Penelope Keith

Dame Penelope Keith
Dame Penelope Keith

Penelope Keith. Wikipedia.

Dame Penelope Anne Constance Keith, DBEDL (née Hatfield; born 2 April 1940) is an English actress, active in all genres, including radio, stage, television and film and primarily known for her roles in the British sitcoms The Good Life and To the Manor Born. She succeeded Lord Olivier as president of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund after his death in 1989, and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to the arts and to charity.

Keith joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963, and went on to win the 1976 Olivier Award for Best Comedy Performance for the play Donkeys’ Years. She became a household name in the UK playing Margo Leadbetter in the sitcom The Good Life (1975–78), winning the 1977 BAFTA TV Award for Best Light Entertainment Performance.

In 1978, she won the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress for The Norman Conquests. She then starred as Audrey fforbes-Hamilton in the sitcom To the Manor Born (1979–81), a show that received audiences of more than 20 million. She went on to star in another six sitcoms, including Executive Stress (1986–88), No Job for a Lady (1990–92) and Next of Kin (1995–97). Since 2000, she has worked mainly in the theatre, with her roles including Madam Arcati in Blithe Spirit (2004) and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (2007).

Penelope Anne Constance Hatfield was born in Sutton in 1940.  Her father, an army officer who was a Major by the end of the Second World War, left her mother Connie when Keith was a baby, and she spent her early years in Clacton-on-Sea and Clapham. Her great uncle, John Gurney Nutting, was a partner in the coachbuilding firm of J Gurney Nutting & Co Limited, and Keith recalls sitting in the Prince of Wales’s car. 

Although not a Roman Catholic, at the age of six she was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Seaford. Here she became interested in acting, and she frequently went to matinées in the West End with her mother. When she was eight years old, her mother remarried and Penelope adopted her stepfather’s surname, Keith. While she did not get on with her stepfather, her mother was a “rock of love” to her. She was rejected by the Central School of Speech and Drama, on the grounds that, at 5’10” (1.78 m), she was too tall. However, she was then accepted at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and spent two years there while working at the Hyde Park Hotel in the evenings.

Keith began her career working in repertory theatre around Britain, including LincolnManchester, and Salisbury. Keith’s earliest appearances were in The Tunnel of LoveGigi, and Flowering Cherry. In 1963, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and acted with them in Stratford and at the Aldwych Theatre in London.

Keith began her television career in programmes such as The Army GameDixon of Dock GreenWild, Wild Women and The Avengers.  In the early 1970s, she appeared in The Morecambe & Wise ShowGhost Story and The Pallisers. Her film appearances during this time included Every Home Should Have OneTake A Girl Like YouRentadick and Penny Gold. In 1967, she had a minor role in Carry On Doctor, but the scene was cut from the final edit. She appeared as a nurse in A Touch of Love 1969.

Her best known theatre appearance, in 1974, was playing Sarah in The Norman Conquests, opposite Richard Briers, her co-star in The Good Life. Keith and Briers would often film The Good Life during the day and perform on stage in the West End in the evening.

Penelope Keith achieved popular fame in 1975 when the BBC sitcom The Good Life began. In the first episode, she was only heard and not seen in her role as Margo Leadbetter, but as the episodes and series went on, the scope of her role increased. In 1977, Keith won a BAFTA award for “Best Comedy Performer” for her role of Margo Leadbetter.

From 1979–81, she played the lead role of Audrey fforbes-Hamilton in the TV series To the Manor Born. Following To the Manor Born, Keith has appeared in the lead role in six other sitcoms: Sweet SixteenMovingExecutive StressNo Job for a LadyLaw and Disorder and Next of Kin. She also had the starring role in a TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play Spider’s Web. She won a second BAFTA award as “Best Actress” in 1978 for The Norman Conquests.

In 1982, Keith starred in a TV production of Frederick Lonsdale’s On Approval. In 1988, she hosted one series of the ITV panel show What’s My Line?, following the death of its former presenter, Eamonn Andrews. She had a featured role in the 1998 ITV serial Coming Home.

Keith has regularly appeared on stage, taking the classics and new plays across the country. These include Shakespeare, Shaw, Sheridan, Wilde, Rattigan and Congreve. She played Lorraine in Noël Coward‘s Star Quality, while in 2004 she played Madame Arcati in Coward’s Blithe Spirit at the Savoy Theatre. In 2004, Keith starred in the first of 10 full-cast BBC radio dramatisations of M.C. Beaton‘s Agatha Raisin novels, playing the title role. Two years later, she appeared at the Chichester Festival in the premiere of Richard Everett‘s comedy Entertaining Angels, which she later took on tour.

In 2007, she played the part of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest on tour, which transferred to the West End in 2008, at the Vaudeville Theatre. She has voiced adverts including ones for Pimm’sLurpakTesco and, most famously, The Parker Pen Company, which was named one of the 100 Greatest Adverts in a Channel 4 programme. In 2012, she starred in Keith Waterstone’s Good Grief, having previously appeared in the play’s premier production in 1998.

In 1997, she starred in the radio adaptations of To the Manor Born.  In 2003, she appeared opposite June Brown in the television film Margery and Gladys. In 2007, she starred in a one-off To the Manor Born Christmas Special,

In 2009 she presented Penelope Keith and the Fast Lady, a one-off documentary for BBC Four about Dorothy Levitt, the Edwardian motoring pioneer. She presented the four-part BBC documentary The Manor Reborn in 2011.

Since 2014, she has presented all three series of the More4/Channel 4 programme Penelope Keith’s Hidden Villages, and in June 2016 she presented Penelope Keith at Her Majesty’s Service again for Channel 4. In December 2017, she presented Penelope Keith’s Coastal Villages, a continuation of the Hidden Villages series.

In early 2018, she presented the Channel 4 series Village of the Year with Penelope Keith.

It was announced in February 2018 that Keith would be starring as Mrs St Maugham in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Enid Bagnold‘s The Chalk Garden from 25 May to 16 June 2018.

In 1978, the year The Good Life ended, she married Rodney Timson, a policeman. They had met while he was on duty at Chichester Theatre where Keith was performing. Timson, who is four years her junior, had been married twice before.  They adopted two children.

Keith and Timson live in Milford, Surrey. Keith has a great passion for gardening. In 1984, she had a rose named after her. Penelope Keith has been President of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund since 1990, taking over after the death of Lord Olivier, and is president of the South West Surrey National Trust.

In 2014 Penelope Keith presented 4 Extra Goes Gardening in which she celebrated the work of garden designer Gertrude Jekyll at her former home, Munstead Woods in Godalming. It is occasionally repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

On 2 April 2002, her 62nd birthday, she began a one-year term as High Sheriff of Surrey, the third woman to hold the post. She is also a Deputy Lieutenant of Surrey.

She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1989 New Year Honours,  and was promoted to a Commander (CBE) in the 2007 New Year Honours for “charitable services”.

In the 2014 New Year Honours, she became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to the Arts and to Charity.

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