Margery Mason: Actress, writer and director who rounded off a wildly varied career with the role of Alice in 'Peak Practice'

The actress Margery Mason was almost 80 when she landed her longest-running role, as the cantankerous pensioner Alice North in Peak Practice, the epitome of feelgood television.

She remained in the cast for its entire 10-year run (1993-2002), outstaying its original triumvirate of GPs, played by Kevin Whately, Amanda Burton and Simon Shepherd, who cared for the community in the fictional Peak District village of Cardale.

She also outstayed many of the production team, as was evident when the scriptwriters admitted Alice to hospital for a gall bladder removal – for the second time. Mason felt no need to alert them to this problem. The actress was clear about the qualities that made the ITV drama series such a hit with viewers. “It’s not violent, it’s lovely countryside and people always want to watch series about doctors,” she told me in 1998.

Mason almost turned down the role on hearing that Alice had only one line in the first episode. “I told my agent, ‘I’m not doing that,’” the actress explained. “She said there was more in the next one, so I carried on, but I certainly didn’t expect it to last for so long. I’m trying to hang on to my original characterisation of her as a really feisty old girl with a fairly soft heart who adds comic elements to the story.”

Performing was in Mason’s blood. She was born in Hackney, east London, where her parents ran a semi-professional theatre company and her father was manager of the Hackney Bioscope cinema. She joined the company at the age of 14 to tour working men’s clubs in the East End of London, before acting in repertory theatres in Macclesfield, Oldham and Worthing. “I was young and fairly good-looking, so I played all the female leads,” Mason recalled.

During the Second World War she performed with the troops entertainment organisation Ensa in the Middle East, Far East and India. Then, she returned to rep, wrote her first of six plays, And Use of Kitchen, about life in a London bedsit, and managed a theatre in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. She was enterprising in starting a repertory company, as its artistic director, at the New Theatre, in Bangor, Co Down, although it lasted little more than a year, unable to attract big enough audiences.

Back in London, Mason acted Ena in Shelagh Delaney’s The Lion in Love at the Royal Court Theatre (1960-61), and in 1972 was a founder-member, with Ian McKellen, Edward Petherbridge, Robin Ellis, Felicity Kendal and others, of the touring Actors’ Company. She later joined the RSC, her roles including Rebecca Nurse in The Crucible (1984, 1985-86) and Emilia in The Winter’s Tale (1984-85), both on tour, and Mme de Rosemonde in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Stratford and London, 1985-86). She also wrote and directed It’s So Hard on the Family, performed by the RSC at The Other Place in Stratford in 1985.

Having acted on television since 1958, Mason first gained good reviews in her role as Judi Dench’s mother in Talking to a Stranger (1966), a quartet of John Hopkins plays each taking a different family member’s viewpoint on the tragic events of one weekend. The final part features the despairing mother’s story, following her suicide. The seminal drama was critically acclaimed, with George Melly regarding it as television “coming of age”.

Mason then enjoyed a prolific career as a TV character actress. Most roles were one-offs, but she played Celia Porter, who had a dangerously obsessive fixation on her son, in the first two series (1970-71) of A Family at War. She also acted Mrs Bigsby in the second series (1973) of the daytime soap Harriet’s Back in Town; the housemaid Susan in in A Question of Guilt (1980), the real-life story of the murderer Mary Blandy; Joan, one of the elderly residents in sheltered accommodation, in the sitcom Never Say Die (1987); and Myrtle Fairley, mother of the hospital consultant (Francesca Annis) having an affair with a surgeon (Robson Green), in Reckless (1997) and Reckless: The Sequel (1998).

During one series of Peak Practice, she was rushing from filming the programme during the day to playing Mrs Higgins in Pygmalion on the Nottingham stage each evening.

In the cinema, Mason was seen as Albert Finney’s housekeeper in Charlie Bubbles (1967), the Ancient Booer in The Princess Bride (1987) and pushing the food trolley on the Hogwarts Express – known to fans as the Trolley Witch – in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). She also had small roles in Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) and Love Actually (2003).

Mason kept fit by learning to scuba-dive at the age of 81 and swimming five times a week until she reached 99. For many years she undertook 150 lengths in the annual BT Swimathon. For almost two decades she was a member of the Communist Party, until resigning in 1968 over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In the 1950s Mason had a five-year marriage to the Bulgarian-Canadian classical violinist and band leader Peter Daminoff that ended in divorce. Her autobiography, Peaks and Troughs or Never Quite Made It but What the Hell?, was published in 2005.

ANTHONY HAYWARD  

Margery Eileen Mason, actress, writer and director: born London 27 September 1913: married 1951 Peter Daminoff (divorced 1956); died London 26 January 2014.

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