Tom.
In recent years Penelope Keith has been concentrating less on television and more on her home garden and duties as the Under-Sheriff of Surrey. Though on September 21, 2003, she returned to television in the comedy-drama Margery and Gladys alongside EastEnders June Brown (Dot Cotton).
The Radio Times had this to say about the production:
A well-heeled widow goes on the run with her cleaner after accidentally killing a young intruder in this one-off comedy drama starring Penelope Keith and June Brown. The unlikely couple take to the road and discover they have more in common than they could have imagined. This one-off comedy drama is unbelievably daft, but with two of our best-loved actresses - Penelope Keith and June Brown - in the lead roles, it also has success written all over it. The premise is a sort of British version of Thelma And Louise. Keith plays posh widow Margery, stalwart of the local neighbourhood watch. Brown is Gladys, her less-than-thorough cleaning lady with a shady past. When the pair accidentally kills a young intruder in Margery's home, they panic and go on the run in Gladys' battered car. It's hard enough to believe that a middle-class lady like Margery would do a runner after such an incident, as her natural instinct would be to call the police. But going anywhere without her handbag? Well, I did say this was daft. However, Keith and Brown are entertaining, and the performances by the supporting cast are both preposterous and delightful. Roger Lloyd Pack is perfect as the detective about to retire, and so are Martin Freeman as his overly-zealous sidekick, Adam Godley as Margery's cleaning-obsessed son, Peter Vaughan as Gladys' ne'er-do-well husband and Ken Morley as a seedy tabloid journalist.
The 100-minute production written by John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch was intended as a pilot for a possible series.
Penelope Keith also recently appeared in the BBC Radio Four comedy-drama series Agatha Raisin based on the novels of the same name by M.C. Beaton.
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