Actress and star of Emmerdale Farm

Born: January 1, 1919;

Died: December 13, 2019

SHEILA Mercier, who has died aged 100, was in her fifties before she got her first big TV break as one of the stars of a new rural soap opera called Emmerdale Farm in 1972. She survived a cull in the late 1980s and the arrival of a new producer who dropped the farm from the title and upped the sex. By then her character was an institution.

She continued as a regular for several more years, and even after she retired and her character Annie Sugden went off to live in Spain she would return to the series occasionally, with Annie attending funerals when the writers decided it had been a week or two since they had killed anyone off.

Mercier had been acting professionally in the theatre since 1939, often appearing with her brother, the famous farceur Brian Rix in the 1950s and 1960s. “She was long past playing sex kittens and I always cast her as the straight, rather haughty woman,” Rix said. “I used her because she was talented and because nepotism is an old theatrical tradition.”

And it was not as a sex kitten that she was cast in Emmerdale Farm, but as the matriarch of the titular farm, Annie Sugden. It was quite a change for her to move from theatrical farce to the intimacy of television acting. “I remember at first playing to the Gods,” she said – the Gods being a theatrical term for the upper circle. The director was forever telling her to “Take it down, take it down.”

She was born Sheila Betty Rix in Hull on New Year’s Day 1919 into a wealthy, shipping family. “I have an abiding memory of my mother ringing for the maid whenever she wanted another piece of coal to be put on the fire,” she said. Her mother sang in amateur opera and had her own concert party called Mrs Fanny Rix and Her Bright Young Things. Her father made scenery for amateur drama productions.

She went to Hunmanby Hall girls boarding school in Yorkshire and drama school in Stratford-upon-Avon, where she was spotted by the legendary Shakespearean actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit, who recruited her to his touring company.

During the Second World War she served as a radio operator in Scotland with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She later recounted in her autobiography Annie’s Song (1994) how she was at a New Year’s Eve party, went back to one of the officer’s rooms “to stoke the fire” and he raped her, leaving her pregnant. Her father tracked the man down and he offered to marry her, but she declined, and gave the baby up for adoption. In the meantime she was ostracised by her family.

For a few years she received letters and photographs from the adoptive parents, then they decided they did not want any further contact and it was not until 1969 that Mercier re-established contact with her daughter, by which time she was married and had family of her own.

After the war she joined her brother’s new repertory company in Yorkshire. In 1951 she married actor Peter Mercier, who was also in Rix’s company. He eventually retrained as a hypnotherapist and they remained married till his death in 1993.

Rix’s low-brow farces proved enormously popular at London’s Whitehall Theatre – they became known as Whitehall Farces, and on tour. She was a regular in them through the 1950s and much of the 1960s, including the West End hits Dry Rot (1956-1958), Simple Spymen (1958-1961), One For The Pot (1961-1964) and Chase Me, Comrade! (1964-1966). Several were televised as Six with Rix in 1972, the year she began on Emmerdale Farm.

Emmerdale Farm was inspired by the success of The Archers on Radio 4 and designed to fill a twice-weekly ITV afternoon slot. The series began with the funeral of farmer Jacob Sugden. He left Emmerdale to black-sheep son Jack, though before long it was being run by Jacob’s no-nonsense widow Annie along with various other family members. Storylines revolved around the farming year, crop choices, animal welfare and family tiffs. They proved popular and the show moved to an evening slot in 1977.

But by 1988 it was felt that it needed shaking up and former Brookside producer Stuart Doughty came wandering onto the farm, scythe in hand. Characters came and went, they had lots of extramarital sex and there were a few murders here and there, much to the disgust of the show’s creator Kevin Laffan. Jeff Evans put it nicely in The Penguin TV Companion: “Now the lads not only baled the hay, but rolled in it too.”

The change of pace quickened further when a plane crashed onto the village in 1993, just a few days after Christmas, enabling wholesale cast changes. Annie had only just found a new husband. He was killed and she spent weeks in a coma. It was a controversial plot twist, virtually coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster. The public loved it, most of them. The episode attracted a record audience.