Lynda Bellingham dead: Actress who although she was best known as the Oxo Mum had a much greater comic and dramatic range

 

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Despite typecasting that allowed her fewer chances than she deserved to truly shine as an actress, the nation took Lynda Bellingham to their hearts. When she announced a fortnight ago that she was stopping the chemotherapy she had been undergoing, she could not have been prepared for the overwhelming reaction from the public.

Between 1983 and 1999 her appearances in a multi-award winning series of television advertisements for Oxo (for which she was chosen out of 1,500 hopefuls, and which saw sales of the product rocket) made her the most famous mum in Britain. Commercials hadn't quite gained the cachet they would later possess, though, and although they were skillfully crafted and performed mini-soap operas that prefigured the more contrived Gold Blend love story later in the decade, Bellingham always felt that snobbishness about them blocked her from being offered meatier roles in the theatre.

Still, one could not help but be wooed by the ability to get such depth out of gravy granules. The Oxo Mum reflected social change in Britain, from the demure, subservient housewife played by Mary Holland for 18 years from 1958, to Bellingham's assertive yummy-mummy of the Eighties who represented the traditional family values which that decade clung to while adding a dash of straight-talking – even if she was still tied to the kitchen-sink.

The final and rather touching instalment saw Bellingham standing in the now empty kitchen, the children having flown the nest and the removal men waiting to cart her and her husband away to a new life. It was a schmaltzy end to the saga but an apt one, the ads having been axed because the notion of a family sitting down to eat together was considered outdated.

But at the same time that she was epitomising domestic bliss she was also trapped in an abusive marriage in which she endured 15 years of violence and death threats. Like her cancer, she endured it with indefatigable optimism.

She was born Meredith Lee Hughes in Montreal in 1948 to an unmarried teenager, with whom she was reunited in 1990. At four months she was adopted by an English family, the Bellinghams; her adoptive father was a pilot whose career took the family to Bristol and Limerick. When he took early retirement to run a farm they settled in Buckinghamshire, where she attended the St Louis Convent and Aylesbury High School For Girls.

She shone in school Shakespeare productions and set her heart on a place at Central School of Speech and Drama; when she failed the audition she travelled back to confront the Principal. He gave her a place, feeling that even if talent didn't get generate a career for her, pushiness would. In fact she turned out to be a lively, witty and enthusiastic performer, and after toiling in the holidays as a cleaner at Stoke Mandeville Hospital she launched herself on the critics at her final-year show as Silvia in George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, where she was praised as "delightful, and showing an unusual sense of restrained comedy".

Her cheeky beauty made her a natural for French farce and panto, both of which she did more than her fair share in rep at Crewe and Frinton. Playing the title role of Aristophanes' Lysistrata (Crewe, 1970) "provided full scope for her developing talents. She plays the title role with tremendous verve."

One critic was besotted after seeing her on television in the sketch and stand-up show Tell Tarby (LWT, 1973). "A lady whom I feel will be an enormous future asset to light entertainment and situation comedy is Lynda Bellingham. This girl has a very natural feel for characterisation, enjoys having fun and brings a fresh touch to somewhat overwritten works ... Having seen her give some very nice straight performances recently I feel sure she is one of those lucky people who deserve the best of both worlds in this business".

That cheeky beauty saw her "excellent as the tart" in Norman, Is That You? (Phoenix, 1975). At the same theatre a decade later in Peter Terson's controversial but well-intentioned Strippers she excelled as an unshockable policewoman. In the 10 years in between she had been a busy face on television: she was in General Hospital (1972-73) and was excellent in the intense daytime drama Couples (1976).

She was a villainess in The Sweeney (1975), a role that led to her being cast in the rather alarming first film of the series a year later. Reflecting later that the show was very much a man's world, she felt that "there were two ways to survive as an actress in those days. You could either be very hoity-toity and aloof, or one of the boys, drinking with them and taking it all in your stride".

She was briefly married, unhappily, to the producer Greg Smith, making much-regretted appearances in his Confessions of a Driving Instructor (1976) and Stand Up Virgin Soldiers (1977). Better was her scene-stealing turn alongside Jimmy Jewell in the music hall drama Funny Man (Thames, 1980): "Lynda Bellingham ... can belt out a song to set the chandeliers swinging" praised The Stage. Her work was becoming more prestigious, in dramas such as Andrea Newman's family saga Mackenzie (BBC, 1980), but no sooner had she shed the suggestive roles than along came the Oxo Mum.

She played Helen Herriott in the hugely popular All Creatures Great and Small (BBC, 1988-90), and in a role perhaps derived from the Oxo Mum made five series of the sitcom Second Thoughts (LWT, 1991-94) and three series of its sequel Faith in the Future (1996-98), an above average piece from ITV at the time, which won a British Comedy Award in 1997.

Later stage work included a strong performance beside Maureen Lipman and Janet Suzman in The Sisters Rosensweig (Old Vic, 1994), then playing on her new image courtesy of the daytime chat show Loose Women for a Royal Court number about sex tourism, Sugar Mummies (2006), and heading up a major success in Calendar Girls for four years from 2008. Appearances on Strictly Come Dancing (2009) and hosting lifestyle shows kept her profile high and positive. She died in her husband's arms, having finally found both the happy marriage that had evaded her until she was 60, and the love from the public that lifts someone from being a performer to a star.

Meredith Lee Hughes (Lynda Bellingham), actress, presenter and writer: born Montreal 31 May 1948; married 1975 Greg Smith (marriage dissolved), 1981 Nunzio Peluso (marriage dissolved; two sons), 2008 Michael Pattemore; died London 19 October 2014.

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