Anna Wing: Actress who made her name at 70 as the prickly EastEnders matriarch Lou Beale


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The Independent Online

It took Anna Wing a lifetime of character roles and bit-parts to become a television star at the age of 70. So keen was she to play EastEnders' grumpy matriarch Lou Beale that she arrived for her audition clutching the birth certificate proving her to be a true East Ender, a photograph of her grandmother and a family album. "All my life, I've been an actress," she told the producers. "Now I want to be a household name."

As one of the BBC soap opera's original characters in 1985, Lou was the widowed battleaxe who interfered in the lives of her grown-up twins, Pete Beale and Pauline Fowler. Her elder son, Kenny, had emigrated to New Zealand, although he made a brief return in 1988.

Wing made Lou the archetypal harridan, constantly moaning at her son-in-law, Arthur Fowler, for failing to find work and, when Pauline told her that she was pregnant with her third child in her forties, telling her daughter: "Get rid of the kid or I get rid of you."

However, Lou also showed a compassionate side when her schoolgirl granddaughter, Michelle Fowler, fell pregnant, Arthur suffered a nervous breakdown and Pete ran into trouble with the police – who mistakenly thought he was responsible for his ex-wife, Pat Wicks, being beaten up.

Wing's own background was just as hard as that endured by her character. Born in Well Street, Hackney, in 1914, she was the daughter of grocers who owned half a shop selling fruit and vegetables while the other half sold fish. Living above the premises and experiencing poverty during her early years, Wing survived double pneumonia and pleurisy at the age of six and left school when she was 12 to work in the shop.

After training as a teacher, she spent several years working with deprived children in London's East End, but longed to act, having been inspired by a visit to see John Gielgud on stage at the Old Vic Theatre when she was 11.

She was able to accept a place at the Croydon School of Acting after an anonymous benefactor offered to pay the fees through money deposited annually into a Post Office account.

Wing then acted in repertory theatre, making her début at the age of 22 and earning 30 shillings (£1.50) a week as a 40-year-old maid in the J M Barrie play Mary Rose. In between jobs, she made money by nude modelling at London art schools. "At one, there were no curtains," she recalled. "The men who worked at the garage opposite got a free show."

Her first screen role, uncredited, was a part in a crowd scene in Hyacinth Halvey (1938), in the early days of the BBC's television service. By the 1960s, she was regularly seen as a character actress, playing Mrs Crabtree in the film Billy Liar (1963) and taking bit-parts in the BBC Wednesday Plays And Did Those Feet? (written by David Mercer, 1965) and Up the Junction (by Nell Dunn, 1965).

Wing also had small roles in other television plays and series, including The Naked Civil Servant (Philip Mackie's dramatisation of the homosexual Quentin Crisp's autobiography, 1975) and the BBC's 1977 adaptation of Anna Karenina (as Agafea).

Typical of her screen credits were "Woman at Westbourne Terrace" in the television mini-series Smiley's People (1982) and "Woman at Poetry Reading" in the film The Ploughman's Lunch (1983).

So EastEnders (1985-88), set in the streets she knew so well and launched as the BBC's first serious rival to Coronation Street, presented Wing with the opportunity to gain national fame. She took the risk of turning down an offer to appear in the stage version of Sue Townsend's novel The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 in the hope of landing the role of Lou Beale. At her audition, she overacted at first but, as her nerves calmed, showed the characteristics that made her ideal for the part.

Lou had lived at 45 Albert Square since before the Second World War and had brought up three children alone following the death of her market stall trader husband, Albert. Her many dislikes included blacks, Asians, juke-boxes, "new-fangled" food and other people's children – but she enjoyed regaling anyone who would listen with memories of the Blitz.

For three years, Wing threw herself into the character, but, in 1988, she asked to leave the serial. As a result, Lou died in her sleep from a long-term heart condition. "The show was killing me," said the actress. "I was getting fatter and slower every day – I'd put on two stone since the show started. And the bitchy backstage atmosphere was really getting me down."

Wing subsequently played Gran in a one-off remake of the 1950s serial The Grove Family (1991), alongside other former EastEnders, Coronation Street and Brookside stars in a special to mark the closure of the BBC's Lime Grove studios, after which the soap was named.

She also guest-starred in Bonjour la Classe (1993), French and Saunders (1994), Men of the World (1995), Casualty (1996, 2000), The Detectives (1997), Real Women (1998) and Mike and Angelo (1998), and took the role of the stand-up comedian Jo Brand's mother in Jo Brand Through the Cakehole (1996). Her last television appearance was in Silent Witness (2007). Wing also acted in the films Tooth (2004, as the Ancient Fairy) and The Calcium Kid (2004, alongside Orlando Bloom).

On stage, she played Mother in It Runs in the Family (Playhouse Theatre, 1993) and Miss Clarence in Blue Heart (Duke of York's Theatre and national tour, 1997).

Wing was married to the actor Peter Davey, with whom she had a son, Mark Wing-Davey, an actor-director. She subsequently had a seven-year relationship with the poet Philip O'Connor, during which she gave birth to another son, Jon Wing O'Connor, who became a headteacher.

Anthony Hayward

Anna Eva Lydia Catherine Wing, actress: born London 30 October 1914; MBE 2009; married 1947 Peter Davey (marriage dissolved; one son); one son with Philip O'Connor; died 7 July 2013.