Versatile actress in TV comedy
Saturday 05 November 2005
Playing middle- and upper-class women with elegance and sophistication, Jan Holden was most memorable on television as the personnel officer in the department-store melodrama Harpers West One and the magazine editor in the sitcom Agony.
She played Harriet Carr in Harpers West One for its entire, three-year run (1961-63), often seen with a cigarette between her fingers as she pondered the running of her section of the West End department store. The soap-style drama in the series, created by John Whitney and Geoffrey Bellman, switched between management and the sales staff. It was billed as "shopping with the lid off" and promised:
All the life and loves of a big London department store. The characters are real, the carpets are plush, the atmosphere is authentic. Yes, madam, you'll enjoy buying at Harpers - that's our slogan.
The result was a popular series that frequently charted in the weekly Top 20 rated programmes.
Later, she brought laughs as Diana, the editor of Person magazine, with whom the publication's agony columnist, Jane Lucas (played by Maureen Lipman), found it impossible to work. Agony (1979-81) was devised by Len Richmond and the real-life magazine and radio agony aunt Anna Raeburn, with its central, Jewish character besieged on all sides, from her dragon-like editor, her non-Jewish psychiatrist husband, needy mother, virtuous secretary and a mad disc-jockey friend, while getting helpful support only from her two sensitive gay neighbours.
Jan Holden was born Valerie Jeanne Wilkinson in Southport, Lancashire, in 1931, but began her schooling in India, where her father worked at the Swadeshi cotton mills in Cawnpore. She returned to Britain when the Second World War broke out. After leaving Lowther College, Denbighshire, she took a directors' course at the Old Vic Theatre School when her father refused to allow her to act, but she realised her ambition after starting out as an assistant stage manager.
Adopting her mother's maiden name of Holden, she made her stage début in 1066 and All That at the Theatre Royal Windsor in 1950 and continued acting in repertory theatre until she landed her first West End role, as Connie Barnes Ashton in the thriller Speaking of Murder (St Martin's Theatre, 1958). She then showed her versatility by taking the part of Isolde in the stage farce The Tunnel of Love (Apollo Theatre, 1958-59).
She made her film début as a receptionist in the comedy No Smoking (1955), following it with appearances in a couple of pictures every year during a prolific period for British studios. They were largely unremarkable films, but she did have a starring role in the celebrated horror director Terence Fisher's The Stranglers of Bombay (1960).
At the same time, she was in demand on the small screen, taking character roles in many crime series. After her breakthrough in Harpers West One, Holden continued to appear in episodes of classic programmes such as The Avengers (twice, in 1963 and 1965), The Saint (1965 and 1967), The Baron (1967) and Public Eye (1968). More unexciting films followed, too, although she was directed by Peter Hall in Work is a Four-Letter Word (1967) and Philip Saville in The Best House in London (1969).
It was in television comedy that Holden enjoyed her most satisfying later roles. In Casanova '73 (1973), written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, she starred as Carol, the wife of Henry Newhouse (played by Leslie Phillips), but only one of the women in her philandering husband's life. This was an extension of the womanising character that Phillips had played in films over the previous two decades and grew out of a pilot titled The Suit (1969), starring Phillips and Holden.
In Oh Happy Band (1980), Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft's comedy starring Harry Worth as the conductor of a brass band in a northern town and leader of a campaign opposing plans for a new airport, Holden took the regular role of Mrs Draper.
She also appeared on the West End stage in Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's Say Who You Are (as Sarah Lord, Her Majesty's Theatre, 1965), Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves (as Fiona Foster, Lyric Theatre, 1971), the Ben Travers farce Banana Ridge (as Eleanor Pond, Savoy Theatre, 1976), the John Chapman and Anthony Marriott farce Shut Your Eyes and Think of England (Apollo Theatre, 1977) and Bernard Slade's Romantic Comedy (Apollo Theatre, 1983).
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