Thursday 26 April 2018

Whatever Happened To…Brenda Cowling

As I blogged the other day, I've been watching a good deal of Perry and Croft's back catalogue of situation comedy gems lately. As well as the tried and trusted Dad's Army I've been getting to know You Rang M'Lord? all over again. That latter hit, set in the 1920s but shown in the early 1990s, have actress Brenda Cowling her biggest and best remembered role. 

As the cook Mrs Blanche Lipton, Brenda Cowling was perfectly cast in that period comedy. Jimmy Perry, who knew Brenda well, was quoted as saying Cowling "looked like a cook, spoke like a cook and walked like a cook." And she did. The ensemble cast for You Rang M'Lord? included many recognisable faces from previous Perry and Croft works - Paul Shane, Su Pollard, Jeffrey Holland, Bill Pertwee, Frank Williams and Michael Knowles to name but a few. After a career spanning forty years, Cowling had at last grabbed a starring role and over the course of four series between 1990 and 1993, was regularly seen by audiences of 12 million viewers.

By the time Brenda had made You Rang M'Lord? she had become something of a staple in Perry and Croft productions. In 1972 she had appeared as Mrs Prentice in the Dad's Army episode "All is Safely Gathered in". She was a WVS member in It Ain't Half Hot Mum in 1981, she played three different roles in Hi-de-Hi between 1984 and 1988 and even turned up as a customer in Are You Being Served? in an episode entitled "The Erotic Dreams of Mrs Slocombe." Moving on… 

The loyalty demonstrated here by Jimmy Perry in particular is not surprising when you learn that Perry and Cowling were at RADA together for two years from 1948 until 1950. The friendship lasted, endured and led to a fruitful working relationship spanning many, many years. Of course Brenda also had a minor Carry On connection, appearing albeit briefly in two series entries. First of all in 1973 she paid homage to the absent Hattie Jacques when she played the hospital Matron in Carry On Girls. Two years later she had an uncredited role as a woman in the audience of Dr Crump's accident prone lecture in Carry On Behind. These appearances were both fleeting, like many in Brenda's long career, however she was always instantly recognisable.

Brenda Rose Cowling was born in Islington, London, on 23 April 1925, pretty much 93 years ago at the time of writing. Brenda was convent educated and on leaving St Monica's in Palmers Green she worked as a secretary to a stockbroker in the city. However the spark of interest in the theatre had been lit and Brenda spent a great deal of her spare time acting with the Intimate Theatre amateur group in Palmers Green. As I've already mentioned, she did go on to attend RADA, winning a scholarship which would see her in the same year as not only Jimmy Perry but also Lionel Jeffries and Warren Mitchell. 

While still at RADA she made her film debut. Although uncredited, it was a momentous event as the film was Stage Fright, directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. Concentrating on repertory theatre in the early days of her career, by the late 1950s Brenda had started to appear more frequently on television and in film. Much like Marianne Stone, while many of her roles were small, Brenda always managed to make an impression as is seen by her impressive CV which boasts nearly 150 screen credits. Fellow RADA classmate Lionel Jeffries remembered Brenda when he was casting his film The Railway Children in 1970. He cast her as the housekeeper Mrs Viney. Soon after Cowling also appeared as Mrs Duffy, the briefly seen mother of main character Eric (Peter Cleall) in the big screen version of the ITV comedy series Please Sir! Other films included Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky in 1977 in which she played Mrs Fishfinger; Pink Floyd's The Wall in 1982 which saw her cast as a Teacher and even a James Bond outing. In 1983 she played a German lady (alongside fellow Carry On alumni Gertan Klauber) in the Roger Moore film Octopussy.

It was really the small screen which suited Brenda best. While known for comedy parts, she did sometimes take roles in straight dramas. In the late 1960s and early 1970s she had two bigger than average assignments. In 1967 she played Miss Perren in The Forsyte Saga and in 1974 she took on the role of landlady Mrs Bunce in The Pallisters. Brenda also appeared in the likes of Follyfoot, Miss Marple (with Joan Hickson), The Famous Five, Romany Jones, The Bill and Casualty. Brenda will also be remembered for playing the bossy hospital sister in the classic Fawlty Towers episode, "The Germans". She also had a regular role in the comedy series Potter, starring as Jane in eighteen episodes between 1979 and 1983. The star of the original series was Arthur Lowe, who was replaced following his death in the early 1980s. 

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Brenda continued to work right up to and into old age. In 2004 alone she amassed seven credits on television including episodes of the daytime soap opera Doctors, the drama Jonathan Creek, Holby City and six episodes of French and Saunders. Sadly Brenda suffered a stroke two years later in 2006 and decided to retire from the acting profession. She moved to the actors' home Denville Hall where she lived until her death, at the age of 85, in 2010. Brenda never married but clearly loved to work, loved acting and was popular with her many co-stars over the years. 

Before I wrote this piece I read Brenda Cowling's obituary in the Guardian. Published on 11 November 2010, the week after her death, there is a lovely follow up to the article from a reader. A letter dated 24 November recalls a meeting with Brenda on a Nile cruise in the early 1990s. According to the author, although Ms Cowling was travelling alone, she proved to be the life and soul of the party every night, sharing stories from her long acting career. "A lovely, kind companion…she was a warm and very jolly person." What a smashing way to be remembered I say. Bless your heart, Brenda.

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1 comment:

  1. In 'You Rang M'Lord?' I always remembered Brenda as the kind and softhearted character who was taken for granted by Mr Stokes (Paul Shane). Then, when Brenda saw through the game of Mr Stokes, she began breaking crockery; an act that would have earned her the sack from by the Meldrum's or a surcharge for the broken crockery. Again, Mr Stokes cashed in to falsely inform her that he had pleaded on her behalf and had paid for the broken crockery whose value was greater than his amount of indebtedness to Brenda. Again, Brenda was sold to that.