Sunday, 10 January 2016

Whatever Happened To ... Betty Marsden?

Betty Marsden is both an instantly recognisable face and voice to a certain generation of the British public as well as to fans of classic comedy. She rose to fame in the late 1950s as the star of two very popular BBC radio comedy shows - first of all Beyond Our Ken in 1958 and then the follow up series, Round The Horne from 1965 until 1968. 

Such was the popularity of these shows that it is easy to forget that Betty Marsden had a successful career away from the radio microphone. She was undoubtedly a gifted comedienne. She stood her ground against the combined forces of Kenneth Williams and High Paddick to create some wonderful characters in these shows at a time when female performers weren't well represented at all. Who can forget her characters which included Dame Celia Molestrangler, Daphne Whitethigh and Buttercup Gruntfuttock? 

Away from the radio shows, Betty did of course appear in two Carry On films. Her first appearance, as the Mata Hari character in 1961's Carry On Regardless is a fairly brief yet memorable cameo. She stars opposite Kenneth Connor and yet again demonstrates her wonderful vocal abilities, not to mention giving poor Ken a good slap across the chops! Betty returned to Pinewood at the end of the 1960s for another romp with the gang. This time she got a starring role opposite Terry Scott in Carry On Camping. As Harriet Potter, she will forever be remembered for her tandem riding and hyenah-like laugh. Harriet was a truly dreadful character although eventually she did see the light. Betty's scenes in the tent with Terry and Charles Hawtrey were hilarious and must have demanded a certain resilience! 

Sadly Betty didn't return for any further Carry On adventures, so what else did she get up to in her long career?

Betty Marsden was born in Liverpool in February 1919. Sadly the young Betty spent much of her childhood living in near poverty in Somerset before her acting talent was spotted by her music teacher, who eventually became her guardian. Betty trained at the Italia Conti Stage School in London before touring with ENSA during the Second World War. 

Betty made her West End debut in 1935, appearing in the play Closing At Sunrise at the Royalty Theatre. This would begin a long stage career for Marsden, who went on to star in a vast number of plays including twelve years of intimate reviews, starting at the Irving Club and including such hits as After The Show, Airs On A Shoestring and From Here and There. In 1958 she co-starred with colleague Kenneth Williams in the pantomime Cinderella at the London Coliseum. Betty played the Fairy Godmother opposite Tommy Steele, Yana and Jimmy Edwards.

Other theatre work included productions of What The Butler Saw by Joe Orton and On The Brighter Side, starring Stanley Baxter. Betty was due to appear in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Jeeves in 1975, however her character was cut before the opening night. The resulting production was a notorious flop. In 1964, Betty also starred in a comedy play called Everybody Loves Opal which also featured Liz Fraser and Warren Mitchell. Sadly the reviews were awful and the play closed after just four days!

Betty also enjoyed a long career in film. She appeared in films such as Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956);  The Boys (1962); The Wild Affair (1963); The Leather Boys (1964); The Best House In London (1969); Eyewitness (1970); Britannia Hospital (1982) and The Dresser (1983). On television, Betty turned up in all manner of productions. Her first role on the small screen came way back in 1937 in a play called The Rat - she was credited as Beatrice Marsden.

Later roles included parts in The Pickwick Papers (1952); Mostly Maynard (1957); Before The Fringe (1967); Callan (1969); Doctor in Charge (1973); Blakes 7 (1981); French and Saunders (1987); Inspector Morse (1990); The Darling Buds of May (1992) and Maigret (1993). Betty's last screen acting credit saw her teamed up with her old Carry On Regardless co-star Kenneth Connor for an episode of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett. The episode was broadcast in 1994, Kenneth having sadly passed away in the November of the previous year. 

As a postscript, there is another Carry On connection with Betty. When she decided to leave Round The Horne at the end of 1968, Kenneth's Carry On co-star Joan Sims was drafted in as a replacement. Sadly, Kenneth Horne, who held all these shows together with a masterful  sense of calm, died suddenly in early 1969 and plans for the new series were scrapped. Such a shame Joan never got the chance to join that wonderful team. Joan did team up with Kenneth Williams for a follow up show, Stop Messing About, later in 1969 however this series lacked the magic of Round The Horne and just isn't as funny despite starring two of my very favourite comedy actors.

Betty Marsden was married to an army doctor from Edinburgh, Jimmy Wilson Muggoch, for over three decades. Together they had two children. Muggoch sadly passed away in 1975. Betty continued to act right up until her death. She had moved to the actors' home, Denville Hall in the Spring of 1998. She died at the bar in July of that year, at the age of 79. She had been suffering from heart problems. 

Dilys Laye recounted a story about Betty during the recording of an audio commentary for Carry On Camping. Apparently Betty had always claimed to want to "die with a gin in my hand". I think she probably just about managed that. 

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  1. I'm watching Betty in Carry On Camping right now. She was definitely a talented comic actor. I've seen this film a couple of times before, but her performance is one of the reasons why I wanted to watch it again.

    1. She was a really talented comedy actor I agree. And fantastic in Camping :)

  2. Betty was my grandmother. Thank you for such a wonderful and detailed post about her.

    1. Hello Gemma, thank you so much for getting in touch. I'm glad you liked the blog about Betty. If you would like to talk to me about Betty, my email address is

      Would be lovely to hear from you,

  3. She's just amazing on Beyond Our Ken and Round The Horne. I'm in my twenties and was introduced to those shows thanks to my dad. I hope the BBC brings these shows back to Radio 4 extra.

  4. Dragon Box they do repeat the Round the Horne series on Radio 4 extra every so often. I love it so much I have bought a couple of the albums on Audible. Betty is a pioneer of late 20th century women's comedy as she is far more than a background artist and equal to her male co-stars.

    1. If I get Audible, can I download the episodes to hear offline, or is it only streaming?

    2. Audible you can download to keep offline, yes