Gretchen Franklin

Ethel Skinner in 'EastEnders'
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The Independent Online

Playing the kindly busybody Ethel Skinner in the BBC soap opera EastEnders brought the veteran actress Gretchen Franklin stardom in her seventies after a long career in character roles and a missed opportunity when she was unable to take the part of Alf Garnett's wife in the classic sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.

As Ethel, Franklin was frequently seen bickering with her oldest friend, Dot Cotton (played by June Brown), and reserving her greatest love for Willy, the pug-dog that went with her everywhere until its death. She was also notable for her distinctive wigs and tea-cosy hats. The actress said of Ethel:

I think she's popular because she's simple and kind, generous and brave. And she loves little Willy - just as I do. The dogs are my best friends on the show.

Franklin shared some of Ethel's tragic background. The two were both widows and, just as the character had been orphaned during the Second World War when her family were wiped out by a bomb in the Blitz, Franklin - born in Covent Garden in 1911 - was just four when her mother died. Both parents had been in show business, her comedian father having formed a double-act with her mother. She was brought up by her grandmother, who once juggled as she rode horses round circus rings, and went to a convent school, before working in a shop.

Gretchen Franklin started her own stage career as a £2-a-week chorus girl in a Bournemouth pantomime. As a dancer, she worked in vaudeville, cabaret and musical comedy, before becoming a successful West End revue artist in the Sweet and Low series with Hermione Gingold at the Ambassadors Theatre.

After the war, she turned to acting and started in a BBC television comedy revue but was sacked when the producer heard her criticising the show. However, Franklin persisted with her aim and soon established herself on the small screen in programmes such as Insect Play (1950), Portrait of Alison (1955), various plays and the roles of Mrs Heep in David Copperfield (1956) and Mrs Guppy in Bleak House (1959). She appeared as the wife of the veteran radio star Dave Morris in the television sitcom The Artful Dodger (1959).

She also landed small parts in feature films, making her début in the period comedy Trottie True (featuring Jean Kent as a Gaiety girl who marries a lord, 1948) and following it with pictures such as Before I Wake (1955), Ticket to Paradise (1960), Flame in the Streets (a London East End racial drama starring John Mills, 1961) and the Beatles' Help! (1965).

When Johnny Speight created the bigoted, working-class Conservative Party supporter and West Ham United football fan Alf Ramsey (namesake of the England football manager) in Till Death Us Do Part for the BBC's "Comedy Playhouse" slot in 1965, Franklin played his long-suffering wife, Else, whom the ranting Alf called a "silly old moo". The pilot became a successful series the following year, with the family name changing to Garnett. But Franklin was unable to continue in the role of Else because she was acting in Spring and Port Wine on the West End stage and the theatre management would not release her - so she recommended her friend Dandy Nichols.

Although continuing to take character roles in films such as How I Won the War (1967), Twisted Nerve (1968), Night Visitor (1971), The Three Musketeers: The Queen's Diamonds (as D'Artagnan's mother, 1973) and Ragtime (James Cagney's last picture, 1981), Franklin was most frequently cast on television. In between bit-parts in programmes that included Steptoe and Son (1965), Danger Man (1966), Gideon's Way (1967), The Fenn Street Gang (1971), Budgie (1972), Sykes (1972) and I Didn't Know You Cared (1975), she took regular roles in two serials that brought her brief fame. She played Sara Meek in Castle Haven (1969), written by the future Emmerdale creator Kevin Laffan and set in flats in a Yorkshire coastal town, before joining Crossroads (1974) as Myrtle Cavendish, a pensioner who married Wilf Harvey.

On television, she also acted mother to George Baker (in Bowler, 1973) and Yootha Joyce (George and Mildred, 1976, 1978, 1979), mother-in-law to Dick Emery (The Dick Emery Hour, 1980) and aunt to Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp, 1978) and to Thora Hird (In Loving Memory, a 1983 episode). Other roles included Miss Knag in Nicholas Nickleby (1977), a dresser in the television film The One and Only Phyllis Dixey (starring Lesley-Anne Down as Britain's First Lady of Striptease, 1978) and Alice in the sitcom Dead Ernest (1982).

But it was as Ethel Skinner in EastEnders (1985-97, 2000) that Franklin won her greatest fame. As the Camden-born widow, who had worked as a domestic servant for many years and named her beloved dog Willy after her late husband, William, Franklin portrayed a cheerful pensioner who enjoyed banter with her long-time friend Dot Cotton. Appearing from the first episode, on 19 February 1985, Ethel came closest to blows with Dot when there was an eligible man around. In fact, she became engaged to Benny Bloom but broke it off on discovering that she would not be able to take Willy with her to live in his home.

After a hip operation, Ethel moved out of her rent-free flat at Dr Legg's premises to lodge with Dot Cotton because she could no longer cope by herself. Later, she went into sheltered accommodation and the actress appeared in the serial only occasionally. After a three-year break, she returned in 2000, when Ethel announced that she was suffering from terminal cancer. It was a poignant end for one of EastEnders' best-loved characters, who had provided an antidote to the programme's regular doom and gloom, when the frail Ethel persuaded church-going Dot to end her pain by placing morphine pills close enough for her to take a final, lethal dose.

Anthony Hayward