Liz Dawn: From background waitress to TV immortality

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FEW would have believed she was destined for television immortality when, as a waitress on The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, she began to act tipsy on the prop beer.

Supposed to be seen only in the background of Granada’s mocked-up working men’s club, Liz Dawn was clearly marking her territory.

Bill Tarmey as Jack Duckworth and Liz Dawn as Vera Duckworth.

Bill Tarmey as Jack Duckworth and Liz Dawn as Vera Duckworth.

Within a few years, she was back, as a regular on the company’s most popular show. Upon her death yesterday at 77, the lights over Coronation Street went dark in her honour.

Miss Dawn, born plain Sylvia Butterfield in Leeds and later to be Lady Mayoress of the city, was one half of a double act that was as popular, in its way, as Morecambe and Wise or Flanagan and Allen.

As the quarrelsome Duckworths, she and the late Bill Tarmey created a partnership that would make them arguably the world’s best loved soap couple.

She was on the show for 34 years, until declining health forced her to ask for her character to be written out.

Liz Dawn laughs with the Princess of Wales diring a meeting at a Help the Aged awards ceremony

Liz Dawn laughs with the Princess of Wales diring a meeting at a Help the Aged awards ceremony

The episode in which Vera Duckworth died, peacefully in her sleep in her armchair, was seen by more than 12m viewers.

But she returned for a one-off appearance as Vera’s ghost in 2010 for Tarmey’s final scenes There was barely a dry eye in the land as the two enjoyed a last dance together.

Even in retirement, she had one last performance in her, and in 2015 agreed to a cameo in a Christmas special of Emmerdale, playing a demanding guest named Mrs Winterbottom, who stayed at Eric Pollard’s B&B.

“There’s only one show I’d come out of retirement for and it’s Emmerdale,” she said at the time.

Coronation Street’s executive producer, Kieran Roberts, led yesterday’s tributes, calling Miss Dawn “a true legend, a brilliant actor and a wonderful person”.

Liz Dawn had left school at 16 and worked selling light bulbs in Woolworths, as well as in a local tailoring factory, as a cinema usherette and shoe salesgirl.

She began her showbusiness career as a nightclub singer. But by the late 1960s she had ventured into acting, often taking small parts in TV programmes as well as appearing in commercials.

During the 1970s, she turned up in a variety of programmes, including All Creatures Great and Small and Colin Welland’s play, Leeds United. Like most actors, she took work when she could get it, hence the walk-on at the Wheeltappers.

Speaking about her deteriorating health on a celebrity version of The Jeremy Kyle Show in 2014, she said: “I take a lot of tablets. I just live every day and get on with it.”

She had four children and was married twice - to miner Walter Bradley in 1957, with whom she had her first child, and to electrician Don Ibbetson, in 1965.

In 2000, she was awarded an MBE for services to charity, having helped to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for hospitals in Leeds and Manchester.

Her former Coronation Street co-star, Sally Dynevor, who plays Sally Webster, called her an “amazing woman” and added: “She was such a giving person who always thought about other people before herself. She was an inspiration of how to be in life and I’m going to miss her.”

Michael Le Vell, who plays Kevin Webster, said: “Liz and Bill were the foundations on which Coronation Street has been built. They had an amazing connection between them as Jack and Vera.

“For anyone young who joined the show Liz was the matriarch. She took us under her wing and was the mother figure who helped guide us through the show.

“She did that for me. She’s going to be a big loss to us all.”