Born: April 28, 1937;

Died: November 9, 2021.

IF YOU want to get ahead, wear a hat, ran the old Forties advertising slogan. But in the case of Gwyneth Guthrie, who has died aged 84, the words were prophetic.

When she auditioned for STV’s couthy new soap, Take The High Road, back in 1983, she was told that the character was to be a housekeeper. Never a woman who was ever deliberately understated, Guthrie turned up wearing a fluffy Angora jumper and dressed in pink. She was dismissed.

What she didn’t know was that the producers were looking for a battle-axe, a woman with a tongue so cutting that could function easily as a bacon-slicer in the local grocer’s.

“I hadn’t been told any of this,” she said, years later. “My agent said they need a nice, kind gentle person, so I went along looking like that. And then I was rejected. I was so angry — and I don’t often lose my temper — that I got onto the train to Kilmarnock to go back home and thought, ‘I’m not having this’.”

Realising that the Presbyterian character of Mrs Mack needed a very different look, she sought inspiration in a charity shop. “The hat I found was a real cracker. And I bought a coat that I thought would also suit the character. It was a metamorphosis. I said to the producers I’d wear thick stockings and a tweed skirt, a home-knitted scarf and fingerless gloves called pawkies. Then I told them: “Mrs Mack has arrived!”

Guthrie’s character creation was an instant hit and went on to become an international-class harridan. Mrs Mack managed to infuriate on a level matched by other great soap irritants, from Mrs Mangel in Neighbours to Maggie Jones’s Blanche Hunt in Coronation Street, or indeed Violet Carson’s sharp and brilliant Ena Sharples.

Fans of the Glendarroch character even included the Queen Mother and the Queen. “When the Queen was touring STV studios”, Guthrie once recalled, “she told me her mother always watched High Road. The Queen also told me that they would watch it together.”

The Royal approval didn’t result in Ms Guthrie becoming a Dame but, importantly, it provided her with 20 years of continuous work. It was a success the young Gwyneth had dreamed of.

She had grown up in Ayr. Her father was a bank manager; her mother’s family had come from Cumbria, and indeed Gwyneth’s Christian name was inherited from a Welsh grandmother. The young Gwynnie was a natural performer with a talent for creating voices and, aged 12, encouraged by her mother, she landed work with the BBC’s Children’s Hour.

Early teenage life, however, wasn’t all fun. She was sent off to boarding school, but by her late teens she had resolved to go to drama school, training at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

It took a while for her career to find its trajectory. “I went to London to audition for the J. Arthur Rank film company. I had to walk up and down in front of them [the producers] a few times and they told me I had to lose a few pounds.

“Another time, I was invited to try out again in London with a theatre producer. But when I got there he said, ‘Sorry darling, I’ve changed my mind’. That was rather cruel. There were many tears, but it taught me that acting isn’t all wine and roses.”

It put her off the business for years, and she later admitted that she regretted not being more aggressive.

In 1959, she married John Borland, who ran his family’s shop business in Kilmarnock. They went on to have three children – Karen, Debbie and Olwen.

Guthrie refused to give up on her acting dream, taking work whenever it came along, such as a 1978 radio serialisation of The Heart of Midlothian.
She once spoke to the Radio Times about her love for radio. “Radio is marvellous for the imagination. I love sound-pictures and, especially with stereo now, every breath, every pause is recorded and magnified. And, of course, if you have a family, it has one major advantage: you keep more or less office hours.”

Her life changed dramatically when she landed the role of Mrs Mack in High Road. Fame came almost instantaneously. She once said that her most lucrative gig was appearing in a Partick bingo hall dressed as Mrs Mack.

She found herself in demand outside of television. She  loved her regular panto castings, such as playing the Fairy at the Ayr Gaiety. And she had great fun with the Pavilion Theatre’s summer romp, Girls Big Nite In. The show followed the adventures of a group of ladies who host an Ann Summers party. Guthrie, not surprisingly, played a character who was not a million miles away from Mrs Mack.

“It’s a fun role, “ she said at the time. “Margaret has a shoogly hip and a deaf ear – you can imagine the hilarity when she accidentally sits on a sex toy. She picks up some frilly undies and says: ‘How much are these, dear? What? For a pair of holey knickers? I get mine four for a pound at Poundstretchers. And they’re built to last!’”

Asked whether she personally had ever been to an Ann Summers party, she responded, in a mock-stern Mrs Mack voice: “Oh, gosh, no! I’d be scared to go in case I had too much fun.”

Gwyneth Guthrie, whose husband died in 2018, was a fun lady, but like most actors she had a determined side. Her character perhaps contained just a little of Mrs Mack. When once asked to feature in a two-minute panto slot, the resolute performer ran to no less than 12 minutes. She would bend to the will of others like an oak tree in soft wind.

Her heart wasn’t as tough as her spirit. The actress, who had worked tirelessly over the years on environmental campaigns, suffered from a heart scare 25 years ago. Over the years she had been hospitalized with nervous exhaustion, and problems with angina dogged her health.

It’s hard to tell if Gwyneth Guthrie managed to achieve the ambition she once spoke of in an interview. “I’ve always wanted”, she said with a grin, “to grow old disgracefully.” 

But there’s little doubt that the TV star brought huge fun and energy to her role as Mrs Mack, delighting many millions of viewers in the process.

But, as her daughter, Debbie Love, acknowledges: “Mum was always quite critical of herself so she wouldn’t watch herself [on television]. She never had a big ego.”

Gwyneth Guthrie is survived by her three daughters, Karen, Debbie, and Olwen.