Betty Driver: Much loved actress who was a star of Coronation Street for 41 years
Monday 17 October 2011
For more than 40 years, "Betty's Hotpot" was the staple diet of those who drank at the Rovers Return in Coronation Street and actress Betty Driver was one of the ITV serial's longest-running stars.
She had, in fact, auditioned for the role of Hilda Ogden in 1964, but someone thinner was wanted and Jean Alexander stepped in to play the pub cleaner, one of the Street's most memorable creations.
Hilda was a gossip and blabbermouth, but barmaid Betty Turpin was very different. The police sergeant's ample wife had good reason to keep her business quiet, for she harboured the secret that her sister Maggie Clegg's son Gordon was, in fact, her own illegitimate child. He had been born in 1946 after Betty's liaison with an old wartime flame, whom she then discovered to be married. Maggie and her husband, Les, adopted Gordon and brought him up as their own.
So it was a blow to Betty when the Hopkins family, after taking over Coronation Street's corner shop from Maggie, discovered the secret, forcing Betty to explain all to Gordon. This came shortly after the shock of her husband Cyril's death from a heart attack.
However, Betty went on to weather many storms and held on to her job despite the brief closure of the Rovers kitchen in 1992, when it failed to meet hygiene standards, and the Duckworths' mistaken belief that they could manage without her when they took over the pub three years later. Betty's happiness at marrying another wartime sweetheart, Billy Williams, was short-lived when he, too, died of a heart attack.
Betty Driver's own life was just as dramatic. Born in Leicester in 1920, Driver was the daughter of a hosiery maker and a talented pianist who never had the chance to turn professional. Before she was two, the family moved to Manchester when her father, Fredrick, joined the police force. A few years later, Driver's theatre-struck mother, Nell, encouraged her to sing in local concerts for the elderly.
Aged nine, Driver joined the Terence Byron Repertory Company, in Longsight, Manchester, appearing in pantomimes and shows such as Daddy Long-legs and The Silver King. A year later, she landed her first professional job, at a theatre in Burnley, then toured Britain in the revue Mixed Bathing (1931).
A small role in the 1934 knockabout film comedy Boots! Boots! turned to disappointment. Driver had a few lines and a big production number in which she sang and tap danced with George Formby, who played a boot boy in a hotel. However, Formby's forceful wife, Beryl, who managed his career and danced in the film, apparently could not bear the idea of a sweet child stealing the limelight and had the scene and Driver's dialogue edited out.
Shortly afterwards, while performing in La Revue d'Amour, at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London, Driver was spotted by Archie Pitt and his agent brother Bert Aza. Aza became her agent and Pitt cast her in the touring production of his hit show Mr Tower of London (1934-36), in the starring role that had been taken in the original by his former wife, Gracie Fields. An eight-month run followed as understudy to Binnie Hale in Charles B Cochran's show Home and Beauty, taking the lead role twice a week.
After seeing Driver in a summer show in 1936, the producer Basil Dean gave her a role in the film Penny Paradise (1938), directed by the great Carol Reed. She followed this by playing Betty Pinbright in Let's Be Famous (1939) and Mary Matthews in Facing the Music (1941).
Driver appeared in no more films, following the "false boom" of British cinema in the 1930s, but her career took a new turn. She teamed up with bandleader Henry Hall and sang in his radio programme Henry Hall's Guest Night on and off (1941-48). During the war, Driver also performed in variety and with ENSA as part of Hall's show. On radio, she took the role of Birdie Nightingale in the situation comedy Radio Boost (1941).
After the war, Driver hosted her own radio show, A Date with Betty (1949), and made an early television appearance in the variety show Rooftop Rendezvous (1950) before landing her own programme, The Betty Driver Show (1952). She also made more than 30 78rpm records, from "Jubilee Baby" (1935) to "I Fall in Love With You Every Day" (1938) and "I Know You're Mine" (1954).
At the age of 32 she married the South African singer Wally Petersen, who left a double act with his brother to join Driver on stage and later became an agent. When Petersen decided to move back to South Africa and set up a theatrical agency, Driver went with him but returned four months later because of his womanising.
It took almost two years to regain her confidence. She appeared on stage at Blackpool's Grand Theatre in Pillar to Post (1960) and What a Racket (1961, alongside Arthur Askey). On television, she played the straight-talking, amorous, blonde canteen manageress, Mrs Edgeley, in Pardon the Expression, the 1965-66 sitcom spin-off from Coronation Street, in which Arthur Lowe recreated the character of Leonard Swindley.
She also had a supporting role in Granada's adaptation of the Depression drama Love on the Dole (1967). However, shortly afterwards she retired after sustaining an injury during Pardon the Expression. While doing a judo throw on Lowe, Driver dislocated her hip and damaged her back. She had to walk with sticks for a while and lost her confidence again. In 1967, with her father and sister, Driver took over a pub, the Cock Hotel, in Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire.
Less than two years later, the Coronation Street producer HV (Harry) Kershaw asked her to play the barmaid Betty Turpin. Driver's sister, Freda, persuaded her to accept and she began her long run in television's most popular programme on 2 June 1969.
The Rovers Hotpot Queen's expressions would range from a supportive smile to a disapproving scowl. "I like the other Betty very much," Driver once said, "and I think she is more motherly than me. On the other hand, I think I probably have a better sense of humour."
The actress was last seen on screen in the serial in May. Her autobiography, Betty, was published in 2000.
Betty Mary Driver, actress and singer: born Leicester 20 May 1920; MBE 2000; married 1952 Wallace Petersen (marriage dissolved 1970); died 15 October 2011.
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