Biography: Dame Thora Hird

Thora Hird

Thora Hird was destined to become an actress...

...Her parents, James and Mary Hird, had met whilst touring together in the same theatrical company and eight weeks after she was born, on 28th May 1911, Thora made her stage debut (in her mother's arms) at the Royalty Theatre in Morecambe, where James was the manager.

As a child there was no escaping the theatre for the young Thora or her elder siblings, Neville and Olga. She would literally go to bed with the smell of greasepaint in her nostrils as her bedroom floor hung over the wall at the back of the stage. By the age of two Thora was already taking on theatrical roles and as soon as she was old enough she was able to give up her full time job at the local Co-op, and join a repertory company.

In 1933 Thora accompanied her father to opening night at Morecambe's newly refurbished Winter Gardens Theatre. As she sat and watched the show her attention was drawn to the orchestra's young drummer, James Scott. For the next three years James and Thora became virtually inseparable and after a long courtship they married and settled into a house at Prompt Corner, Morecambe. Two years later they had a daughter whom they christened Janette.

Thora continued her work in Rep and over a period of ten years had appeared in over 500 plays. She reckoned that she'd played a maid so often that she could bring on a tray in 50 different ways. Then one night, around 1940 or 1941 as she was preparing to take to the stage at the Royalty Theatre in As You Are, rumours began to circulate that George Formby was in the audience. Formby, who was a major star at the time, was indeed sitting in the stalls and after the show he approached the theatre manager and asked to be introduced to the actress who played Emma Pearson. Thora, in heavy make-up for the part of the sixty-year old woman, was hurriedly found backstage.

"I had no time to get all the make-up off before he turned up" she later recalled, "...so there I was with my paste nose all wonky, looking like I'd been in a fight." Formby obviously didn't find Thora's appearance too off-putting because he informed her that he was considering making a film version of As You Are and wanted the thirty-year old actress to go to Ealing Studios and test for the part.

Borrowing some smart clothes from her aunt, Thora set off for London and duly arrived at Ealing Studios. From the moment she arrived, things began to go awry. "The moment I arrived at the studio gates, the air-raid sirens went off. Everyone started running so I followed them. I ended up in a bomb shelter next to a woman who was shelling peas for the restaurant."

When the all-clear signal was finally given Thora was directed to the make-up department and the audition was able to get underway. Thora tested for the part of Lydia, the daughter-in-law of the character she played on stage. A young actor by the name of Bill Fraser stood in for George Formby. His line was: "Where will you go, Lydia?" To which Lydia/Thora would reply: "I shall go to London."

The camera rolled and Thora said her line then exited. The director called her back and asked her to do it again. Once more Bill Fraser asked the question and once more Thora answered. Again the director asked for another take. So, again the two actors went through the very short piece, and again, at the end of it the director asked them to redo it. This went on ten times. By then Thora was beginning to lose her cool. So, when the director called for an eleventh take and Bill Fraser posed the question, "Where will you go, Lydia?" Thora replied, "I shall go to London and bugger you because I really don't think I'm very good at this and if I haven't got it right by now, I never will!"

The audition was bought to an end and the players were dismissed but asked to reassemble the following morning in the 'Rushes Theatre'. Thora took her seat and hoped that her outburst the previous day would be overlooked, but she was to have no such luck. The shots were all shown in sequence right up to and including take number eleven. "The room was full of people." Thora remembered. "When we got to my outburst, there was quite a bit of laughing, though I was speechless." When the lights came on Thora was asked to report to Michael and Shandos Balcon - the studio heads.

"I felt like a schoolchild being sent to the headmasters office." She said. But to her relief and surprise, the Balcon's couldn't have been nicer. "They told me I hadn't got the part of George Formby's mother because I was too young, even with make-up." Instead, the Balcon's offered Thora a seven-year contract with Ealing Studios at ten pounds a day whilst filming and ten pounds a week when not.

In 1941 Thora Hird made her big screen debut in the Will Hay film The Black Sheep of Whitehall. She was only needed for two days filming and only appeared for three minutes at the beginning of the film. She played secretary to Hay, who in the film is an incompetent teacher who is mistaken for an economics expert and then kidnapped by wartime spies. It was the beginning of a long and illustrious career for an actress that would eventually become known as one of the nation's favourite and most dearly loved performers.

Although there was a war on the film industry continued to roll out regular cinema releases. This was seen as vitally important in boosting the nation's morale at a time of such adversity. As well as comedies to keep the country chuckling there was a number of propaganda films made, normally shown prior to the main feature. Thora's next movie, The Next of Kin, was such a film. However, it was so successful that it received a commercial release in its own right, Her next film, Went the Day Well? Made in 1942, followed the same route.

The plot centred round a group of villagers who try to resist an invasion by German paratroopers. Thora plays a plucky switchboard operator who raises the alarm and helps the locals to defend their town and fight off the invaders. It also gave Thora the chance to carry on something of a family tradition by introducing her own daughter into the world of showbiz. The mid forties bought a number of small character roles in movies and towards the end of the war Thora made her West End stage debut at the Vaudeville Theatre starring alongside Fay Compton and Frederick Leicester in No Medals. Thora played - a cockney charlady.

The show ran for two years but Thora remembered it as being a difficult time: "Scottie was away in the Air Force and our daughter Janette - who was only four, had been evacuated to Lancashire. I don't like my own company really, so things were a bit lonely." It was during this time that Thora also got her first London critique. "I was leaving the theatre and there was a rather large dog standing by the billboard outside, appearing to read the cast list. It lifted its leg and peed all over my name. My first West End play. What a review!"

The show was popular enough to be turned into a movie in 1948 starring Thora and Cecil Parker, although it was renamed The Weaker Sex. By the late forties, with the war over and the family reunited Thora and Scottie decided it was time to sell their Morecambe home and move to London. It proved a wise move because Thora's contract was about to expire with Ealing Studios and, being in great demand, she was immediately snapped up by J. Arthur Rank.

Thora continued to appear in a number of supporting roles throughout the 1950s and also co-starred with some of the best of British talent including Norman Wisdom, Arthur Askey, Frankie Howerd and Ian Carmichael. In 1955 Thora returned to Rep to appear in her friend Walter Greenwood's play Saturday Night At The Crown. Also in 1955 Val Guest cast her in the Hammer produced science fiction movie The Quatermass Xperiment, but it was really comedy where Thora excelled and in 1956 she appeared in Sailor Beware alongside Peggy Mount. For Mount it was the role that defined her battle-axe image, for Thora it was a role that alerted the interest of a new medium - television.

Thora had been cast earlier that year by television producer Ronnie Taylor in an episode of Home James, which was a starring vehicle for popular northern comedian Jimmy James. Later in the year she starred in The Jimmy Wheeler Show. The following year she got the chance to appear alongside her own daughter in the BBC produced play The Queen Came By. Thora had previously played the role of Emmie Slee, a worker in a draper's shop in the year of Queen Victoria's golden jubilee, 1887.

"I first played the part at the Embassy, Swiss Cottage and then the Duke of York's in the West End." Said Thora. Janette came to see her mother perform but was too young to appreciate it. Some years later Thora was invited to recreate the role for TV. The drama was well received but the BBC did not tape the show, which went out live. Two years later Thora was asked to play the part again and by this time her daughter was a big star and the BBC had to get permission from Associated British, to whom she was under contract, for her to appear. "It was the only time Jan and I appeared in a play together and it was probably the happiest and proudest production I've ever been in because of that."

The 1960s started off well for Thora with a substantial role as an ambitious and unpleasant mother to Shirley Ann Field in an Oscar nominated film production of John Osbourne's The Entertainer, which also starred Laurence Olivier and Alan Bates. In 1962 she followed this with the Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall melodrama A Kind of Loving. At the same time she was planning a summer season at Blackpool in a comedy called The Best Laid Schemes. Her co-star was Freddie Frinton.

"We hit it off straight away" she said of Frinton. "And after a successful season up north we took the show to Torquay where the writers Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe came to see it." The two Ronald's were suitably impressed by the on-stage chemistry between Thora and Freddie and, with one television sitcom success already to their credit (The Rag Trade), the writers decided to create a new sitcom around the co-stars. However, the BBC was not keen on featuring Thora Hird in a leading role. It was Billy Cotton who came to the rescue.

"He was working his way up the executive ladder," Ronald Wolfe recalled, "and had the authority to commission a pilot." However, if the writers and actors thought that they'd get a chance to perform in a nice cosy studio at Television Centre, they were most definitely wrong. Wolfe remembered that they were given a disused cinema in Birmingham that had been turned into a makeshift studio. "The atmosphere was tacky and the equipment was faulty." Even the technical staff were distinctly lacking in experience. The camera crew were more used to working on Gardening Club.

The pilot, named The Bed, was shot during the daytime whilst Thora and Freddie continued to appear in their evening pantomime performances. Freddie Frinton was apparently so tired that Thora often had to nudge him firmly in the ribs to ensure that he stayed awake. The Bed featured Fred as a plumber who, for their twenty-fifth anniversary, had promised his wife, Thora, a new bed. The first night after the bed had been delivered the couple had a row and Fred was forced to sleep on the old bed in the spare room.

Because Fred has taken most of the blankets with him Thora is forced to look for more covers to keep herself warm. In the course of opening cupboards and drawers she stumbles upon a love letter to her, written by Fred. After reading it she tiptoes into the spare room and snuggles up to her husband in the old bed. Although not a particularly complex plot the pilot proved to be a big hit with the TV audience. The BBC quickly commissioned a full series, which was renamed Meet The Wife and ended up running for 40 episodes until 1966.

After Meet The Wife, Thora was offered a part in a serious drama which she turned down. The part was that of a nurse in a BBC TV production Play Of The Month, Romeo and Juliet. Not wanting to take no for an answer producer Cedric Messina and director Alan Cooke persisted until Thora agreed to do it. It proved to be a great success.

Then in 1967 she was offered another straight role, only this time in a long running series. Alan Plater had been asked specifically to write a drama series for Thora Hird. Although unsure at first because Thora had just finished Meet The Wife and was, in Plater's opinion, a comedy actress, he suggested a story about a gritty northern councillor in a gritty northern town. At that time the Labour Party had a very tough and outspoken woman MP in their government called Barbara Castle and she was to be the model for the character. In fact Plater even went as far as suggesting that his character be a member of the same political party. But the BBC were worried about political bias and suggested that Plater's character, Sarah Danby, be an Independent candidate.

"In dramatic terms I made an interesting discovery." Said Plater. "As an Independent, Sarah could believe anything she wanted to believe." Thora also discovered that the public would readily accept her in a dramatic role. "The only problem I had with The First Lady was that some viewers really thought that I was a councillor and started writing to me to help sort out some of their local problems." She said. Ultimately the series ran for 2 years winning much critical acclaim on the way. Unfortunately most of the shows were wiped from the archives many years ago.

Thora followed this success with another popular comedy series called Ours Is A Nice House. Broadcast in 1969 Thora played a sharp-tongued boarding house owner who had been recently widowed. In real life she had recently lost her ex-screen husband because Freddie Frinton had passed away the year before.

As Thora entered her sixties she seemed to be busier and more in demand than ever before. In 1972 she travelled to Australia to star at the Perth Festival and then returned home and to the theatre. In 1976 she published the first part of her biography, Scene and Hird. In 1977 Thora returned briefly to TV comedy with a Wolfe and Chesney one-off called The Boys and Mrs B. But it was another two years before Thora returned to comedy on a regular basis with In Loving Memory itself based on a 1969 pilot that she had not appeared in.

Thora was cast as Ivy Unsworth (a part played by Marjorie Rhodes in the pilot), a widower who acquires her husband's business, which is, of all things, a funeral parlour. Apparently the series creator, Dick Sharples, got the idea after overhearing a pub conversation between a group of undertakers about a hearse that had hit a pothole and shed its coffin into the street. Ivy, aided and abetted by her gormless nephew, Billy (Christopher Beeny), suffers similar mishaps in the 1930s Lancashire mill town of Oldshaw. A gentle comedy, In Loving Memory proved to be another hit for Thora and ran for five series until 1986.

By that time Thora had become synonymous with religious programming, having started a seventeen-year association with the BBC's Praise Be! in 1977. As a woman of deep spiritual conviction she was the ideal choice to host the Sunday 'God slot', a mixture of prayer and hymn's and the series regularly attracted a viewing audience of 5 million. Continuing the religious theme Dick Sharples wrote another sitcom for Thora called Hallelujah! In which she played a no-nonsense Salvation Army captain.

The two series of Hallelujah! ran between 1983 and 1984 during the run of In Loving Memory, and when the latter came to an end Thora was immediately approached by the producer of Last Of The Summer Wine to appear in a feature-length Christmas special. The episode was intended to introduce a new character, Seymour Utherwaite, played by Michael Aldridge, to fill the gap left by the departing Foggy (Brian Wilde). Thora was asked to play Seymour's sister, Edie Pegden in an episode broadcast New Year's Day, 1986. It attracted a staggering 18 million viewers and Edie Pegden became a regular character.

The following year Thora was given another chance to prove herself as a talented straight actress when she starred in A Cream Cracker Under The Settee, one of Alan Bennett's celebrated Talking Heads monologues. Thora gave a stunning solo performance as a pensioner who spots the eponymous item when she suffers a fall and deservedly won a BAFTA (British Academy Award) for Best Actress.

In 1992 ill health forced Thora into having a heart bypass operation and then in 1994 her beloved Scottie died. They had been married for 59 years. She threw herself into a most gruelling schedule of work, TV appearances and writing. In 1993 she became Dame Thora Hird, adding to the OBE she had been awarded in 1983. The following year Thora received further recognition from BAFTA with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998 she recorded another Alan Bennett monologue, Waiting For The Telegram, about a pensioner awaiting her 100th birthday message from the Queen whilst recalling a telegram of a more tragic nature that she received during World War 1. Another BAFTA followed.

In 1998, Alan J. Bell, who as director of Last Of The Summer Wine had secured Thora's services, approached her with a tear-jerking tale about Annie Longden, an aged mother suffering a series of strokes and her helpless yet caring and patient son, played by Pete Postlethwaite, in the moving drama Lost For Words. The role led to Thora's third Best Actress Award, the first woman of the new millennium to win, and at the grand old age of eighty-nine.

In a career that spanned 80 years Dame Thora Hird appeared in countless stage productions, more than 100 films, some of television's best-known comedies, and prestigious award winning dramas. Even into her nineties, crippled with arthritis and wheelchair bound, she continued to work daily. After she passed away on March 15th 2003 aged 91, her agent of some forty years, Felix De Wolfe, contributed to her obituary in The Stage newspaper: "Her death leaves a void in the entertainment industry, one that will never be filled. It has been both a privilege and a unique opportunity to share and enjoy her life."

Biography: Laurence Marcus 2003
Reference Sources:
Our Thora by Morris Bright ISBN 0-340-78595-0
Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy by Mark Lewisohn ISBN 0-563-36977-9
The Penguin TV Companion by Jeff Evans ISBN 0-141-01221-8
The Stage March 20th 2003

for Television Heaven