Watch out, Surrey: 'Bossy Margot' is going to be your new High Sheriff

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The Independent Online

Margot Leadbetter, that paragon of social climbing, would be green with envy. Even Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton would think it rather super.

Margot Leadbetter, that paragon of social climbing, would be green with envy. Even Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton would think it rather super.

Penelope Keith, the alter ego to both Margot and Audrey, has proved that she really is To the Manor Born by being appointed a High Sheriff by the Queen.

Ms Keith, star of the TV sitcom classic The Good Life, will become the High Sheriff of Surrey, one of only a handful of women to occupy a post that has been in existence since the Norman conquest.

The woman whose portrayal of bossy Margot put Surbiton on the map will be Her Majesty's legal representative in the county, The Independent has learnt.

As a proud member of the OBE and owner of Mousehill Manor, an impressive 17th century pile near Milford, Surrey, the shrievalty authorities have decided that Ms Keith is perfect for her new role.

The appointment, which has been shrouded in secrecy, will not take effect until 2002-03, but the actor will be slowly introduced to the duties of office over the next few months.

Immortalised as heartless tax collectors by the Sheriff of Nottingham, High Sheriffs are appointed for a year to act as the unpaid enforcer of the Queen's writ in each county. They were formerly responsible for the safety of judges within their county and wereliable for the safe custody of prisoners. Today they perform mainly ceremonial duties, but they retain a statutory duty to collect debts and enforce writs on behalf of the courts.

Anyone is eligible as long as they hold land in the county. Peers, clergy, officers in active service, barristers and solicitors cannot hold the office.

Ms Keith was selected by the Queen from a shortlist drawn up by Peter Nutting, who occupied the post of the High Sheriff of Surrey until last April.

The nation's 55 High Sheriffs, traditionally a self-selecting group of upper-middle-class types, have been warned by the Government they are too male, white and rich to be representative of the population.

As one of nine women due to be appointed to the office in three years' time, Ms Keith will therefore be an unlikely champion of Labour's war against the "forces of Conservatism".

In a letter to the Shrievalty Association earlier this year, the Clerk to the Privy Council warned that there was "a very low percentage of women among high sheriffs, even fewer (if any) members of ethnic minorities, and a very limited social range."

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "The Government is determined to ensure they are drawn from a wider range ofsocial and ethnic backgrounds, in particular women. There is still a long way to go but it is moving in the right direction."

There is one duty of the High Sheriff, however, that could see Ms Keith's life imitating her art. In her new post, she would be the legal authority forced to act against anti-road protesters. Tom and Barbara Goode, Britain's original television eco-warriors, would surely be appalled.