Obituary of Denise Coffey | Television & radio


There have been few real clowns in theater and television quite like Denise Coffey, who died at the age of 85. She was a key television presence in British comedy during its most redefined post-war period, and to see her on stage, still mischievous and lovely, was to invest two or three hours of an invaluable spiritual tonic .

She was a key member of the ebullient Young Vic company formed in 1970 under the aegis of the National Theater of the Old Vic to present classics and new plays for younger audiences. She had already, in the 1960s, played a series of classic and low-life roles at Bernard Miles’ Mermaid Theater in Puddle Dock.

She emerged at the Young Vic, under the direction of Frank Dunlop, trailing several film credits and high prominence in surreal television comedy – notably in ITV’s Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69) – influenced by the Goons radio comedy and foreshadowing Monty. Python. She and David Jason formed the ‘legit showbiz’ element in a company of college minds – Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, producer Humphrey Barclay – with musical forays from Vivian Stanshall’s delirious Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band .

Denise Coffey as Miss Baines in The Secret of the Foxhunter, 1973, part of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes series. Photography: Fremantle Media/Shutterstock

Two popular ITV series followed: Girls About Town (1970-71) in which she and singer Julie Stevens lived large on Acacia Avenue; and Hold the Front Page (1974), in which Coffey led a group of crazed newsroom assistants chasing down a “Mr. Big” embroiled in a major carpet scandal. End of Part One (1979) was a satirical soap opera in which Mr. and Mrs. Straightman (Tony Aitken and Coffey as Norman and Vera) were disturbed in their domestic dullness by an array of famous television characters; Coffey herself appeared as Robin Day in these trademark cruel glasses.

She was totally unique: under five feet tall, pixie-like, punchy and eccentric. In her private life, she was staunchly single, vegetarian and ultimately isolated, especially after discovering the joys of the West Country – she moved from London to Salcombe in Devon – and living by the sea.

She was a regular on a few Stanley Baxter TV comedy series in 1968 and 1971 and spilled over as the grotesque manager of Alexei Sayle’s hopeless nightclub comedian Bobby Chariot in Sayle’s Merry-Go-Round in 1998 .

Denise was born in Aldershot, Hampshire, the only daughter of Dorothy (née Malcolm) and her husband, Denis Coffey, a proud Cork Irishman and RAF Squadron Leader. They moved north from Dorothy’s native Scotland, living near Inverkeithing in Fife and later Milesmark outside Dunfermline, where Denise was educated at Dunfermline High School and trained at Glasgow College of Drama and at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music.

Denise Coffey, left, and Barbara Mitchell onstage in Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, 1965.
Denise Coffey, left, and Barbara Mitchell on stage
in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, by Thomas Dekker, in 1965.
Photography: John Silverside/ANL/Shutterstock

She made her professional acting debut at Dunfermline Opera House in 1954, “as various guest appearances” in Macbeth. In 1962 she played the lead role, the mutilating Mrs. Malaprop, in Sheridan’s The Rivals at the Gateway in Edinburgh, then, in 1963, the unhealthy Mrs. Coaxer in a revival of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera for the Royal Shakespeare Company . at the Aldwych in London (with Dorothy Tutin, Patience Collier and Elizabeth Spriggs); she was asserting her claim to join the top table.

A West End highlight played the maid, Edith, in High Spirits, a Broadway musical version of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, directed by Coward himself, at the Savoy Theater in 1964, in a cast including Denis Quilley, Marti Stevens and Cecily Courtneidge.

She had made her television debut in 1959 in a BBC adaptation of Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet and cemented her theatrical reputation at the Siren in various classics and new plays, including as 19-year-old Fanny O’Dowda in George Bernard Shaw’s Fanny’s First Play – as a pursued suffragette turned feminist playwright; and as the non-talking but sometimes flatulent Cicely Bumtrinket – a favorite role, not even identified in most cast lists – in Thomas Dekker’s Elizabethan town comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday.

She also starred in several important films of the 1960s: as Peter Sellers’ eccentric daughter Sidonia Fitzjohn (alongside Prunella Scales as her sister) in John Guillermin’s Waltz of the Toreadors (1962); as Lynn Redgrave’s mousy boyfriend, Peg, in Georgy Girl (1966); and as sobriety in John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) with Julie Christie and Alan Bates.

On location in Dorset for the last of these, she visited neighboring Devon, where she would return to live permanently. But not before her time at Young Vic – part actress and part director – in the 70s, where she was a standout member of society alongside Jim Dale, Jane Lapotaire, Andrew Robertson and Nicky Henson.

Her roles, all invested with unmistakable zest and sass, included Beatrice in Much Ado, a rare lookalike of Mistress Overdone and Mariana in Measure for Measure and Doll Common in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. She toured Europe and North America with the company, appearing with them at the Edinburgh Festivals of 1967, 1971 and 1972, including as a harassed Scottish housewife in a comedy of errors transferred from Ephesus in Edinburgh.

When her mentor Dunlop was appointed festival director in 1985, she provided a brilliant Scottish version of Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme – A Wee Touch of Class – with Rikki Fulton as “Archibald” (real name Charles ) Jenner, the 19th century founder of the famous Jenners store, on Princes Street; Coffey was Netty, a scrupulous servant who danced Fife’s clogs.

She appeared in one of the first of four films, Michael Radford’s Another Time, Another Place (1983). His radio work included appearances on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and Just a Minute, and two Sue Limb series: The Wordsmiths of Gorsemere (1985-87), a very entertaining show by the Lakeland poets. , Coffey herself as Dorothy Wordsmith, Tim Curry as Lord Biro and Simon Callow as Samuel Tailor Cholericke; and Alison and Maud (2002-04), teaming up with Miriam Margolyes as two oddly eccentric owners.

A 1980 film Stanshall wrote, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, in which she played a tapeworm-obsessed woman called Mrs. E, gained cult status when it was released on DVD in 2006. “It’s impossible to do justice “, said critic Nigel Andrews, “to the film’s arrance and utterly unique craziness.” In the 1980s in Canada, she directed plays for John Neville at his Neptune Theater in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and for Christopher Newton at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Her output was increasingly sporadic as she happily curled up in Salcombe, “exploring my artistic bent”, fishing in a small boat with a small outboard motor, gardening and taking rare excursions to London, always traveling by Taxi.

She is survived by a cousin, Linda.

Denise Dorothy Coffey, actress and writer, born December 12, 1936; passed away on March 24, 2022

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