This week we take a look at the life of actress Shirley Stelfox, who died on December 7th at the age of 74 after a short battle with cancer. According to her agent, she “passed away peacefully at home with her daughter Helena by her side.”
While we know Stelfox best for her role as Rose in the first series of Keeping Up Appearances, for the last 15 years she had become a firm favorite among British Soap Opera fans, playing a very different part. That of a village gossip and prudish busybody, Edna Birch, in the immensely popular Yorkshire weeknight series, Emmerdale Farm. As well as Emmerdale, Stelfox also appeared in practically every other major British soap, including EastEnders, Crossroads, and the long running Coronation Street, in which she appeared in a variety of different roles.
Stelfox, who was born in Dukinfield, Cheshire, April 11, 1941, claimed she knew she wanted to be an actress at the age of three. Before training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) she performed with a number of amateur groups and even got a part – albeit uncredited – in a film; the 1954 romantic comedy Hobson’s Choice, starring Sir John Mills and Charles Laughton. After leaving RADA, where her classmates included Edward Fox, John Thaw and Sarah Miles, Stelfox was cast as a 15-year-old defendant in a courtroom drama at the BBC. The following year, in 1960, she had a small part in the very first episode of Coronation Street.
For most of the 1960s and 1970s, Stelfox’s work focused on the stage. Her credits include Not Now Darling, alongside Donald Sinden and Bernard Cribbins, King Lear where she played Lear’s daughter Regan, Macbeth, playing Lady Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet as the Nurse and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where she played the Fairy Queen, Titania.
The 1980s found Stelfox being cast in numerous popular television series, including Bergerac and Inspector Morse. She also had a lead role in a BBC series that didn’t make it over to the U.S., Making Out, a comedy/drama about a group of women working in a factory in Manchester. The series ran from 1989 to 1991 and it may have been Stelfox’s commitment to that series which caused her to have to leave Keeping Up Appearances, in which she starred for its first season in 1990.
Stelfox’s film career was limited; she played the “$2 prostitute” in 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, and she also played a prostitute in Personal Services alongside Julie Walters.
Stelfox was married twice; her first marriage to Keith Edmundson with whom she had a daughter, ended in divorce after 17 years. Her second, in 1979, was to actor Don Henderson, who you might recall as George Bulman in the detective series of the same name. The couple lived in Stratford-upon-Avon with his two children, until his death in 1997, after which time Stelfox moved to Nottinghamshire.
You can see Stelfox’s final appearance in Emmerdale, which aired this past October, in this short video clip.
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