Dame Beryl Bainbridge: Novelist whose work began rooted in autobiography and which later developed to encompass historical subjects

In her Who's Who entry Dame Beryl Bainbridge described herself as "actress, writer," a curious order of listing for someone who won so much acclaim as a novelist.

She had been in rep in the late 1950s and early '60s, and appeared as the leftish, ban-the-bomb girlfriend of Ken Barlow in Coronation Street, having started her acting career in the BBC's "Children's Hour" in Manchester, where her co-stars included Billie Whitelaw and Tony Warren, the creator of Coronation Street. She also wrote a good deal of journalism, and was a valued theatre critic for The Oldie. Her good friend Michael Holroyd says, "A really original voice, Beryl was a genuinely serious comic writer, all of whose books end in tragedy."

Her novels fall into two distinct categories. Before the 1990s she drew chiefly on what Holroyd calls "her autobiographical capital," novels she herself said were written in order "to make sense of my upbringing... to discover what was going on in my family." The subjects were her Liverpool childhood, her time on the stage and her life in the scruffier parts of Camden Town. The emblematic title from this period was her 1974 The Bottle Factory Outing, where a murder happens during the staff outing. It was autobiographical: Dame Beryl had indeed worked on a bottle-labelling line and her mother-in-law, she told Nicholas Wroe in 2002, really "did fire a shotgun at her, blasting holes in the wall." She began to win prizes, culminating in 2003 in the seriously rich biennial David Cohen prize for literature, but never the Booker, for which she was short-listed five times.

Once she'd used up this "capital," she turned to history, writing about Scott of the Antarctic, the Titanic, the Crimean War and Dr Johnson. She wrote eighteen novels; the later ones sold better than the earlier ones, and she began to be financially comfortable. Her acting skills were now used solely on the literary festival circuit, where her readings from her own books were cherished by festival director. She didn't cut herself odd from drama, though, as in the '70s and '80s she wrote half a dozen TV and stage plays.

Beryl Bainbridge was born in 1934 in Liverpool into a family in tense circumstances, owing to the discrepancy between her mother, Winifred Baines, who had been sent to a finishing school in Belgium, and her mercurial, often bad-tempered father, Richard Bainbridge, a self-made man who had left school at the age of 10 and was bankrupt by the time his daughter was born. There was, somehow, still a bit of money about, and the family lived in genteel Formby with its collection of golf clubs. Her father, "who did sums on the back of a brown envelope and whose office was the Kardomah Café," had put some of the money in Beryl's name, and she remembered as a child signing cheques. She and her brother Ian were sent to fee-paying schools (hers the Merchant Taylors' School, Liverpool) and when she was expelled, aged 14, from her day-school, for an incident that involved a copied-out rude limerick, she was sent to board at the Cone-Ripman stage school in the Rothschild mansion at Tring.

At school she was good at history, English and art (she continued to paint all her life and made a painting to mark each of her books); but she was known as "Basher" Bainbridge, as she got into a lot of fights. "I wasn't undisciplined," she told Wroe, "but I think I was pretty outspoken and my mother very sensibly realised that I was a show-off. But I had to be, with the circumstances at home – that's how I kept the peace. So because of this she got me into "Children's Hour."

She got involved with a Communist family and joined the Young Communist League, which her left-wing father tolerated until, at a Paul Robeson concert, "I got hit on my shoulder by mistake with a police truncheon." She was a founder member of Charter 88, supported Ken Livingstone for Mayor of London and was a life-long Labour voter, though in 2002 she said, "I do find most politics a bit ridiculous now."

After a year at Tring she acted in rep in Liverpool (the subject of An Awfully Big Adventure, 1989) and Dundee and was seldom out of work for the next six years. In Dundee she showed that she was a natural actress, didn't need much rehearsal, and began to cultivate her bohemian side, wearing an old Burberry coat. She also became a Catholic. "I tried to be Jewish first" she told Wroe, "but they wouldn't have me." Though influenced by Greene and Waugh, she became disaffected when "the whole church went bananas and you could do what you liked... I wanted hell fire and all that. I occasionally still go to mass and I like the ritual, but I have read so many medical and scientific books that the idea of God in the bright blue sky is now difficult."

The summer she left Tring, Bainbridge fell in love with a German POW awaiting repatriation. They corresponded for several years and tried to get permission for him to return to England so they could marry, but finally gave up in 1953. Then Bainbridge met Austen ("Aussie") Davies, an artist working as a stage painter when they married in 1954, and they had a son, Aaron (born in 1957) and daughter, Joanna (1958), before the marriage broke up and Aussie left, eventually remarrying and living in New Zealand.

She moved with the children to London, had a second daughter, Rudi, in 1965 with the writer, Alan Sharp, though Davies paid the rent on Beryl's Hampstead flat. Indeed, Davies moved the family to (and himself lived in the basement of) Bainbridge's famous Camden Town house, with its stuffed water buffalo in the hall, absence of an identifiable kitchen, collections of plaster saints everywhere, along with weepy Victorian prints and her own paintings, which Lynn Barber found "surprisingly good."

Karl Miller discovered Bainbridge and really launched her career in an article in the New York Review of Books in 1974, where he reviewed Harriet Said, A Weekend with Claud, Another Part of the Wood and The Dressmaker, saying "Beryl Bainbridge is possibly the least known of the contemporary English novelists who are worth knowing."

For many year's Bainbridge's work was edited at Duckworth by Anna Haycraft, better known as the writer Alice Thomas Ellis, whose regular Spectator column often featured her deeply eccentric, chain-smoking, hard-drinking mate, Beryl. (Though in fact, Bainbridge was always so thin that very little alcohol was required to make her very jolly.) Duckworth belonged to Haycraft's husband, Colin, who gave Bainbridge what Holroyd described as a "disadvantageous, sort of reverse contract – where most writers would get an increased royalty after selling, say, 3,000 copies, Beryl's percentage would reduce as the book sold more copies." They were none the less very close, and at one point Bainbridge worked for Duckworth in a non-editorial role.

She became better known when she started writing her "historical" novels, and in 1983 was the obvious choice to make a TV series repeating JB Priestley's 1933 journey around England 50 years on. She also wrote and directed a highly-praised BBC2 Arena documentary about Dr Johnson in 2001, by which time, laden with other honours and prizes, she had become Dame Beryl. For the year following her 71st birthday in November 2005, her grandson Charlie Russell made a biographical documentary, Beryl's Last Year (broadcast June 2007 on BBC4) because she was convinced that, like both her parents and nine other relatives, she would die aged 71. She was wrong, and lived to 75, surrounded by grandchildren, but succumbing to a recurrence of cancer.

Beryl Margaret Bainbridge, writer and actress: born Liverpool 21 November 1934; Merchant Taylors' School, Liverpool, Cone-Ripman School, Tring; married 1954 Austen Davies (divorced; one son, one daughter), one daughter with Alan Sharp; Hon Litt.D (Liverpool) 1986, DBE 2000, FRSL; died London 1 July 2010.

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