Actress and star of Coronation Street

Born: July 12, 1924;

Died: May 3, 2019

IRENE Sutcliffe, who has died aged 94, spent most of her life in the theatre, performing with Laurence Olivier, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Old Vic, but she reached her widest audience in Coronation Street as Maggie Clegg, who ran the local corner shop in Coronation Street in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Between 1968 and 1975 Sutcliffe appeared in more than 400 episodes of the soap before deciding that she wanted to return to her first love – theatre.

Her character’s husband was a violent alcoholic who ended up in a mental hospital. She divorced him and remarried. When Sutcliffe decided to leave Corrie, the scriptwriters packed Maggie and new husband Ron Cooke off to Darkest Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Zaire as it was then.

The writers had one final twist for Maggie’s story. Only after she had gone, did the new tenants discover the birth certificate for Maggie’s son Gordon (played by future theatre impresario Bill Kenwright). It revealed that he was not her son at all, but the illegitimate son of her elder sister, the Rovers long-time barmaid Betty (Betty Driver).

Ethel Irene Sutcliffe was born in Burnley in 1924. Her father was an ironmonger. She originally hoped to become a dancer, switched her focus to acting, attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and began her career in rep in Hastings.

In 1947 she joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre company, the predecessor of the RSC, where she met actor George Cooper. They married a few years later, but the union ended in divorce.

She appeared with Katharine Hepburn in The Millionairess in the London West End in 1952 and also began a long association with the Old Vic in the early 1950s. She came to Scotland for the company’s production of Macbeth at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh in 1960 and Romeo and Juliet, also at the King’s, the following year.

Touring with the Old Vic also took her behind the Iron Curtain to Russia and Poland before she spent a year as part of the London cast of the record-breaking Agatha Christie whodunnit The Mousetrap.

Sutcliffe had been appearing occasionally on television since the early 1950s. As early as 1953 she was Desdemona to Peter Wyngarde’s Bard in the BBC Sunday-Night Theatre production Will Shakespeare. And she had a recurring role on the radio soap The Dales in the early 1960s.

Coronation Street had been going for eight years by the time Sutcliffe joined in 1968. After leaving Corrie she worked mainly in theatre, though she did manage guest appearances on numerous television series, including the original Poldark (1976), The Jewel in the Crown (1984) and Doc Martin (2007).

She also had a brief, but famous scene in the cult movie Withnail and I in 1987. She played the waitress in the Penrith tearoom who phones the police when Richard E Grant and Paul McGann turn up drunk.

They disturb the genteel clientele by lording it over the place, demanding cake and “the finest wines available to humanity – we want them here and we want them now”, and threatening to buy the tearoom and sack Sutcliffe if she does not comply.