Jean Alexander: 1926-2016
Tea Time Tidbit for the week of October 24, 2016
This week we pay tribute to the woman who was inarguably Britain’s most well-known soap opera actress: Jean Alexander, who died October 14 just three days after her 90th birthday.
While Afternoon Tea viewers probably know Alexander best for her portrayal of Aunty Wainwright in Last of the Summer Wine, to the British she will always be Hilda Ogden. The head-scarfed, curler-wearing cleaning lady Alexandra created in Britain’s longest running night time serial drama Coronation Street once placed fourth in a poll to determine the most recognizable woman in Britain, behind the Queen, Queen Mother and Princess Diana. A decade ago, another poll named Alexander as the “Greatest Soap Opera Star of All Time”. That was almost 20 years after the Liverpudlian actress had left "Street.
As Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street
Alexander first appeared in Coronation Street in 1962, where she had a small role in a couple of episodes as a landlady. In 1964, she returned as the husband berating, shrill voiced busybody Hilda and didn’t leave for 23 years. Her character might have left the Street, but she never left our hearts. Her lines, such as "tara chuck", became catchphrases and her trademark apron and headscarf with three curlers popping out became an iconic symbol for a north-country char-lady.
The inspiration for Hilda’s costume came from the wartime munitions workers Alexander had seen growing up. They’d keep their hair in curlers all the time so that the minute factory whistle blew, they could quickly pop them out and be ready for their dance dates with the American servicemen. According to a former Coronation Street writer, “the tragedy of Hilda is that she was eternally ready for a good night out. She just never had one."
As Aunty Wainwright in Last of the Summer Wine
Like Hilda, Alexander was raised working class. She grew up in a rented terrace house with no modern conveniences. “We had no fridge, washer, inside toilet or garden”, Alexander once told a reporter, “but being poor didn’t do any harm – you just tried to better yourselves.” And she did. As an adult Alexander was known for being nothing like "Hilda". She had a glamorous off-screen persona and was full of fun and good humour. The former librarian was also unmarried and once confessed to preferring the company of her cats than becoming “involved in romantic relationships.”
Alexander’s death came as a shock to her loved ones. Having recovered from a stroke in 2014, she was all set to spend the weekend celebrating her 90th birthday with her family and friends. But shortly before she died, she’d been feeling "a little poorly" and had gone into hospital for some tests. After being released back to her care home, she was still not feeling well and was re-admitted. Two days later Alexander passed away peacefully in her hospital bed.
You can read more about Jean Alexander in this Tidbit article of June 8, 2015.
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