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Jan 28 / Simon

Pauline Yates

Actor who played the wife of Reggie Perrin in the hit TV comedy
The Guardian, 27/1/2015
The gentle good nature of the BBC’s anarchic 70s comedy The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin that made it such a hit owed much to the innocent yet tacitly conspiratorial support of Leonard Rossiter’s wife Elizabeth played by Pauline Yates, who has died aged 85. She was a spirit of domestic calm in the mayhem created by David Nobbs’s other characters, led by Rossiter as the erratic Reggie Perrin, whose bizarre behavior she treated as normal and beyond explanation.

The show ran for three series between 1976 and 1979, in the course of which Elizabeth became almost as serenely batty as Reggie. Practically a non-drinker, Yates needed a large gin-and-tonic at the end of each recording.

But with her husband Donald Churchill she was almost a route map through British television comedy in the 1970s and 80s, she acting in many of them, he acting too but more often writing.

She was a consummate comic foil, appearing in The Ronnie Barker Playhouse on ITV in 1968, but also took on central roles as the MP of My Honourable Mrs (BBC, 1975) and the divorcee finding a new life after marriage in Harriet’s Back in Town (Thames, 1972).

Away from the suburban conservatism of the Perrin household, Yates was a lifelong Labour supporter who swore liberally and sent her daughters to comprehensive school when she and her husband could well have afforded private education. Nonetheless, she thought nothing of splashing out on designer dresses when she was in funds, insisting on three rules: not buying anything in the sale, never taking anything back and never looking at the price.

Pauline Yates was born into a working class household in St Helens, Lancashire, the eldest of three daughters of Thomas, a commercial traveller, and Marjorie who ran a corner shop. She was determined to be an actor, much against her parents’ wishes. Leaving school at 17, her mother gave her an ultimatum: get a job within a year or go for teacher-training.

In two weeks she had found work as an assistant stage manager at Chorley Rep before moving on to weekly reps throughout the north and, eventually, London. She met Churchill in Liverpool in 1960 and they were married that year in Hampstead Register Office.

Yates was a skilled television performer before and after the role she is best known for. Her looks and ability to learn lines very quickly, a trick perfected during her years in rep, made her a popular choice for casting directors, and she was in ITV’s Emergency Ward 10 in 1957, the first hospital soap, and the BBC police series Z Cars and Softly Softly as well as making a number of appearances in ITV’s Armchair Theatre, for which Churchill wrote several plays. Later, she was in four series of the Thames TV sit com Keep it in the Family (1980-83) as the put-upon wife of a cartoonist (Robert Gillespie), and in 1985 appeared with Julie Walters in the film She’ll Be Wearing Pink Pyjamas as one of a group of middle-aged women at a survival school. Her last TV appearance was in the 2002 pilot for the ITV crime series Rose and Maloney.

On stage she was in the Liverpool Playhouse production of Pride and Prejudice as Mrs Bennett, and toured as Lettice in Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage [afraid I don’t have dates for these].

Domestic life in the Churchills’ Primrose Hill home could have been sit-com script. They loved to entertain and the house was often full of actors, writers and directors sitting around a drink-laden table gossiping and laughing. Yates could sometimes be found in the kitchen pouring wine down the sink to encourage the guests to go – “Time for them to FUCK OFF!” she would explain gaily.

True to his own working class roots – his father was an engine driver – Churchill was avid for bargains, and on Saturdays would wait until the end of the morning to go to Camden Market to buy cheap veg, or even get it free. He would return at lunchtime with his prizes in a whicker basket on wheels, “laughing to himself and imagining that he had beaten all the other writer residents of Camden Town such as Alan Bennett, Beryl Bainbridge and Jonathan Miller, and proudly announce he had bought food for the week for under two quid!” recalls their daughter Jemma, also an actor. Her mother would then surreptitiously slip most of it in the bin, replacing it with Marks and Spencer produce, while her father would surreptitiously retrieve it and make a stew that would last a week.

Acting was part of the household, and bedtime reading was an essential element of the day for Yates in which she would play all the characters. Her husband used to complain “I think you LIKE reading to her”, but for Polly, now a playwright and screenwriter, it was a nightly professional theatre performance which she regards as the most important of her education. She has written scripts for children’s television for 15 years.

Donald Churchill died in 1991 from a heart attack on the set of the ITV sit com El C.I.D. (Granada TV), a week before his 61st birthday.

Pauline Yates died in her sleep at Denville Hall, the actors’ care home. She leaves her two daughters and three grandchildren.

Simon Tait
Pauline Lettice Letts, actor, born 16 June 1929, died 21 January 2015