Obituary: Liz Smith

Late-blooming actor best known for role in Royle Family

Liz Smith, who has died aged 95, was unknown until middle-age, but became a well-known and much-loved character actor.

Her breakthrough came in a Mike Leigh film, Bleak Moments, when she was 49. She reached a wider audience when she starred in the memorable 1970s television comedy I Didn't Know You Cared, written by Peter Tinniswood.

Her eye for the entertaining anarchies of old age was also deployed in The Vicar of Dibley and 2point4 Children.

However, Smith is likely to be best remembered for her work as Norma Speakman, or Nana, in The Royle Family, the groundbreaking comedy written by Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, for which Smith won a Bafta nomination. Smith brought her flair for grotesque comedy to the role; the programme became a hit, and she with it.

Born Betty Gleadle, in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, she had a rough start in life. Her mother died in childbirth when Betty was two and she was brought up by her widowed grandmother.

She remembered her father, only 20 years her senior and prone to wine, women and song, throwing her up in the air and catching her, and festooning her with costume jewellery.

When she was seven, her father walked out without explanation – his daughter only discovering, many years later, that he had married another woman who had insisted that his previous life did not exist.

“He was a weak man and did as he was told, so he just disowned me,” she recalled in the later years of her success.

She discovered acting at her local school but left at 16 and took a job with a dressmaker. During the second World War she served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and in 1945 married a sailor, Jack Thomas, whom she met on service in India. She contracted hepatitis and returned to London.

In 1947, she managed to get a job with a small repertory company called the Gateway theatre in Westbourne Grove, using the stage name Liz Smith. But she and her husband and their children, Sarah and Robert, soon moved out to Buckhurst Hill, near Epping, Essex, which put the repertory theatre out of range.

The marriage ended in divorce in 1959. Acting was both an emotional release and a way of earning a living.

The American director Charles Marowitz, a devotee of the method school of acting, introduced his ideas to London at rooms in Fitzroy Square, London. Smith was auditioned and chosen to be in the first improvising group.

Marowitz did not pay her, and only a series of day jobs, including one as a postwoman, made it possible for her to attend his school for four nights a week over a period of five years.

Then, one day, Marowitz simply did not turn up and Smith was told he had gone to link up with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “And that was that. He dropped us – just like father,” Smith said. She then joined the Forbes Russell Repertory Company, which played at Butlin’s holiday camps.

But Smith's experience with improvisational theatre was to prove an advantage. For Bleak Moments in 1971, Leigh could find the children he wanted but not the eccentric mother, because it was difficult to find actors used to improvisation.

Smith, who rarely gave media interviews, once told of how she was selling toys in Hamley’s at Christmas when Leigh told her he needed a middle-aged woman to do improvisations.

Smith was cast as a woman who could not leave her bed, so she stayed in bed for the six weeks of rehearsals and shooting. She later said that Bleak Moments, which was Leigh's first film, "changed my life" and cued up an exhaustive list of TV credits.

Scrubbed the floors

Leigh was so satisfied with Smith that he cast her again in his first television play,

Hard Labour

, this time as a charwoman. She scrubbed the floors of the Territorial Army hall in which rehearsals took place until her stockings were full of holes and she was satisfied that she knew what a charwoman really felt like.

Smith found her first agent in 1973 and began to work steadily, mostly for television, from Dickens to The Sweeney. By the 1980s she was an established face who did not lack work. Her films included Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital (1982) and Malcolm Mowbray's A Private Function (1984), for which she won the Bafta award for best supporting actress.

In 1988 she played the mother of a young gay hustler in We Think the World of You, directed by Colin Gregg and starring Alan Bates. The following year, for Peter Greenaway, she appeared in the film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

Her late-life successes included Letitia Cropley, a provider of ghastly cakes, in The Vicar of Dibley. When the popular character was killed off by the writer Richard Curtis, the first Smith heard of it was when a motorcycle messenger came to her door with next week's script, accompanied by a note reading, "Here is a script for the next episode, which contains your death." She confessed to being hurt and bewildered.

Smith continued to work extensively in television. She appeared as Miss Lory in Alice in Wonderland (1999), in two versions of A Christmas Carol (1999 and 2000, the latter a modern version with Ross Kemp and Warren Mitchell), as Peg Sliderskew in the Charles Dance version of Nicholas Nickleby (2001) and in the series Lark Rise to Candleford (2008). She was Grandma Georgina in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and the voice of Mrs Mulch in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in the same year. When well into her 70s, she said she was always "completely energised" by work.

Smith, who often complained that whatever she did on stage made the audience laugh, appeared when she was in her 80s in the 2004 Royal National Theatre production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame, with Michael Gambon, who thought her "bloody marvellous".

In 2009, she announced that she was retiring from acting following a stroke. But in 2010 she appeared in The Young Ones for the BBC, in which older celebrities reminisced about the 1970s.

Smith was appointed MBE in 2009. – (Guardian service)