Actress known for When the Boat Comes In

Born: July 15, 1921;

Died: September 14, 2019

JEAN Heywood, who has died aged 98, was a British actress who made a stock-in-trade of playing older matriarchs to fictional screen families, in particular ones based in the north of England whose stories unfolded amid period settings. Her most famous role was also one of her earliest, as the working class Tyneside mother Bella Seaton in the 1976 post-First World War drama When the Boat Comes In.

Starring James Bolam as Jack Ford, a charismatic soldier returned home from the frontlines of Europe to his fictional hometown of Gallowshields on Tyneside, When the Boat Comes In (whose theme tune was the local folk song of the same name) was a success when it was aired on BBC One due to a rewarding balance of Bolam’s star turn, a sense of rich family drama, and the realistic focus upon interwar politics and the way they affected working class people.

In the series Bolam was taken in by the Seaton family through their daughter Jessie (Susan Jameson). The heads of the family were Bill and Bella, an earthy and grounded double act who gathered much acclaim at the time for the sensitive and convincing portrayals of Heywood and actor James Garbutt; who was, like Heywood, also an actor from the north of England. The series was nominated for BAFTA Awards, and ran for three series between 1976 and 1977, although when it returned for one final outing in 1981 Bella – and Heywood – was not among the cast.

More than two decades later, Heywood had moved on a screen generation, this time with a significant cameo as the grandmother of Billy Elliot in Stephen Daldry’s Academy Award and Golden Globe-nominated – and BAFTA-winning – film of the same name.

Here, Heywood was a dementia-suffering elder whose youthful dreams of being a dancer transferred themselves to her grandson; her character also had dementia five years later in Dad, a television film also starring Richard Briers, Sinead Cusack and Kevin Whately, which was made to raise awareness of the condition.

Other key roles throughout Heywood’s later life include a recurring part as Phyllis Acaster in the Yorkshire-set soap opera Emmerdale in 1978; a brief couple of episodes as Alice Kirby in Coronation Street in 1982, and in all four series of the Street’s dimly-remembered spin-off interracial family drama The Brothers McGregor between 1985 and 1988; and that of housekeeper Mrs Alton in the seventh series of the gentle rural veterinary drama All Creatures Great and Small (1990).

She appeared in Alan Plater’s BBC2 Play of the Week Night People in 1978, and in episodes of Play for Today by Plater and by Willy Russell. Amid a slew of British television series which Heywood found work with over four decades, a number of the most well-known included Dixon of Dock Green, Open All Hours, Boys from the Blackstuff, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Jeeves and Wooster, Kavanagh QC (playing the mother of John Thaw’s character), Our Friends in the North, A Touch of Frost, The Bill, Brookside, Heartbeat and Casualty.

Jean Heywood was born Jean Murray in 1921 in Blyth, Northumberland, although she was brought up in New Zealand and Birmingham. A late starter in acting, she had married her husband Roland Heywood in 1945 (he predeceased her in 1996) and raised their children before she took her love for amateur dramatics into the professional world; at first on the stage, and then with her debut screen role in 1968, by which time she was in her late forties.

Also a stage actor alongside her screen career, she played her final role in the television film Accidental Farmer in 2010, as she approached her 90th birthday.