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Janet Brown

Comic actress

Born: December 14, 1922; Died: May 27, 2011.

Janet Brown, who has died aged 87, was a Scottish comic actress best known for her impersonation of former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Born into a working class family in Rutherglen, on the south side of Glasgow, Janet McLuckie Brown was the daughter of a shipyard worker and educated at Rutherglen Academy. She made her first appearance at the age of 13 doing impressions on stage at the city’s Savoy Cinema, and this showbusiness debut was quickly followed by her first radio performance.

She left school early and worked briefly in a local branch of the Co-op before leaving Glasgow, with the blessing of her father, to tour in a show with Hughie Green, who went on to become a household name as host of the ITV talent show Opportunity Knocks.

During the war she served with the ATS, and joined a Stars in Battledress group which entertained the troops serving in Europe. Among those she worked with were Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd and Harry Secombe.

In 1945 she made her break onto the London stage and, at the same time, was building up an excellent reputation with her roles in radio variety series such as Music Hall and Bandbox, eventually eventually landing her own series on Radio Scotland in 1949.

That year she also made her first big screen appearance, in the romantic Glasgow shipyard comedy Floodtide, which was directed by Frederick Wilson and starred Gordon Jackson, Rona Anderson, John Laurie, Jimmy Logan and Arthur Lowe.

In 1950 Brown starred opposite Edinburgh-born Alistair Sim as the doctor’s daughter Nelly Watson in Mr Gillie at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, and then in London’s West End. She again starred alongside Sim in the film comedy Folly to be Wise (1952), produced by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat.

In 1950 she had been seen doing impressions of the showbusiness figures Marie Lloyd, Jessie Matthews and Gracie Fields in the television variety show A Ray of Sunshine, presented by the comedian Ted Ray. Appearances in other early television shows such as Rooftop Rendezvous, and Friends and Neighbours (1954) increased her popularity.

From the 1950s was in almost continual demand for radio work and appeared in, among others, The Goon Show. But she was also a presenter on BBC TV’s Picture Book, the Monday programme in the Watch with Mother slot that encouraged children to make things.

She had a straight role in Z Cars (1965) before regular appearances in The Dick Emery Show (1967-68) and the role of Joyce in the sitcom Mr Digby Darling (1969), with Sheila Hancock and Peter Jones.

But then, in 1975, TV presenter Eamonn Andrews asked Brown to try impersonating Mrs Thatcher for Thames TV Today Show and for more than 15 years she carved out a hugely succeessful new career. Appearing on programmes such as ITVs Who Do You Do and BBC1’s popular Mike Yarwood in Persons she also did impressions of Coronation Street’s Hilda Ogden, Noele Gordon of the TV soap Crossroads, the whimsical poet Pam Ayres, Joan Rivers, Nana Mouskouri and TV dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse.

But demand was greatest for Brown’s imperious Iron Lady, and over the years she perfected the role of playing the Tory leader.

A Conservative herself, Brown eventually became a friend of the politician and was invited to functions at 10 Downing Street and even stayed as a guest of the Thatchers at Chequers.

She once recalled: “She was always very sweet to me and she needn’t have been. But, then, I used to be quite selective about the scripts I’d do. I was prepared to send her up, but not maliciously.”

In 1979, Brown starred as Thatcher on the comedy album Iron Lady: The Coming Of The Leader, written by Private Eye satirist John Wells and produced by Secret Policeman’s Ball series co-creator/producer Martin Lewis and Not the Nine O’Clock News series co-creator/producer John Lloyd.

In 1980 she was given her own show, Janet and Company (1980-82), which gave Andy Hamilton an early writing break and co-starred the likes of Roy Kinnear. The final two episodes were postponed because of the Falklands conflict. In 1987 she published an autobiography, Prime Mimicker.

Brown was also a regular on BBC Radio 2’s The News Huddlines and played the role of the prime minister in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

Her popularity waned with the demise of Thatcher and television variety shows but she continued to work until late in life and appeared in series such as Midsomer Murders (2004), Casualty (2005) and Hotel Babylon (2009) — her final stage role was as Old Lady Squeamish in The Country Wife at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2007.

In 1946 she had received an offer to join a summer revue show at Scarborough and it was there that she met her future husband, the actor Peter Butterworth, best known for his roles in the Carry On films. They married in 1947, and worked together on a number of occasions, including on children’s television.

He died of a heart attack in 1979, aged 59, and she is survived by their son, the actor Tyler Butterworth; a daughter, Emma, predeceased her.

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