Mary Wimbush

Hard-working actress best known as a grande dame of radio and Julia Pargetter in 'The Archers'
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The Independent Online

Mary Wimbush was a consummate radio actress. She was powerfully drawn to acting from a very young age, and subsequently appeared in the theatre, in films and on television, but her deepest affection was for the microphone, the studio, and the red light above the producer's glass-fronted box blinking on to denote that the audio-tapes were rolling.

Latterly she had the plum role in BBC Radio's The Archers of Julia Pargetter, the ghastly, snobbish, utterly exasperating and hopelessly politically incorrect arriviste (actress) mother of Nigel Pargetter, heir to the rolling acres of Lower Loxley Hall. It was a part she relished, and played brilliantly for 13 years, although it was not the first time she had ventured into Archers territory, in the mid-1960s playing the village schoolteacher Elsie Catcher, then a few years later another grande dame, Lady Isabel Lander.

Wimbush was born in Berkhamsted in 1924 and educated at the Masonic School, Bushey, before attending the convent school of St Agnes and St Michael, East Grinstead, as a boarder. Her father, Norman Wimbush, was a retired schoolmaster whose terrible facial injuries, suffered in the First World War, had been successfully treated by the pioneer in plastic surgery Sir Harold Gillies. Both he and her mother Ida, who had even been trained at Rada, were stage-struck, but neither had pursued an acting career.

Mary Wimbush attended the Central School of Speech and Drama and on graduating joined Ensa in the latter stages of the Second World War, touring the South Coast - an unnerving experience in 1944 when German "buzz-bombs" were trundling over the coast high above. "You never knew when they were going to cut out and fall on you," she recalled years later.

In 1946 she married the well-known actor Howard Marion-Crawford, a favourite of radio drama producers on both the Home Service and the new Third Programme, although the marriage did not last long. But both the Home and the Third were to become second home to her, especially during the 1950s through to the 1970s, when she was seldom out of the BBC studios. In 1960 - after he had left his second wife, the actress Hedli Anderson - she settled down with the poet and drama producer Louis MacNeice, whose final posthumous volume of poems, The Burning Perch (1963), was dedicated to her.

In the BBC studios, her role-range, like that of all great radio voices, was virtually limitless. She played the heroine in H.L.V. Fletcher's nerve-shredding drama The Storm (1961), with Oscar Quitak, but was also a firm favourite of the light-comedy writer Alan Melville, acting in his frothy At Your Service (a "Songs of Praise" comedy) in 1976. The celebrated drama producer Audrey Cameron used her in at least two excellent Margery Allingham adaptations (by Felix Felton and Susan Ashman), Look to the Lady (1961) and the sinister Black Plumes (1964), with another grande dame of the airwaves, Marjorie Westbury.

During this period she was in the studios with the pick of the BBC Drama Repertory Company actors: David March, Mary O'Farrell, Godfrey Kenton, Rolf Lefebvre, Richard Hurndall, Diana Ollson, Peter Woodthorpe and Patrick Barr. Her love of radio drama extended beyond The Archers, and she never minded a "good long run". As recently as last week, she appeared as a busybody librarian solving with her spinster sister (Doreen Mantle) a murder in the bookstacks in Stephen Sheridan's Murder by the Book - which had the feel of a try-out for an extended series of plays.

On television she again played a wide variety of roles, from P.G. Wodehouse's Aunt Agatha (the battleaxe of all battleaxes) in the 1990-93 Stephen Fry/Hugh Laurie Jeeves and Wooster series to parts in Z-Cars, Casualty, Doctors, Heartbeat, Wycliffe and Midsomer Murders.

In 1969 she was the "universal mother" Mary Smith in Oh! What a Lovely War - "For years all people have heard is my voice," she said at the time. "Now at last they can see what I look like."

Retirement was anathema to her. The part of Elizabeth Archer's mother-in-law Julia Pargetter, sometime woman friend of the raffish Nelson Gabriel and reformed drunk ("She was particularly interesting to play when she was on the bottle"), seemed only to grow in stature. Just this year Mrs Pargetter had remarried, to the amiable architect Lewis Carmichael.

In 2004 she was in repertory at Birmingham in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which then went on tour for two months. She said at the time, "I intend to go on enjoying myself to the last." She died at BBC Birmingham's studios after recording an episode of The Archers.

Jack Adrian

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