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Keith, Penelope (1940-)


Main image of Keith, Penelope (1940-)

Penelope Keith has achieved a careful middle-ground where performance is translated into television terms, hovering somewhere between theatre and cinema. Since making her network television mark as Margo Leadbetter, the socially-conscious next-door-neighbour of Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal in the sitcom The Good Life (BBC, 1975-78), she has brought a spirit of Noël Coward theatre to single-syllable TV sitcom.

Her working background in provincial repertory theatre and two years with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Stratford), as well as bit-part television roles in drama serials such as Emergency-Ward 10 (ITV, 1957-67), provided a variety of roles. Before her meteoric rise to fame in The Good Life, she had played support to Phyllis Calvert in the agony aunt drama Kate (ITV, 1970-72) as an insufferable rich bitch heiress, constantly meddling with journalism and other people's lives.

The Good Life was one of the best-loved sitcoms of its day and made household names of its quartet of players. With many viewers unable to identify with Briers and Kendal's young couple adapting their modern urban skills to the demands of traditional agrarian life, Keith's Margo, the archetype of suburban snobbery, and Paul Eddington's easy-going husband Jerry were able to grab their share of attention.

Along with Kendal, Keith had been signed up for The Good Life after being seen in Alan Ayckbourn's stage hit The Norman Conquests, and when Thames TV adapted the play for a three-part television presentation she was asked to join Briers and Tom Conti in the cast. The 1977 ITV production featured a farcical weekend in a family home with the same story translated from three different viewpoints.

It seemed inevitable that To the Manor Born (BBC, 1979-81) should follow. Written to suit her familiar upper-crust persona, the series cast her as an upper-middle-class widow who, through bankruptcy, is forced to sell her beloved country house. In keeping with the English love of tradition, she refuses to compromise when her fortunes took a downward torn and begins a campaign of polite harassment of the new owner, a mysterious millionaire tradesman (played by the suave Peter Bowles) who starts acting like the squire. Her aristocratic Mrs. Audrey fforbes-Hamilton was a mere step away from the snooty Margo, but she managed to imbue the character with a sympathetic quality that made her snobbery almost endearing.

A more restrained version of the old TV persona was seen in the comedies Moving (ITV, 1985), about the perils of moving house; Executive Stress (ITV, 1986-88), about marital friction in a publishing house; No Job for a Lady (ITV, 1990-92), as a newly-elected Labour MP in a male enclave; and Law and Disorder (ITV, 1994), as a forceful barrister taking on unorthodox cases. Only the six-part Moving, based on a stage play, and No Job for a Lady allowed her to move on from the Margo/fforbes-Hamilton typecast to more realistic performances while retaining the imperturbable dignity that her august presence commands.

Tise Vahimagi

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Thumbnail image of Good Life, The (1975-77)Good Life, The (1975-77)

Much-loved sitcom about a self-sufficient couple in Surbiton

Thumbnail image of To The Manor Born (1979-81)To The Manor Born (1979-81)

Penelope Keith sitcom about an impoverished lady of the manor

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