Ricky Tomlinson leads tributes to ‘absolutely lovely’ Royal Family star Liz Smith

Liz Smith with her MBE for services to drama. PIC: PA
Liz Smith with her MBE for services to drama. PIC: PA
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Liz Smith’s former Royle Family co-star Ricky Tomlinson has paid tribute to the “absolutely lovely” actress following her death.

The 95-year-old TV and film veteran, who died on Christmas Eve, was hailed as “wonderful” and a beloved member of the sitcom’s family by Tomlinson.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “She was wonderful. Actually she was my favourite character in the Royles.”

Tomlinson, who played Jim Royle alongside Smith’s ailing Nana in the series, recalled fond memories of their time working together.

He said: “We had a great time together and we were so close as a family.

“She would come in on her days off and just sit there, and of course I’d take the Mickey out of her because she always came in at lunchtime. I’d say, ‘you’re like your character, you, anything for nothing, you come because it’s lunchtime!’.

“And she was absolutely lovely.”

He said: “I was fascinated by her, really, really fascinated by her. The stuff I can’t even tell you about the out-takes, that me and Liz got up to, because it was hilarious. Because actually I thought she spoke rather eloquently, she spoke really nicely, whether she’d taught herself or been taught. She didn’t talk at all like Nana. She used to take the Mickey out of me for being a little bit rough.

“I really, really loved her. When you get a company together like that and you work as a unit together over two or three years like that, you do become a family.

“I’ll say this about Ralf Little who played Antony - he adored Liz Smith. He used to go visit her - she was in some sort of sheltered accommodation - he would go and visit her. He loved her.”

Director Mike Leigh, who cast Smith in his debut feature film Bleak Moments - her first professional role - praised her during the broadcast.

He said: “I was always a bit cautious. But from the moment I met her she was a complete breath of fresh air. She had no ‘thesp’ cobwebs about her at all.

“She was not your bog-standard middle-aged actress, she was a great character actress.”

Leigh described her as a “consummate character actor” and “eccentric” who was “the most generous woman you could meet”.

Smith’s death comes in the same year as co-star Caroline Aherne, who died from lung cancer.

A statement issued on Monday night said: “The Bafta award-winning actress Liz Smith has died, on Christmas Eve, at the age of 95, her family has announced.”

Following the announcement, Little tweeted: “Devastating to lose two members of my second family in one awful year. RIP Liz Smith. Goodbye Nana. Xxx.”

The Queen Of Sheba - the episode of the sitcom in which Nana dies - was repeated on the BBC days before Christmas.

In 2009, the Prince of Wales presented Smith with an MBE and told her that the sofa-bound TV characters in the show were “nothing like my family, thank God”.

Smith got her first professional roles in her 50s when Leigh was looking for a middle-aged woman capable of improvisation for Bleak Moments.

Her career took off after she played the lead role in his first television film, Hard Labour, and she once said: “I owe everything to Mike.”

The actress also played eccentric baker Letitia Cropley in The Vicar Of Dibley, but was devastated when her character was killed off.

At the age of 85 she won a best actress award at the British Comedy Awards for her portrayal of Nana.

Smith also won a Bafta for best supporting actress for her performance as Maggie Smith’s organ-playing mother in the film A Private Function.

Coronation Street star Andrew Whyment, who also appeared in The Royle Family, tweeted: “What a fantastic actress she was absolutely hilarious RIP lovely Liz x.”

Smith appeared alongside Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the 2005 version of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, playing Grandma Georgina.

She also played Mrs Brandon in long-running sitcom I Didn’t Know You Cared, as well as Bette in 2point4 Children.

She also took to the stage to play Nell in a West End production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.

Smith announced her retirement from acting in 2009 following a series of strokes.