Irene Sutcliffe: Veteran actor who worked with Olivier and best remembered for her Coronation Street role

Sutcliffe’s long and varied career took her from playing a scheming socialite to the dowager queen

Street’s ahead: the actor on set as Maggie Clegg in 1968
Street’s ahead: the actor on set as Maggie Clegg in 1968

Perhaps understandably, actor Irene Sutcliffe is best remembered for her role as the much-loved Maggie Clegg on long-running soap Coronation Street. However, Sutcliffe, who has died aged 88, also had a distinguished stage and film career, which encompassed appearances at the National Theatre, a year in The Mousetrap and even a small role as the waitress in Withnail and I.

Sutcliffe was born in Burnley, Lancashire, where her father, Fred, was an ironmonger. As a young woman she studied at Lamda – the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Upon graduating, she toured with the Bristol Old Vic Company and did a season at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Her stage work with Laurence Olivier led to a small part in his film version of Richard III.

Sutcliffe’s West End debut came in 1952, as socialite “Polly Seedy-Stockings” in George Bernard Shaw’s 1936 play The Millionairess. She starred, alongside Katharine Hepburn, for a 10-week run at the New Theatre. Sutcliffe’s television career began a year later, when she starred as Desdemona in an episode of Sunday Night Theatre called Will Shakespeare.

She was subsequently cast in many of the most popular shows of the Fifties and Sixties, including Dixon of Dock Green and Emergency – Ward 10.

Sutcliffe joined the Coronation Street team in 1968. Her character, Maggie Clegg, ran the street’s corner shop. As the long-suffering wife of alcoholic Les Clegg (played by John Sharp) and mother to an adopted son, whose birth mother was in fact her sister Betty Turpin, Maggie had various compelling storylines.

During her seven years on “the street”, her character divorced Les, married for a second time and finally emigrated to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), leaving the soap in 1975. According to a few lines slipped into the Coronation Street script in 2003, Clegg was still in the DRC nearly 30 years later, having presumably survived the region’s civil wars unscathed.

Sutcliffe, right, with John Sharp as Les Clegg and Doris Speed as Annie Walker

After Coronation Street, Sutcliffe continued to win television roles, notably appearing in All Creatures Great and Small, Doc Martin and Morse. However she preferred to be on stage, treading the boards in some of Britain’s greatest theatres. In 1975, she appeared in Equus at the Bristol Old Vic.

At the Sheffield Crucible in 1979 she played Lady Rumpers in a version of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus directed by Mel Smith. A few years later, she appeared at the National Theatre in George S Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You. She made her final West End appearance in 2000 at the Vaudeville Theatre, in Margaret Edson’s Wit.

Described by The Stage as “a private woman, giving a somewhat austere initial impression,” Sutcliffe nonetheless had a solid circle of friends with whom she enjoyed playing bridge during her short retirement. A long-time committee member of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, Sutcliffe herself continued to work well into her eighties. In 2015 she made her last television appearance in The Royals, Elizabeth Hurley’s American soap opera, playing “The King’s Mother”. It marked the end of a long and varied career that had taken her from playing a scheming socialite to the dowager queen.

Irene Sutcliffe, actor, born 12 July 1930, died 3 May 2019

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