OBITUARY:Joan Francis

Click to follow
The Independent Online
During its first decade on British television, Coronation Street created a host of legendary characters remembered affectionately to this day. Alongside them were others who formed the backbone of a serial that revolutionised the small screen and brought into living rooms for the first time the everyday lives of ordinary folk in a Northern back street.

One such actress was Joan Francis, who played Elsie Tanner's best friend Dot Greenhalgh on and off for nine years, providing the Street's sex siren with a shoulder to cry on - and a partner in crime when it came to entertaining visiting GIs.

The story goes that during the Second World War Dot Todd and the married Elsie Tanner welcomed the servicemen at nearby Burtonwood with open arms. When the GIs returned in 1967, Dot - by then married to Walter Greenhalgh - was quick to tell Elsie the good news and the pair resumed their wartime liaisons with the Canadian Gregg Flint and the American Steve Tanner respectively.

Elsie ended up marrying Steve, but Dot's husband threw his wife out on discovering the affair and Elsie took her in. Elsie also found the stylish Dot a job at Miami Modes, the fashion boutique where she worked, until their friendship soured when Dot let Elsie take the blame for her own theft of dresses. Francis's last scenes in the programme were at the end of a dramatic court case, with Elsie being found not guilty through lack of evidence and Dot leaving the Street for good.

Joan Francis had spent much of her previous 40 years in the business before joining the serial, performing in repertory theatre, revue, musical comedy and pantomime. Brought up by theatrical parents, T. Mostoll Willi and Olive (stage name Williams), Francis often took juvenile parts in their productions. When she was 11, her mother retired from the stage and father became a director of Frank Fortescue's Northern repertory company. Francis herself joined that company and another run by Harry Hanson, and acted alongside Pat Phoenix, Doris Speed and Peter Adamson, who went on to play Elsie Tanner, Annie Walker and Len Fairclough in Coronation Street. She was directed on stage by Arthur Leslie and Bernard Youens, later to play Jack Walker and Stan Ogden.

It was while in rep at the Theatre Royal, Oldham, during the Fifties that she met her first husband, the actor Jack Isherwood. Their wedding brought the streets of Oldham to a halt. Another fellow actor from rep days, Gordon Pleasant, recalls: "Wherever she was, she belonged. When we were acting in Blyth, Northumberland, she insisted she was a Geordie, but no one really knew where she was from." For years, she played Cinderella in pantomime for Jack Gillam's company.

After appearing on television in the Granada crime series Shadow Squad, Francis auditioned for the role of Elsie Tanner when Coronation Street was launched in December 1960 but lost out to Pat Phoenix. Like Peter Adamson and others who failed at their first attempt, Francis took another role the following year as the programme established itself.

She acted on and off for 83 episodes until 1969 and was good friends with Phoenix and Adamson - the best man at her second wedding, to the actor Geoffrey Reed, who appeared in Granada's series The Villains.

After the Street, Francis and Reed formed a repertory company on the Isle of Wight and ran pubs together. Her other television appearances included Z-Cars and Softly Softly, and she was in the film Fahrenheit 451 (1966) alongside Julie Christie. In 1968 she appeared on stage in The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, at the Royal Court, London.

When her second marriage broke up, Francis returned to the North and landed the role of Madame Pratt, an eccentric medium, in an episode of The Brothers McGregor. Just as it seemed the door was opening on a revived television career, she was forced to retire through ill-health in 1988. Her sister, the variety actress Iris Sadler, appeared in the Granada Television sitcom Nearest and Dearest.

Anthony Hayward

Joan Frances Willi (Joan Francis), actress: born 1 April 1920; married Jack Isherwood (one son; marriage dissolved), Geoffrey Reed (marriage dissolved); died Manchester 22 November 1995.