Daphne Oxenford: Actress who was the voice of 'Listen With Mother' for over two decades

 

Two generations of children who grew up on the BBC radio programme Listen with Mother will for ever remember the opening words: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then, I'll begin." For 21 years from its inception (1950-71), Daphne Oxenford was one of those most notable for delivering the line and reading stories in a 15-minute show also featuring songs and nursery rhymes. The others included Julia Lang and Dorothy Smith, and pre-school listeners and their mothers were hailed to hear their welcome by the equally memorable theme tune, the Berceuse from Fauré's Dolly Suite. Listen with Mother finally ended in 1982.

In the middle of her run, Oxenford also became one of the original Coronation Street cast members. From Episode 2 of the Manchester-based soap opera, in December 1960, she played the quiet, intellectual spinster Esther Hayes. The character's humdrum life received an unwelcome pep-up when her conman brother Tom came to live with her on his release from prison. He tried to entice her neighbours with his scams, which drove Esther to the verge of a nervous breakdown. He left after a month and she told him never to return. Esther herself moved to Scotland in 1963 but reappeared as a guest at Emily and Ernest Bishop's wedding in 1972.

Oxenford never entirely fitted into Coronation Street. She landed the role of Esther after being turned down for that of the Rovers Return landlady Annie Walker. A Londoner, she was the only cast member in the early days not to speak in a Northern accent, which the soap's creator, Tony Warren, later lamented.

The actress herself recalled: "My agent called and said Granada wanted to see me for this new series, and I said don't be silly, I couldn't do a Manchester accent. No, she said, they're seeing everybody who lives round about. [After being cast as Esther] they said, 'Don't worry, Esther is better educated than some other people, so we can get away with it like that.'"

Oxenford had moved to Altrincham, Cheshire, following her marriage to a chartered accountant, David Marshall, in 1951, although she commuted to London once a week to record Listen with Mother. When Granada Television became ITV's north of England weekday franchise-holder five years later, she immediately found work as one of those reading clips, out of vision, in the press review programme What the Papers Say, and continued until 1982. She was able to vary her voice from sombre to serious to reflect the often comic and irreverent tone of the programme, drawing on her grounding in stage revues.

Oxenford was born in Barnet, north London, in 1919. Her father, Dudley, was a chartered accountant and her mother, Florence Marie du Grivel Jandot, a writer of historical fiction. She appeared on the stage from the age of 13, then trained at the Embassy School of Acting (now the Central School of Speech and Drama).

After performing in revues while working in a bank by day, Oxenford joined Ensa to entertain British troops in England and Germany at the end of the Second World War. She made her West End début in the Laurier Lister revue Tuppence Coloured (Globe Theatre, 1947), alongside Joyce Grenfell. She was taken on after auditioning with a sketch she had written herself and became lifelong friends with the star. She then appeared in another Lister revue, Oranges and Lemons (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, 1949).

After marrying and moving north, she found work at BBC radio in Manchester and frequently acted at the city's Library Theatre, cast in roles such as the games mistress, Miss Gossage, in The Happiest Days of Your Life (previously played by Joyce Grenfell in the film version). She took mainly television jobs after starting a family. Having made her début in Oranges and Lemons (1949) and appeared in the BBC serial Family Affairs (1949-50), Oxenford was in Granada programmes such as Skyport (1960) and The Odd Man (1960) before joining Coronation Street. She also appeared in the 1956 BBC sketch series Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure.

Later, as an established character actress travelling the country again, she popped up regularly in both comedies and dramas, from The Dustbinmen (1970), Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (1973) and Never the Twain (1982) to The Sweeney (1976), Hetty Wainthropp Investigates (1997) and Heartbeat (2005). There were longer sitcom runs as Paula Wilcox's mother in Man About the House (1973, 1975, 1976), the village shop-owner Mrs Patterson in To the Manor Born (1979-81), Miss Denham, Anton Rodgers' secretary, in Fresh Fields (1984-86) and Evelyn Spurling in Land of Hope and Gloria (1992).

Oxenford also played the mother in the original screen production of John Mortimer's autobiographical play A Voyage Round My Father (1969), the aristocratic dog owner Mrs Pumphrey in the TV film All Creatures Great and Small (1975) and the Queen Mother in the American TV movie Prince William (2002). Among her rare film appearances was the role of Jenny Agutter's mother in Sweet William (1980).

On radio, Oxenford was in the regular company that performed in Les Dawson – Man of Fiction (1970) and the long-running Listen to Les. She also appeared in the stand-up comedian's television shows The Dawson Watch (1979) and Les Dawson on Christmas (1980). Her West End stage roles included Violet in a revival of TS Eliot's The Family Reunion (Vaudeville Theatre, 1979) and Pauline Collins' mother in Shades (Albery Theatre, 1992).

In 2001, Oxenford and her husband moved to Essex, where they lived until his death two years later. The actress spent her final years at Denville Hall, the actors' retirement home in Middlesex. She was last seen on television as Muriel, John Nettles's mother-in-law, in Midsomer Murders (2004, 2006, 2008). Her elder daughter, Sophie Marshall, was casting director at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre for 20 years.

Anthony Hayward

Daphne Margaret du Grivel Oxenford, actress: born London 31 October 1919; married 1951 David Marshall (died 2003; two daughters); died Northwood, Middlesex 21 December 2012.

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