Entertainment & Arts

Obituary: Jean Alexander

Jean Alexander

Jean Alexander became famous for playing Hilda Ogden, one of the best-loved soap characters in British TV history.

Resplendent in curlers and headscarf, she was the put-upon housewife with a piercing voice who was always short of luck and money.

She played the role for more than two decades and it came to define her career.

But she was already an accomplished actress long before she came into the Street

She was born Jean Alexander Hodgkinson on 24 Feb 1926 in the Toxteth area of Liverpool and, after leaving school, found a job as a library assistant.

It was a mundane life and she was in danger of turning into the type of person that epitomised her most famous character.

She had a love of Shakespeare, fostered by sitting in the gods in Liverpool theatres in her youth, and it provided her escape.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Hilda and Stan became the Street's comedy double act

She made her stage debut in Macclesfield in 1949, the start of 12 grinding years in rep, performing in a different play each week as she toured the theatres of the North of England.

She became a stage all-rounder, including taking jobs as a stage manager and a wardrobe mistress.

She made her TV debut in Z Cars, the BBC's gritty police drama set in a fictitious new town near Liverpool.

In 1960, Granada Television launched Coronation Street, which within six months had become Britain's most-watched TV programme.

Poignant

Alexander joined the cast in 1962 with a brief appearance as a landlady who rents a room to a disturbed young woman, Joan Akers, who kidnaps a baby to replace her own dead child.

Eighteen months later Alexander was back, this time as Hilda Ogden

As the perpetual underdog, whose best-laid plans always ended in disappointment or humiliation, she was at the centre of many of the show's comic moments.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Hilda's 'muriel' became one of the Street's best known features

But she was also involved in some of the soap's most poignant scenes. The day she sobbed as she opened her husband Stan's glasses case after he died in 1984 proved that soaps do not need over-the-top explosions or fights to grip the nation.

Producer Bill Podmore once described Stan and Hilda as a great TV comedy double act to rival Morecambe and Wise.

"Universities wanted to make her their rector," he said.

"A Welsh rugby team hailed her as their mascot.

"Even the Falklands fleet urgently called for a picture of their pin-up, complete with curlers, to inspire the troops for battle."

In 1982, Hilda came fourth behind the Queen, Queen Mother and Princess Diana in a poll of the most recognisable women in Britain.

Distinctive look

Three years later, she won the best performance prize at the Royal Television Society Awards. Three years after that, she became the first soap opera performer to be nominated for a Bafta award.

Sir Laurence Olivier was a fan. He once requested a cameo appearance as a tramp who would be encountered by Hilda - but a scheduling conflict meant he could not play the part.

However, a signed photograph from the acting legend took pride of place in her home in Southport, Merseyside.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption The put-upon housewife with the piercing voice

HILDA OGDEN'S GREATEST SCENES

The muriel In 1976, a proud Hilda acquired her "muriel" - the wallpaper with a mural of a mountain range to which she pinned her famous flying ducks.

Woman, Stanley Hilda won a night in a luxury hotel for a second honeymoon in 1977. After kissing Hilda, Stan asked what her lipstick tasted of. The reply came: "Woman, Stanley. Woman."

Stan's death After actor Bernard Youens died in 1984, his character Stan was written out. Hilda was seen silently unwrapping a parcel of his belongings and breaking down when she opened his glasses case.

Hilda's departure Hilda decided it was time to move in 1987, and half the nation tuned in to watch as her neighbours finally showed some affection for her by throwing a surprise party in the Rovers Return.


The character's distinctive look was inspired by real-life Hilda Ogdens in Liverpool during World War II.

Women working in munitions factories would tie up their hair to keep it out of the machinery and put it in curlers so they were ready in case they happened to be invited out in the evening.

"And that was Hilda too," Alexander explained.

"She always had her hair tied up ready - in case. All she had to do was whip the curlers out and give it a flick up with the comb.

"She never did go anywhere that was worth going to - but that's where I got the idea from."

Absolute favourite

After Stan's death, Hilda carried on for a few more years before moving away to become a doctor's housekeeper in Derbyshire; finally getting the respectability she craved.

When she said farewell to the cobbles with a rendition of Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye in the Rovers Return pub on Christmas Day 1987, 26.6 million people tuned in.

Alexander did take other roles after leaving Hilda behind - notably as Auntie Wainwright in Last of the Summer Wine.

Image caption She described her role as Auntie Wainwright as her absolute favourite part

The wizened junk-shop owner she played for 22 years was the "absolute favourite part" of her television career, she once said.

She also played Christine Keeler's mother in the 1989 film Scandal and appeared in the TV shows Boon, Woof!, Rich Tea and Sympathy, Cluedo and Barbara.

But she will forever be remembered for playing Hilda Ogden, the busybody with the curlers.

In 2005, 18 years after she left the show, there was still enough affection to put Hilda at the top of a TV Times poll to find the nation's favourite soap character.

"I don't know why she was so popular," Alexander told the BBC in 2010.

"I think probably because she was a downtrodden, poor little soul. I think people were sorry for Hilda.

"She went plodding away, doing her best all the time, always aspiring to better things."

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