Praise Be! It's Thora Hird

Our favourite dame loves Beverly Hills but won't live there. `There's no corner shop. You know what I mean, don't yer luv?' The Lancashire vowels are still raw and, at 87, she is beyond political correctness.

Thora Hird is a DBE, an OBE and a DLitt, and I point out to her that there are more letters after her name than there are in it. But Thora didn't get where she is today - London Television Centre, to be exact, in a sumptuous mink coat - by succumbing to flattery. "Yes I know, luv," she says. "And it's all very nice, but I scrubbed my mother's steps when I was younger, y'know."

Those Lancashire vowels are as raw as ever, even though Thora has lived for nigh on 60 years in a mews off London's Bayswater Road. I have to call her Thora, incidentally. "Hird" or even "Dame Thora" sounds all wrong for a woman, like Delia and Cilla, with whom the nation is on first-name terms.

On the day we meet, Thora has been collected in a posh car and delivered to London Television Centre for a screening of Lost For Words, Deric Longden's tear-jerking autobiographical drama in which she plays the ailing mum of a writer, played by Pete Postlethwaite. There are some saccharine moments, but Lost For Words is a treat all the same, and increasing frailty has not blunted Thora's superb comic timing. "Do you want to be buried, mum, or cremated?" asks Postlethwaite. "Oh I don't know, luv," she says. A tiny pause. It's all in the pause, "Surprise me."

Following the screening, which has reduced her to tears - "fancy crying at yerself pretending" - Thora is wheeled into an adjoining room for our interview. She is at pains to tell me that she is not normally confined to a wheelchair, but is still recovering from a nasty fall. "Do you have a wife, luv?" Er, yes. "Well, she'll tell you that green beans are a bit stringy." A conversation with Thora Hird takes some surreal tangents, but she always gets there in the end. "I was taking the strings off and, when I thought I'd done enough, I turned round a bit quickly, and that's when I fell. I was nearly three weeks in the hospital. They couldn't get the circulation going in my foot. There's a big word for it."

At 87, Thora is beyond political correctness, hence her beloved mink coat and the assumption that de-stringing green beans is women's work. But there is nothing fuddyduddy about her. A week after our encounter, she was back at London Television Centre to appear on This Morning, and found herself in a lift with James Nesbit, one of the stars of the racy relationship drama Cold Feet. Nesbit hung his head while she scolded him about the amount of sex in Cold Feet. "I never miss it, though, luv," she added brightly.

She watches lots of television, and thinks there is far too much sex, but finds it amusing rather than offensive. "Did you see that one about the prossies?" she asks. She means Vice: The Sex Trade, the ITV series in which a woman was seen breast-feeding a grown man. "What made me laugh was when the interviewer called her a prostitute and she said: `One minute, I'm not a prostitute,' as though she was doing something more honourable by putting a nappy on a fella and giving him his supper. `Excuse me, I'm not a prostitute.' Such dignity. I thought: `Dear God, you've offended the prostitutes.'"

Thora chuckles. She loves playing to an audience, even an audience of one, and she has dressed for the occasion. The mink is removed, with some difficulty to reveal a smart black velvet trouser suit. She keeps on her felt hat, which is speared with a huge pearl hat-pin. She is wearing shiny black sandals. Actually, she's a bit of an Imelda Marcos on the quiet, with 89 pairs of shoes. But her feet have swelled up since the fall, and she has to wear the sandals, which she loathes.

Thora takes great pride in her appearance. Her mottled hands are adorned with chunky rings, and she has long, polished fingernails. She is, in fact, quite a glampuss.

This is a little disconcerting, the opposite of spotting Joan Collins in an old kagoule. The screen Thora Hird - as seen in films like All My Loving, and TV sitcoms such as In Loving Memory and Last of the Summer Wine - tends to be a frumpily-dressed creature. Moreover, you don't see women in mink coats chugging up Stannah stairlifts, which she used to advertise on the telly, or presenting Praise Be, which she did for 17 years. And the incongruities don't stop there. Her daughter is the former film starlet Janette Scott, who was once married to the singer Mel Torme and still lives in Beverly Hills. Has she been to Beverly Hills?

"Oh yes. Twenty-four times. It's perfect for a holiday, but there's no corner shop. You know what I mean, luv, don't yer? They're very nice to me there, I must say. When they find out that I've played in the West End they say: `Oh my Gaad.'" She chuckles again. "Once, there was a director who thought of putting me in Bonanza, that show with thingummy [Lorne] Greene. I said: `But my voice is Lancashire.' He said: `That doesn't matter, we could have a cowboy whose mother comes from Lancashire.' What a laugh. From Lancashire."

From Morecambe, to be precise, where Thora Hird was born in May 1911. Her mother was an actress and her father was stage manager of the town's Royalty Theatre. "I first went on stage when I was eight weeks old as the illegitimate child of the village maiden, who was played by my mother," says Thora. I like to say that it was the only part I've ever got through influence."

She had a happy childhood, although the death of her older sister, Olga, killed by a motorbike on Morecambe promenade, cast a long shadow. "She was buried on the day she was six, and my mother never stopped saying to me, even when I grew up: `Don't forget to look both ways.'" Thora sighs. She needs no prodding to talk about Morecambe in the Twenties and Thirties, and recalls the young Eric Bartholomew, who followed her into showbiz and changed his name. He used to quip that he took the name of his home town - Morecambe. Thora laughs at that one. "I knew him long before he became Eric Morecambe," she says. "But we weren't particular friends. He was younger than me: I'm 87, y'know."

Amazingly, she is still in touch with a gaggle of childhood friends, "although I had two less Christmas cards to write this year". Among her classmates were Vera Muff, Madge Peel, Ada Lob and Maudie Poles. "You can't believe names like that, can yer? When I worked with Freddie Frinton on (the Sixties sitcom) Meet The Wife, I could finish him off just by mentioning those names."

At 17, Thora Hird became a cashier at the Lancaster and District Co-op, an unlikely stand-in for Rada, yet the Co-op was effectively her drama school. "I used to look at some of the customers and think, `if I ever take up acting seriously, I'll play her.' I've played nearly all of them now. People say to me: `That woman was so lifelike.' I say: `She is, she lives in Morecambe.'"

In 1931, she joined Morecambe rep, earning pounds 1 a week playing a succession of maids. Her big break was engineered by another Lancastrian, George Formby, who was already a big star when he saw her in a play called As You Are. "He said to me: `Ee you were good, I want the studios to see you.'" Soon afterwards, a white pounds 5 note was delivered to cover her fare to London, and she arrived at Ealing Studios on the day war broke out.

"I got there just as the alert went, and even the man on the gate ran for it, so I followed everyone into the shelter and sat next to a woman from the restaurant who was shelling peas. All I could think was that I'd be late for my appointment. I didn't realise that everyone would be down there."

Like many people of her age, Thora's recollection of events 60-odd years ago is astonishing, even though she can be a little shaky on what happened yesterday. She tells me in extraordinary detail about a wartime incident on the platform of Oxford Circus Tube station, the gist being that an "inebriated" GI asked her how much she charged for sexual favours, and she replied: "I don't know, what do your mother and sister charge?" which made him cry. That anecdote reveals a side to the real Thora Hird that we sometimes see on screen, a sharp tongue and a caustic wit.

Latterly, her most cantankerous characters have been invented by Victoria Wood. She was wonderfully bad-tempered in a fleeting cameo in Wood's BBC1 sitcom, Dinnerladies, and downright nasty in the comedy-drama Pat and Margaret. "I think Victoria Wood is brilliant. Do you remember when that woman in Pat and Margaret found out that her mild-mannered son had had sex in her house? `Not on my eiderdown,' she said. That's one of my favourite lines."

Another favourite line was written, not surprisingly, by her favourite writer, Alan Bennett. "I can't recall the name of the play just now, but I played a woman who had to ask her son what the word `lesbian' meant. `It's women who sleep together, mum,' he said. `Oh,' she said. `Me and your Auntie Phyllis always slept together during the air raids.' That's marvellous, isn't it? Bennett is brilliant. You'd have to be very poor not to do something with his words."

Thora knows, I suspect, that she is selling herself short. Ten years ago, in Bennett's Talking Heads, she gave a remarkably moving performance in Cream Cracker Under The Sofa, and was no less affecting in the best of this year's Talking Heads 2, Waiting For The Telegram.

"He's not a fussy man, Bennett," she says. "When I'd done it, he just put his arm round my shoulders and said: `Oh thank you.' It took me about a fortnight to learn and you have to learn it well because Bennett will tell you if you say `it' and it's `but'. That's what keeps my mind active, learning lines, and that's why I shall go on. But it's harder than it used to be. Jimmy was always on the book, you see."

She means Jimmy Scott, her husband of 56 years, who helped her learn her lines. He died four years ago, following a massive stroke, and Thora's matter-of-fact recollection of the day he collapsed could almost have been scripted by Alan Bennett.

"I've a lot of copper pans in my kitchen and I thought one had fallen on the floor. He'd fallen backwards into the bath and I'm ashamed to say I didn't know it was a stroke. I thought he'd fainted. I phoned my neighbour, Robert Kelly, the American painter of nudes and trees. Brilliant. He's a big man. But he was out. His wife called the ambulance and they took Jimmy to St Mary's Hospital where they're so prompt, I don't think. He was picked up at 25 past nine in the morning, and at 12 o'clock they put him in a ward. But I doubt it would have made a difference.

"The strokes organisations have been so wonderful to me since then, I can't tell you, and I've been helping them raise money. I went to open a new place in Staffordshire, and another in Hull, and while I was having drinks with the Reverend this or that, a man came over and said: `Can I have a word with you, Thora?' We had a conversation and the next day a lady said `Do you remember that man you talked to last night. It was the first time he's spoken for four years'."

Thora shakes her head at the wonder of it all. In Lost For Words, very poignantly, her character has a massive stroke. "I don't mind telling you, luv, that I wept when I read the script," she says. And then she turns to her nurse, who has sat in on the interview. "I think it's time to go, luv," she says. "Will you fetch my mink."

`Lost For Words' is on ITV on 3 January

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