Elizabeth Dawn: The actress who found fame as loudmouth Vera Duckworth in Coronation Street

When Dawn talked about her character, it was as if her screen alter ego was real, perhaps a reflection of what she took to the role from her own experience

Anthony Hayward
Thursday 28 September 2017 12:04 BST
The actress and her onscreen husband played by William Tarmey had a troublesome relationship in the soap
The actress and her onscreen husband played by William Tarmey had a troublesome relationship in the soap (ITV)

The blonde curls and foghorn voice of soap opera’s most recognisable loudmouth, Vera Duckworth of Coronation Street, made Elizabeth Dawn a star. Her mouth was once described as “wide and sexy as a glowing steel furnace” and the actress appeared in front of the cameras with no pretensions, bringing her Northern roots to the character of Vera. “I’m nowt but a working-class lass playing myself,” she once said. “I am Vera.”

Dawn’s screen partnership with William Tarmey as Vera’s husband, Jack, was one of the great comedy double acts in Coronation Street’s long history. The couple bickered constantly and Vera even walked out on Jack several times and had affairs, but no one ever believed they would ever part for good – they were made for one another. Jack thought he could get one over on his wife, having a flutter one way or another – with his pigeons or trips to the betting shop – but Vera was always one step ahead.

When Dawn talked about her character, it was as if her screen alter ego was real, perhaps a reflection of what she took to it from real life. Explaining why the marriage survived, Dawn gave Vera’s perspective: “It works because she knows him better than he thinks he does. Any man who thinks he’s the boss has got a very clever wife.”

Dawn was first seen in Coronation Street, minus Tarmey, in 1974, when Vera worked at the Mark Brittain Warehouse, which was replaced by Baldwin’s Casuals, where the troublemaking machinist goaded her shop steward friend, Ivy Tilsley (Lynne Perrie), into union battles with their boss, Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs). Later, she stacked shelves at Bettabuys supermarket.

Dawn was awarded an MBE in 2000
Dawn was awarded an MBE in 2000 (PA)

Tarmey appeared on and off from 1979 and, four years later, Vera and Jack, along with their ne’er-do-well son Terry (Nigel Pivaro), moved into No 9 Coronation Street. Terry gave his parents a lifetime of grief, fathering children by three different women and returning home only when he wanted money. Unlike Jack, Vera continued to look out for her son but finally disowned him on discovering that he had sold her grandson, Tommy, to the boy’s other grandparents.

Unlike Dawn, Vera always had pretensions to grandeur and allowed herself to believe a tale from the man who claimed to be her father. Joss Shackleton (Harold Goodwin) insisted she had royal blood in her veins because his own father was the illegitimate son of Edward VII. Nothing Jack said could dissuade her, even when he pointed out that Joss was of a different blood group from Vera and could not have fathered her.

But it seemed that Vera’s longing for social standing was finally realised when the couple used a £30,000 inheritance from Jack’s brother to buy the Rovers Return and her name went over the pub door. Their business ineptitude and a £17,000 VAT bill eventually led them to accept an offer from Alec Gilroy (Roy Barraclough), the pub’s one-time landlord, to go into partnership, before constant arguments led Jack and Vera to sell him their share of the business.

The couple ran a bed-and-breakfast business for a short time, then re-bought their home in Coronation Street, which was notable for its bar in the living room and the colourful stone cladding outside, of which Vera was proud, even though an estate agent said it had devalued the property. She also renamed No 9 “The Old Rectory”, only to see the sign defaced and amended to “The Old Wreck”. The couple settled back down to their life as it had been and Vera earned money by serving in the café, Roy’s Rolls. They seemed to accept that that was as good as it would get.

In 2005, Dawn revealed that she was suffering from the incurable lung disease emphysema. She battled on in Coronation Street for another three years, until Vera died in her sleep in an armchair, of heart failure. Dawn made one further appearance in the serial, in 2010, when Jack – diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma – imagined Vera’s spirit in front of him and enjoyed a final dance before his own death.

Dawn was born Sylvia Butterfield in Leeds to Albert, a factory engineer and later a miner, and Annie (née Shaw), and grew up in a council flat. On leaving school at 15, she worked in a trouser factory, before taking a job at Woolworths and being sacked. “I gave pensioners two light bulbs for the price of one,” she explained, “but they were that honest they brought ’em back.” She also worked in a shoe shop and as a cinema usherette in the evenings, married Walter Bradley in 1957, aged 18, and had a son, Graham, but the marriage was over within three years and, with a baby to support, she faced living on the breadline. “People who have never been hard-up can’t imagine what poor people go through,” she said. “I had to go to Leeds Town Hall to try to get maintenance money and I thought I’d die of shame.”

After marrying Donald Ibbetson in 1965 and giving birth to three daughters – Dawn, Ann-Marie and Julie – Butterfield sought ways of making money, attended an audition in Leeds and started performing ballads as a club singer at weekends, changing her professional name to Elizabeth Dawn.

When the film director Alan Parker spotted her talent, he cast her as a sympathetic mother in a Cadbury’s television commercial. “There were this little boy under the bed,” she recalled, “and I had to crawl on my hands and knees saying, ‘Come out, love, and have a biscuit.’”

This led Dawn to appear in various television dramas set in the North of England, notably the “Play for Today” productions Kisses at Fifty (Colin Welland’s story about a marriage falling apart in middle-age, 1973), Speech Day (Barry Hines’s school drama, 1973), Leeds United (as a striker in Colin Welland’s account of a real-life industrial dispute at a clothing factory, 1974) and Sunset Across the Bay (as a canteen lady in Alan Bennett’s tale of coming to terms with retirement, 1975), as well as Bennett’s All Day on the Sands (1979).

Alongside roles in Sam (1974), Crown Court (1975), Z Cars (as a beautician, 1978) and the sitcom Selwyn (1978), Dawn appeared in The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (as a waitress, 1974-6), The Larry Grayson Show (as the comedian’s neighbour, Dot, 1977), and Daft as a Brush (a drama directed by Stephen Frears, 1975).

Since 1974, she had also appeared on and off in Coronation Street as Vera Duckworth, complete with curly wig. The role became more regular and, after nine years, she became a full-time cast member, although her real-life marital problems over the next year were difficult to disentangle from her character’s on-screen antics, as newspapers reported the breakdown of the actress’s second marriage, to Don Ibbetson, and their subsequent reconciliation.

During the same period, her characterisation of Vera was paid tribute to by the late impersonator Dustin Gee, who, with his screen and stage partner, Les Dennis, mimicked the moaning Vera and whining Mavis Riley. Dawn’s own on-screen partnership, with William Tarmey, was so successful that the pair even recorded a single together, “I’ll Be With You Soon” (1989). Her youngest daughter, Julie, acted as a child, appearing in All Creatures Great and Small on television.

Dawn’s autobiography, Vera Duckworth – My Story, was published in 1993 and the actress was made an MBE in 2000 for her charity work, after raising thousands of pounds for hospitals around Manchester and Leeds.

Sylvia Ann Butterfield (Elizabeth Dawn), born 8 November 1939, died 25 September 2017

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