Patsy Byrne: Nursie in 'Blackadder II' who originally made her name on the stage, acclaimed by such critics as Kenneth Tynan


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The Independent Online

Patsy Byrne was the actress best known from her role as Nursie in Blackadder II, the enduringly popular 1980s comedy series, produced by John Lloyd and starring Rowan Atkinson as Lord Blackadder and Miranda Richardson as Queen Elizabeth I. As the dim-witted but kindly nursemaid to the queen she took to making nonsensical observations on life at the court, with impeccable timing and delivery, to hilarious result. She said of the role "I was completely at home right from the start with Nursie – innocent, scatological, and most incredibly stupid with a very warped and weird view on life, and just so sweetly gormless, but a rather loving creature..."

Byrne was born in Ashford, Kent, in 1933 and educated at the Ashford School for Girls. She trained at Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in Sidcup before joining the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, as an actor and assistant stage manager. By 1960 she had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she played a wide variety of roles, including Maria, the lady-in-waiting to Olivia in Twelfth Night, a character known for her wit and practical jokes. Her reputation for humour was already becoming established from these early performances.

Two years later she took the part of the peasant Grusha in Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle at London's Aldwych Theatre. She later recalled of the role, "By the first night I was quite sure I knew Grusha, and I never had to change my mind about her. She is a young and healthy Georgian peasant of great courage, honest and goodness of heart but she is not dull because she is virtuous." He noted how, "The audience also rose to her shrewdness, stubbornness and native wit."

Kenneth Tynan in The Observer said of her performance, "I cannot think of an English actress who could do better. Sentimentality in the playing of downtrodden peasants is endemic on the English stage, and Miss Byrne looks more capable of shedding it than most of her female contemporaries." Her Grusha confirmed Byrne's ability to take on a more serious role, with the simplicity of spirit and gravitas that it required.

As Nursie, the nursemaid to Elizabeth I, she played opposite Miranda Richardson's "Queenie" in Blackadder II. This was the second series of the four-part comedy franchise, which ran from 1983 to 1989, written by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis. An example of a Nursie and Queenie dialogue from Blackadder shows Byrne at her comic best:

"Nursie: You're so clever today you'd better be careful your foot doesn't fall off.

Queenie: Does that happen when you have lots of brilliant ideas, your foot falls off?

Nursie: Certainly does. My brother had this brilliant idea of cutting his toenails with a scythe and his foot fell off."

The Blackadder producer John Lloyd described them as a "fantastic double act" and added, "It's ironic that she will be remembered for that lovable, slightly idiotic person with that ludicrous drawl, but she was a proper actress: with the RSC, she played Chekhov opposite Rex Harrison, was incredibly well-spoken, but she would put up with our little ways."

Remembering the filming of the series, Lloyd said, "The rehearsals on Blackadder were interminable, with us changing our minds all the time, and she was always on top of it and she never complained. We had famous actors walk out of rehearsals because it was such a nightmare and shambles. But with Patsy there was never a peep of complaint." Byrne herself remembered fondly how "For 50 years I had some very interesting and rewarding work... But suddenly and ever since 1986 I became almost a household name..."

From the 1970s to the 1990s she had a number of other character roles, such as Mrs Nubbles in a television adaptation of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop (1979), directed by Julian Amyes, in the sitcom Watching (1987-93) and in Z Cars. She also featured in two specials, Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988) and Blackadder: Back & Forth (2000).

Byrne and Blackadder's Baldrick, Tony Robinson – now Sir Tony – appeared together again in series three of Maid Marian and her Merry Men (1993). Robinson, who created the programme, recalled, "I was so fond of her as a person and so in awe of her capabilities that when I decided I wanted to introduce a mother to Maid Marian, my first choice was Patsy... I was thrilled that she took it. Even though she has done such grand work she came down to Minehead and rolled her sleeves up and was just one of the lads, as she always was, and did a great performance."

Her last television appearance was for an episode of Holby City in 2006. She had been living at Denville Hall, a care home for elderly actors in Northwood.

Robinson said in tribute, "She had unerring skill to make the daftest, silliest thing sound absolutely real and absolutely plausible... I remember seeing her in As You Like It and it was one of those parts where the actress usually goes 'de dum de dum de dum de dum de dum' but the way she said it was so that each word was a revelation to her, and I think that was one of her great comic skills."

Patricia Anne Thirza Byrne, actress: born Ashford, Kent 13 July 1933; married 1967 Patrick Seccombe (died 2000; six stepchildren); died Northwood 17 June 2014.