Bridget Turner obituary
Actor who brought integrity and superb timing to her roles
Michael Coveney - Tuesday 3 February 2015 13.13 EST
The actor Bridget Turner, who has died aged 75, was particularly associated with the plays of Alan Ayckbourn and had a normal, suburban quality about her that she transformed into comic gold. The producer Michael Codron recalled with special affection in his memoirs one scene in Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings in which she played a tipsy aunt grabbing the very wrong end of a stick to assume that all train drivers were gay.
Because of her apparent neutrality, she was always surprising. In one season with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1996, she played a lubricious Gypsy woman in Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real (with Leslie Phillips, Susannah York and Peter Egan) and the sinister Rat Wife in Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (with Joanne Pearce and Robert Glenister, one sexy, the other an old crone. She was totally unrecognisable in each play.
It felt as if she started each role on a blank page and that she could go almost anywhere: Chekhov and Shakespeare, musical comedy, even Arnold Wesker and Edward Bond; she was an ecstatic Beatie Bryant in the first major Royal Court revival of Roots in 1967, and a village peasant in The Fool, Bond’s disturbing play about the country poet John Clare, in 1975.
Turner was small and dark-haired, compact, possessing great timing, a voice of bell-like clarity and an open-faced integrity – an ideal team player in any company. Although she made several films and many TV appearances – in The Forsyte Saga in 1967 (as Old Jolyon’s maid, Plunket), opposite Alan Dobie in Tolstoy’s Resurrection (1971) and as Mrs Reynolds in Pride and Prejudice (1996) – she neither sought nor achieved household name status. She might have done: John Cleese in a recent interview said that the role of Sybil in Fawlty Towers had first been offered to her, but she turned it down.
She was born in Cleethorpes, North East Lincolnshire, the daughter of Eric Turner, a fish trader on Grimsby docks, and his wife, Phyllis (nee Blanchard). She attended Wintringham grammar school, Grimsby, and went on to train at Rada in London. In 1959 she was in a schools touring production in Wales of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, then gained a foothold in rep at Pitlochry, and at the Belgrade in Coventry in 1962, where she forged a lasting friendship with Ian McKellen, who was also starting out. In a hectic season at the Belgrade she played Nina to McKellen’s Konstantin in The Seagull, Hero to his Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, and Avril Hadfield in David Turner’s Semi-Detached with Leonard Rossiter in the leading part. When that play transferred to the West End and then Broadway (in 1963), she stayed in the cast, although Laurence Olivier replaced Rossiter.
Turner played main roles – Pegeen Mike in The Playboy of the Western World, Juliet opposite Tom Courtenay – with the 69 Theatre Company in Manchester, the forerunner of the Royal Exchange. She also appeared in two musical comedies by the actor Trevor Peacock; one of them, Erb, about early railway trade unionists, played briefly in the West End in 1970.
But it was in the Ayckbourn hits of the early 1970s, produced by Codron, that she made her mark: as a semi-defeated, long-suffering hausfrau in Time and Time Again (Comedy, 1972); as a hapless mis-interpreter of a head-in-oven suicide attempt in Absurd Person Singular (Criterion, 1973); and as Ruth, a myopic, strait-laced businesswoman, in the great trilogy of The Norman Conquests, alongside Courtenay and Michael Gambon (Globe, 1974).
When McKellen, at Trevor Nunn’s invitation, led a small-scale RSC tour around the regions in 1978, she signed up as Olga in Three Sisters and Maria in Twelfth Night. And when Ayckbourn, at Peter Hall’s invitation, formed a company within the National Theatre 10 years later, she appeared in the West End transfer of A Small Family Business (1987) and in Ayckbourn’s production of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. The RSC association was renewed at the Swan theatre, not only in Williams and Ibsen revivals, but also in a superb 1999 Adrian Noble production of TS Eliot’s The Family Reunion, in which she played one of the chattering aunts in a grey, ghost-like production featuring Margaret Tyzack and Greg Hicks as the modern Orestes.
Her last job was in David Tennant’s Doctor Who, a series on which, several decades earlier, her husband, the television director Frank Cox, had picked up his first job; they married in 1977.
She filled her life with friends, walking, making dried flower pictures and, especially, classical music.
Frank survives her.
• Bridget Joanna Turner, actor, born 22 February 1939; died 27 December 2014
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