Obituary: Sheila Mercier, actress

Sheila Mercier with Annie's second TV husband, Leonard Kempinski (Bernard Archard). Picture: ITV
Sheila Mercier with Annie's second TV husband, Leonard Kempinski (Bernard Archard). Picture: ITV
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It was in an instant on the early afternoon of October 16, 1972 that the actress Sheila Mercier created a soap matriarch.

Her character Annie Sugden was the rock around whom the other characters on Emmerdale Farm revolved. Thanks in no small measure to her screen presence, Yorkshire Television’s contribution to ITV’s first regular afternoon schedule soon rose above its rank to become one of the most beloved programmes in the country.

Sheila Mercier at the 2008 funeral of Emmerdale actor Clive Hornby, who died at the age of 63.

Sheila Mercier at the 2008 funeral of Emmerdale actor Clive Hornby, who died at the age of 63.

Ms Mercier, who has died at 100, was the show’s central figure, at least in spirit, for more than 20 years. By the time she left, it was on twice a week in prime time.

It was Annie Sugden’s lot in life to keep the peace between her bickering sons, Joe, played by Frazer Hines, and Jack, portrayed first by Andrew Burt and later by Clive Hornby.

The series began with the funeral of Annie’s husband, Jacob, who was said to have spent his last days drinking and letting the farm go to ruin. His death freed Annie to seek a new life in her fifties, and before the year was out she had spurned a proposal of marriage from Amos Brearly, licensee of the Woolpack pub. She reconsidered and finally walked up the aisle with him 23 years later – by which time she had been widowed a second time in the show’s controversial aeroplane crash storyline.

Sheila Mercier’s face was already familiar to theatre and TV audiences when the series began.

Born Sheila Betty Rix in Hull on New Year’s Day 1919, the daughter of a wealthy ship owner, she was elder sister to the late Whitehall farceur Brian (later Lord) Rix.

She went to St Ethelburga’s at Hornsea and Hunmanby Hall School for Girls, on the outskirts of Filey. Encouraged by her elocution teacher to go on the stage, she trained at Stratford-upon-Avon College of Drama, and was soon spotted by the actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit, who recruited her for his Shakespeare Company at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The hostilities interrupted her career, and she rose to the rank of adjutant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at RAF Fighter Command.

It was a brief hiatus and she was called upon to make her television debut as early as 1946, shortly after the service had resumed.

Her part was in a play called Exercise Bowler, screened in London only since nowhere else was yet within reception range.

She continued to learn her craft with Brian at his own repertory companies in Ilkley and Bridlington. She appeared in six of his Whitehall farces during the next two decades and could also be glimpsed in two of his films, The Night We Dropped a Clanger and The Night We Got the Bird, as well as many of the TV specials in which he starred.

Rix’s company also included the actor Peter Mercier, whom Sheila married in 1951. They went on to work in rep together in Huddersfield.

She later recalled to Emmerdale historian Anthony Hayward: “I had done a lot of television from the stage of the Whitehall, but very little else before joining Emmerdale Farm.” She delivered her lines theatrically “to the Gods”, she said, before being told by a director to take it down a peg, “until it was so low I was almost muttering”.

Her television entrances were never more dramatic though than the one she made at Yorkshire TV in the mid-1980s. Losing control of her Nissan Micra, she crashed straight through the wall of the building and came to a halt in the reception area.

Shortly thereafter, she began to reduce the number of her appearances, and was last seen in November 1996, having retired to Spain with Amos.

Her off-screen husband, with whom she had a son, died in 1993, and in her autobiography the following year, Annie’s Song, she revealed that she had also given birth to a daughter, Janet, conceived on her 21st birthday in a non-consensual encounter with a South African pilot and given up for adoption on the insistence of her parents.

She had no wish to go back to TV, she said some time after her last appearance. “I don’t want to act. I watch TV, read and live like an ordinary person,” she said.