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Miriam Karlin: Actress and left-wing campaigner best known as the militant shop steward Paddy in 'The Rag Trade'

One of the first actresses to bring a strong female role to television comedy, Miriam Karlin made her name as the stereotypical, "militant" shop steward Paddy in the 1960s sitcom The Rag Trade.

"Everybody out!" was her cry, as Paddy battled with the boss at Fenner Fashions, played by Peter Jones in a suitably long-suffering manner.

The BBC programme was recorded on Sunday evenings, allowing the producer, Dennis Main Wilson to cast many West End stage performers who were usually unavailable on other nights of the week. As a result, Karlin became a star on the basis of this one situation comedy, in which her cohorts included Sheila Hancock, Esma Cannon, Judy Carne, Barbara Windsor, Ann Beach and Toni Palmer.

Almost 30 years later, she returned as a sitcom star in So Haunt Me, playing a ghost. This was appropriate because, she recalled, "Many people think I really am dead, as I hadn't been on television lately."

Born Miriam Samuels in Hampstead, north London, with relatives on her mother's side of the family who died at the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, she was brought up as a traditional Orthodox Jew. Her father, Henry Samuels, was a barrister who wrote books about trade unions. After attending South Hampstead High School and training at Rada during the Second World War, the large, overweight teenager found herself playing character parts – and men. She then performed with the forces entertainment organisation, Ensa, and went into repertory theatre, adopting the surname Karlin professionally.

"I was a fat, Jewish, black-haired monster," she recalled. "I knew I could do it all but no one was interested. You see, I've never been a juvenile and was too young to be a character lady. I was told to bide my time. That forced me into variety and radio work."

On BBC radio, she had supporting roles in It's a Great Life (1948, 1950), featuring the American screen star Bonar Colleano as a bit-part film actor never quite finding fame, and Leave Your Name and Number (1950), in which the Canadian husband and wife Bernard Braden and Barbara Kelly played actors auditioning for the stage in Britain.

Karlin made her television début as Cook in Alice: Some of Her Adventures in Wonderland (1946), adapted by George More O'Ferrall from Clemence Dane's dramatised version and starring Vivian Pickles as the heroine of Lewis Carroll's fantasy. In the same year, she appeared on the London stage for the first time, as Lorene in Time of Your Life (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, 1946), and then played Miss Sharpe in Separate Rooms (Strand Theatre, 1947).

Karlin slimmed down, losing four stone in four weeks, after beingcast as Lina Szczepanowska in Bernard Shaw's Misalliance (Lyric Theatre, 1956), when the director recommended her to a doctor so that she could fit into a pair of trousers. A string of West End roles followed, including Lilly Smith in Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be (Garrick Theatre, 1960), Golde in Fiddler on the Roof (Her Majesty's Theatre, 1967), Madame Dubonnet in The Seagull (Haymarket Theatre, 1975), Arkadina in the same play (Haymarket Theatre, 1976) and Judith Bliss in Hay Fever (Haymarket Theatre, 1976).

Cinema also provided Karlin with plenty of work, in films such as Room at the Top (1958), Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), The Entertainer (1960) and Heavens Above! (1963), but it failed to make her famous.

Television finally brought the actress national celebrity. Although she had starred alongside Sid James in the sitcom East End – West End (1958), set in London's Jewish business community, it was the role of Paddy in The Rag Trade (1961-63) that captured the public's imagination. As the machinist and union representative in a dressmaking workshop, she was frequently embroiled in shop-floor rows with her hapless boss, Mr Fenner (Peter Jones), and Fenner Fashions' foreman, Reg (Reg Varney). Her rallying call, "Everybody out!", became a national catchphrase, and Karlin even starred in a West End stage version (Piccadilly Theatre, 1962).

The BBC series, written by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, came hot on the heels of the British film comedy I'm All Right, Jack, which satirised union-employer relations. Over two years and 35 episodes of The Rag Trade, Fenner was seen running his business in an unscrupulous way while his all-women workforce looked for every opportunity to increase their wage packets by a few pounds.

New-found fame resulted in Karlin being invited to Australia half a dozen times and appearing in The Mavis Bramston Show (1965), that country's version of the satirical British sketch-show series That Was the Week That Was. She also spent a year in Sydney and Melbourne in the revue Is Australia Really Necessary? (1964-65). When The Rag Trade was revived by ITV for a further 22 episodes a decade later (1977-78), Karlin and Jones reprised their original roles.

But there was another long gap before Karlin returned to regular TV work, in the sitcom So Haunt Me (1992-94) as Yetta Feldman, the chicken soup-making ghost of a Jewish woman who had died 20 years earlier and frightened off everyone who came to live in her house. She finally finds friends when the Rokeby family moves in, enjoying the company of Sally (Tessa Peake-Jones) and her son David (Jeremy Green), although Sally's husband Pete (George Costigan), and daughter Tammy (Laura Simmons), are unable to see the sharp-tongued Yetta.

Karlin's other, infrequent television roles included that of the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell in The First Night of Pygmalion (1969), about the Bernard Shaw play that caused a stir because Campbell, as Eliza Doolittle, had to say the line: "Not bloody likely." She also appeared in the television films The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank (1988), Jekyll & Hyde (as the money-mad brothel keeper Mrs Hackett, 1990) and Utz (based on Bruce Chatwin's novel, 1992), and she guest-starred in Holby City (1999), The Bill (2001) and Agatha Christie: Marple (2006).

Her other films included the shocking cult classic A Clockwork Orange (1971), in which she played the Cat Lady, who is bludgeoned to death with one of her phallic sculptures by the gang-leader Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the director Ken Russell's musical biopic Mahler (1974) and The Man Who Cried (2000), about the threat to a Russian Jew (Christina Ricci) in wartime Paris when the Nazis march in.

On stage, Karlin achieved her ambition by performing for a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company (1982) in Stratford-upon-Avon productions of Twin Rivals (with the role of the madame and wife Mrs Mandrake making the most of her comedy talents), The Witch (as the pauper Elizabeth Sawyer, who was tried as a witch) and Money.

Throughout her life, Karlin – who never married – was a fervent campaigner for the oppressed and organisations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Nazi League, and worked tirelessly for the actors' union, Equity.

"I can't imagine being anything but left-wing," she once said. "I was brought up in a home where justice was the most important quality. I'm part of a race that has survived 2,000 years of persecution. I think, if I'd had any ambition at all, I would like to have been the first female British Prime Minister. I would have been a rather lovely English Golda Meir, a benevolent dictator. I am, shall I say, a Utopian socialist. I have an idealistic dream of a wondrous socialist world where there will be a real brotherhood of man. I know it will never happen, but it doesn't hurt to have such belief, and it keeps me going."

Karlin, who never married, was appointed OBE in 1975 for her union and charity work. Her autobiography, Some Sort of Life, was published in 2007.

Miriam Samuels (Miriam Karlin), actress: born London 23 June 1925; OBE 1975; died London 3 June 2011.