Janet Brown: Actress, comedian and impressionist best known for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher

By Martin Childs
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:00

The actress and comedian Janet Brown was best known for her impersonations of Margaret Thatcher during the 1970s and '80s.

At its peak, her portrayal of the former Prime Minister was being viewed by 14 million television viewers. Brown was also a regular on BBC radio's The News Huddlines with Roy Hudd and reprised her role of Thatcher in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

Brown's attention to detail enabled her to capture not only her alter ego's mannerisms and style of dress but also her distinctive manner of speaking. She also wove numerous one-liner Thatcher-style putdowns into her act. This ability earned her the respect of the Iron Lady, who she greatly admired, and the two became friends over the years, meeting occasionally at Downing Street and Chequers. Brown recalled that following Thatcher's re-election to government in 1983, she wrote to Brown, "I half expected to find you at No 10 before me!"

On another occasion, Brown recounted, "I was at Wembley in 1986 for a Conservative Party conference. Afterwards, she came up to me and said, 'I know you could have delivered my speech better than I did, but was it all right?' She was always very sweet to me and she needn't have been. But, then, I used to be quite selective about the scripts I'd do. I was prepared to send her up, but not maliciously."

Brown's son Tyler said, "I remember how she used to say that people responded to her in a different way as soon as she put on her Thatcher wig – it was strangely empowering. Occasionally people would heckle when she played Thatcher, but she joked that being in character gave her an uncanny ability to shoot people down with a razor-sharp comeback. She loved playing Mrs T."

Born in Rutherglen, near Glasgow, in 1923, Janet McLuckie Brown was the daughter of a shipyard worker. She was educated at Rutherglen Academy but left school early, wanting to pursue her dream of working in theatre. She made her stage debut as a teenager at the Savoy Cinema in Glasgow while working briefly in a local branch of the Co-Op. Then, with her father's blessing, she left her home to tour in a show with Hughie Green.

During the Second World War Brown joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the woman's branch of the Army which served mainly on the Home Front. She joined a "Stars in Battledress" entertainment ensemble which provided shows for troops serving in Europe. Among those she worked with were the budding comedians Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd and Harry Secombe.

In 1946, during rehearsals for aJack Hylton revue in Scarborough, Brown met her future husband,the actor Peter Butterworth, best known for his roles in the "Carry On" films. They married the following year, and she later credited him with sharpening her sense of humour. Thecouple worked together on a number of occasions, including on children's television.

Brown made her film debut in Floodtide (1949), a Glasgow shipyard drama, and during the 1950s she appeared in other films while also starting to appear in episodes of popular TV sketch shows such as How Do You View? and The Eric Baker Half-Hour. She went on to work with stars like Terry Thomas, Hancock again, and George Cole. The 1960s saw her appear in the police drama Z-Cars, and she made more regular appearances in The Dick Emery Show and the sitcom Mr Digby Darling, in which she played Joyce alongside Peter Jones and Sheila Hancock.

In 1972, Brown appeared as Annie Hobbs, with her husband Peter as Trevor Lewis, in the film spin-off of the sitcom Bless This House. The same year she got a regular slot on the quick-fire impressions show Who Do You Do?, appearing with the likes of Peter Goodwright, Freddie Starr, Eddie Large and Syd Little (1972-75) and its sequel, Now Who Do You Do? (1976).

Shortly after Thatcher had been elected leader of the Conservative Party, Brown quickly added her to her repertoire. In 1975, it was Eamonn Andrews on Thames Television's Today Show who first asked Brown to try her impersonation. Following Thatcher's 1979 election success, demands for Brown's impersonation snowballed.

She was hired by the BBC to join Britain's leading male impersonator of the time, Mike Yarwood, in Mike Yarwood in Persons (1977-81), where along with the Iron Lady, she gave impressions of Coronation Street's Hilda Ogden and Crossroad's Noele Gordon, as well as Esther Rantzen and Pam Ayres, among others.

In 1981, Brown was given her own show, Janet and Co (1980-82), making an impact with her impersonations of Thatcher, the well-known dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse, the American comedian Joan Rivers and the Greek singer Nana Mouskouri. Brown also found fame overseas: in 1988 she went to Australia, where she performed cabaret and spoke at the Sydney Opera House, as Thatcher, during the country's bicentennial celebrations.

In the last 10 years Brown continued to work in television, appearing as Barbara Bush on The Impressionable Jon Culshaw (2004) as well as in dramatic roles in series such as Doctors (2003), Midsomer Murders (2004), Casualty (2005) and Hotel Babylon (2009). Her final stage role was as Old Lady Squeamish in a West End production of The Country Wife (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 2007). In 1987 she wrote her autobiography, Prime Mimicker, chronicling her childhood and her career as an impressionist.

Brown's husband Peter Butterworth died when he suffered a heart attack following a pantomime in 1979, aged 59; she also experienced the tragic loss of her daughter Emma in 1996, at the age of 34.

Janet McLuckie Brown, actress, comedian and impressionist: born Rutherglen, Lanarkshire 14 December 1923; married 1947 Peter Butterworth (died 1979; one son, and one daughter deceased); died Hove, East Sussex 27 May 2011.

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