Maureen Lipman – Women in Entertainment Season

One of the true icons of British television, in an unprecedented career spanning six decades, the legendary Maureen Lipman has built an unrivaled reputation for finding the mundane in every role she plays. J

oining the heavyweight Coronation Street in 2018 as the matriarch Evelyn Plummer was just another landmark in a career that has seen so many. Yet Lipman’s association with Britain’s favourite street goes further back than some may think. Her late husband: the playwright Jack Rosenthal helped to create the serial drama back in 1960 alongside the legendary Tony Warren and was tasked with writing the thirteenth episode following the show passing Granada’s twelve episode testcard. Northern England was beginning to feel the cultural awakening of the early sixties and Maureen was in the perfect place to oversee it.

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Born in the Jewish community in Hull in 1948, Maureen identified with the archetypes of a small village. She knew an Ena Sharples, She had seen an Elsie Tanner flirting with a whole host of different men, the formidable, no nonsense matriarch of Annie Walker was a staple of most northern working class families. There were eligible bachelors like Ken Barlow in her street and she definitely knew old men who were reserved leaders like Albert Tatlock. To Maureen, Coronation Street wasn’t a soap, more a telling of real life domesticity at its best. Never before had drama been able to delicately reflect the intricacies of everyday life but Coronation Street put a spotlight on the lives of working class families in a naturalistic way which defined a generation. For Maureen, this was easily relatable and promptly set the tone for a lifetime on the stage.


This soaring success of Coronation Street made Granada Television into one of the most influential television networks in Britain with a growing reputation for producing hard hitting social drama surrounding life in working class Britain. In 1968 Maureen secured the role of Sylvie in Peter Collinson’s coming of age cult thriller Up The Junction alongside future acting royalty Dennis Waterman and Susan George. Astonishingly this remains Maureen’s only major role on the big screen which seems impossible to imagine given her decorated career in the Arts. Yet Up The Junction was still able to break down some of the social norms of postwar Britain and helped to echo the liberation of young people at this time.


Unlike many actors of her generation, Lipman escaped the lure of established paths including Rada and the RSC. Yet in 1971  she joined Lawrence Olivier’s prestigious theatre company where she further refined her unique style which was rooted in domesticity. It was here that she realised that beyond the superficial pretensions of legitimate theatre, in reality there is very little hierarchy in the world of drama. To watch the legendary Lawrence Olivier physically get down on his hands and knees in front of Doris Speed was a complete revelation for Maureen who never thought these worlds would ever collide. It seemed incredible that such an accomplished, award winning star like Olivier could be absolutely in awe of a soap actress but this reinforced to Maureen the significance of domestic drama which her whole career has been rooted in.


In 1979 Maureen took sitcom to uncharted territory when she secured the title role in Len Richmond’s forward thinking comedy Agony. Still in the era of overt sitcom stereotypes including John Inman’s flamboyant Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served, Agony became the first situation comedy to portray homosexuality in an understated, dignified way. The characters of Rob and Michael paved the way for homosexual couples to be portrayed as rounded, three dimensional beings in their own right which was considered revolutionary for its time. Over three series and twenty episodes, Maureen perfectly captured the part of agony aunt Jane Lucas, a middle aged radio host turned housewife having to juggle family life with her career. With its forward thinking themes, controversial storylines and eccentric characters made Agony one of the most influential sitcoms of the time.


Beyond sitcom success, Maureen has never lost her passion for the stage and in 1998 she secured the part of Aunt Eller in the theatrical adaptation of Oklahoma alongside a very young Hugh Jackman who was still a relatively unknown actor. This was a role which she was born to play and following invitation from the great Trevor Nunn, as soon as she received the script she knew it would be an overwhelming hit. This was partly due to the palpable sex appeal of Jackman whom women would flock to the theatre in their hundreds just to get a glimpse of this specimen of a man. The show proved so successful that it had royal approval from the late Queen who attended an exclusive performance at 10:30 in the morning which was a bizarre experience for everyone involved. Lines relating to royalty which wouldn’t normally get a reaction now took on extra significance for this very special moment which Maureen shall forever cherish.


With such an influential, legendary playwright as a husband, Maureen thrived on the opportunity to collaborate with the great Jack Rosenthal which resulted in the 1996 comedy drama Eskimo Day. Like all great writers, Rosenthal wrote about what he knew and when their daughters left home, he and Maureen suffered from great empty nest syndrome. He then used this to write a touching play surrounding significant rites of passage. Cast alongside the great Alec Guinness for what became his last acting role, Lipman played the part of Shani, a middle aged Jewish mother coping with the realisation that her children were growing up. This touching comedy drama throws up issues of belonging, identity and knowing one’s purpose: things which are universally relatable and remain relevant thirty years later.


In 2004 the legendary Jack Rosenthal passed away from cancer aged 72 leaving a whole repertoire of gritty, social drama in his wake. From the late fifties to the new millennium, Rosenthal’s earthy fascination in domesticity made for compelling, unforgettable moments of television drama. Whether it was the straight faced Ena Sharples pontificating in the Rovers Return or creating the long running serial drama London’s Burning, Rosenthal became responsible for the cultivation of television drama’s social conscience which remains strong today. In short, he was a significant figure in the evolution of British television and deserves to live long in our collective consciousness as a pioneer of British television.


As a performer, it was extremely imperative for Maureen to work consistently throughout Jack’s terminal career. She still took roles in the West End which offered her a slice of normality in what was a difficult time. In 2002 Maureen secured the opportunity which had been forty-two years in the making when she first stepped foot on the infamous cobbles of Coronation Street as the formidable landlady Lillian Spencer for just six episodes in the wake of Julie Goodyear’s abrupt departure. Therefore, however fleetingly, Jack had seen her contribution to the iconic show which he had been so instrumental to despite the character merely appearing in six episodes. However, in 2018 Maureen joined the show for a second time, this time as Evelyn Plummer; the long lost grandmother of Tyrone Dobbs. It seems extraordinary that despite her illustrious career in entertainment, Maureen has now come full circle on the show which defined her late husband’s career and she couldn’t be prouder to fly that flag.


Despite her commitments to Coronation Street, Maureen remains an in demand performer on the live entertainment circuit. Her 2020 one woman show Rose was a full monologue surrounding Rose’s personal journey from the devastation of Nazi Germany to the positivity of the American dream. It’s incredible that irrespective of her vast cv, Maureen pinpoints this as her greatest accomplishment as it was a story close to her heart. Yet being able to lay all her accomplishments out in such a celebration merely proves the calibre of performer she remains. Whether it’s her portrayal of a lower class matriarch in a British soap, a middle aged trailblazer in a suburban sitcom or a vivacious character in a theatrical musical, there’s always a truth behind every role that she plays. This is what makes Dame Maureen Lipman one of the most influential, significant and enduring performers in the history of British television and a celebration of women in entertainment wouldn’t have been complete without her.