Liz Dawn obituary: actor played one of soap’s best-loved figures
After uncertain start, Vera Duckworth became fixture of Corrie for more than 30 years
The actor Liz Dawn, who has died aged 77, had no early formal training, but drew on her own north country background to play one of the best-loved figures of television soap opera, the motormouth Vera Duckworth, with her frequent catchphrase “ta-ra, chuck”, in Granada TV’s Coronation Street. Dawn played the role for more than three decades, starting in 1974 as a warehouse packer in Mike Baldwin’s factory. She became a permanent and fully developed character from 1979, and retired in 2008 only because of illness.
For some years, short of breath, she had struggled through the television recordings, helped by the actor Bill Tarmey, who played her fictional husband, Jack Duckworth.
Fearing early on that she might one day be written out of the series, she once took a few lessons in how to make her voice “more posh” in case she wanted to go for other roles. But it was her unposh accent, together with her wild hair, which was one of the charms.
Born Sylvia Butterfield in Leeds, she came from a Catholic family: her father, Albert, was a factory engineer, and her mother, Annie, worked in a tailoring factory. At the local St Patrick’s school, she particularly enjoyed the dances held at weekends: “Everybody mixed well and you knew you’d be safe walking home.” The family lived in a modest house which, unlike many at the time, had a back garden.
Her father later became a miner, and the family moved to an estate, near to a grand house that was sometimes open to the public. At first she felt privileged living so close and would visit the place often, gliding up and down the ornate staircase as if she were rich. Then her mother pointed out to her the contrast between this lifestyle and the pit at which her father worked. The lesson stayed with her for the rest of her life.
She left Leeds City girls’ school at 15, and at the age of 18 married a miner, Walter Bradley, but separated from him three years later, after the birth of a son, Graham. While working at the same factory as her mother, she met Don Ibbetson, an electrician, on a night out. They married in 1965, and her first daughter, Dawn, was born shortly afterwards, to be followed by Anne and Julie.
Sylvia worked for Woolworths, was a tea lady, a cinema usherette and a shoe saleswoman. She ran six mail order catalogues to make money. She also held parties to sell wigs and was an “Avon lady”, selling cosmetics. Don encouraged her to sing, and she began to perform in working men’s clubs. He also entered her for a talent contest at a holiday camp near Scarborough, which she won. More bookings followed in clubs as well as pubs, and Don advised her to change her name. She changed it to the reversal of one of her daughter’s names, Liz Dawn. “We were hard up, but they were happy times,” she said many years later.
Her work in clubs was steady. Her first break in television came in a commercial for Cadbury’s chocolate made by the director Alan Parker. She was then taken up by the Play for Today series, with appearances including Kisses at Fifty (1973) and Leeds - United! (1974). There were also small parts in Crown Court and Z Cars.
Initially she was apprehensive about Coronation Street, wondering whether she could measure up to it being part of such a national institution. But her natural buoyancy was such that she never betrayed this. “I would grit my teeth, switch on my most confident smile and stride into action as though I’d just called in from the Royal Shakespeare Company,” she remembered. She was in the 1989 Royal Variety Concert, and in the same year she made a single record of the number I’ll Be With You Soon, with Tarmey.
Though she radiated scatty confidence in Coronation Street, the part strayed into her own life. Fans spoke to her in the street as Vera Duckworth, asking how she and her husband were. She always asserted that her real husband would never stand the nagging dished out to Jack Duckworth on TV.
Her character survived various marital upsets and problems with drink, but was brought to an end by something all too real. When she first became ill, after smoking 30 cigarettes a day for 55 years she was relieved to know that it was not cancer. But after emphysema was diagnosed, she soon found out that it, too, was a serious condition. Although she carried on working, Dawn was often in a state of near collapse, a fact that she hid from the producers and other cast members as best she could. Tarmey always did his best to make things as easy as possible for her.
She reacted to her illness by taking an interest in medical charities, raising £1 million through the Liz Dawn St James’s Hospital Breast Cancer Appeal in Leeds. In 2000 she was appointed MBE for services to charity. In collecting the honour from the Queen at Buckingham Palace, she had to walk up a long flight of stairs, and might have fallen down them if a royal attendant had not rushed forward to support her. Not wishing to divulge her real vulnerability, she feigned a sore foot.
Separating from Coronation Street was painful for her when the death of her character wrote her out of the scripts. She had always wanted to be with the show when it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010. In 2008 she won the lifetime achievement award at the British Soap Awards. And in 2011, she made an appearance at the awards again, this time giving the lifetime achievement award to her former co-star, Bill Tarmey. In 2015 she appeared as Mrs Winterbottom in Emmerdale.
Dawn is survived by Don, her four children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Liz Dawn (Sylvia Butterfield), actor, born 8 November 1939; died 25 September 2017.