Jane Freeman: 1935-2017

Tea Time Tidbit for the week of April 24, 2017

Tea Time Tidbit

As "Ivy" (far right) in LOTSW

A viewer recently shared with me news that he’d heard from across the pond that Jane Freeman, who played Ivy in Last of the Summer Wine, had died of lung cancer on March 9. Freeman was the only surviving female cast member to have appeared in the pilot episode of LOTSW, which first aired in the U.K. back in 1973 and would eventually appear in 274 of the series’ 295 episodes, over a period of 37 years. She also appeared in a stage version of the show in 1983.

It’s hard to imagine "Ivy" outside of Sid’s Café, but Freeman was actually an accomplished stage actress. Although she was born in London, Freeman, whose real name was Shirley Ann Pithers, grew up in Wales after her mother remarried following her father’s death when Freeman was nine years old. It was while in school in Wales that she caught the acting bug and in the early 1950s studied acting at the then Cardiff College of Music and Drama, now known as the Royal Welsh. She was there at the same time as Sir Anthony Hopkins, but while his career would take him to Hollywood, Freeman stuck to stage and television.

Tea Time Tidbit

As "Ivy" (far left) in LOTSW

Her first professional job was with the Osiris Players, an all-female travelling troupe which had been founded in 1927 by a woman called Nancy Hewins. Freeman reportedly based the character of Ivy on the formidable Hewins, whose traveling theatre was the first of its kind. The troupe – made up of only women - would travel up and down the country, usually sleeping rough, performing mainly Shakespeare plays in schools, village halls, and cafeterias. For many youngsters, seeing a performance by the Osiris Players was their first introduction to live theatre and for some, such as Judi Dench for instance, that introduction encouraged them to also go into the acting profession.

According to Freeman, the purpose of Osiris was to create “theatre for the people” and in an interview she gave with The Guardian for a feature they were doing about the troupe, she recalled how the company made “a difference to a lot of people’s lives”. It closed down in the early/mid 1960s, and Freeman went back to Wales, where she joined the Welsh Theatre Company in Cardiff, before becoming a member of Birmingham Rep in 1968. Freeman not only found steady work at Birmingham Rep, she also found love, when in 1971 she married the Rep’s Artistic Director, Michael Simpson, Not long after they married, Simpson directed his wife in a BBC comedy called The Fishing Party, which also featured Ivy’s "husband", John Comer. Simpson died in 2007, Comer in 1984.

Freeman was with the Rep for five years, between 1968 and 1973, and at one point toured with them to Chicago. Freeman must have simply loved touring, because even after she was cast as Ivy and had a steady job in LOTSW, she continued to tour in various stage productions throughout the U.K.

Towards the end of LOTSW, Freeman suffered from peripheral neuropathy which made walking and carrying things difficult. You’ll notice in the later episodes of the series, for instance, that Ivy is never seen carrying a tray of tea across the café.

Since Freeman’s death, at the age of 81, Peter Sallis is now the sole survivor of LOTSW’s original cast. I haven’t heard how the 96 year old actor is doing lately, but if you hear anything, please be sure to let me know by writing to me.

In the meantime, here’s a link to a Tea Time Tidbits article about Sallis’s health, from August of 2014.

To contact Heather:
E-mail: heather@mpt.org
Address: Afternoon Tea
Maryland Public Television
11767 Owings Mills Blvd.
Owings Mills, MD 21117

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