Elizabeth Spriggs

The Stage

Elizabeth Spriggs was one of Britain’s most revered and respected character actresses, noted for her work with both the RSC and the National Theatre. She joined the RSC in 1962 and her best-remembered roles include playing Nurse to Judi Dench’s Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Gertrude to David Warner’s Hamlet and Claire in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance.

She was invited to join the National Theatre in 1976 where she appeared as a gloriously dotty Madame Arcati in Coward’s Blithe Spirit and she went on to win acclaim for appearances in Johnson’s Volpone, Arnold Wesker’s Love Letters, Macbeth and Wycherley’s The Country Wife.

Spriggs also had a successful television career. She was Connie in the south London drama series Fox (1976) and she was the formidable Nan in the wartime sitcom Shine On Harvey Moon (1982-85). More recently, she had played the mother of Charlie Higson’s second-hand car dealer in the comedy Swiss Toni (2004). 

Born on September 18, 1929 in Buxton, Derbyshire, she was the second of four children. She was educated at Wheatley Street High School for Girls in Coventry, studied opera at the Royal College of Music and went on to teach music and drama at Coventry Technical College, acting in repertory at Stockport.  

For many years she was a stalwart of regional theatre, appearing in seasons at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic and the Grand Theatre, Halifax, but it was not until she was in her thirties that she gained fame and was asked by Peter Hall in 1962 to join the RSC. She remained with the company for 14 years and was particularly active during the seventies in productions such as Major Barbara, Othello, London Assurance and Misalliance.   

She was much in demand for television drama such as Colin Welland’s Leeds United! (1974), Alan Bennett’s Intensive Care and Our Winnie (both 1982), Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1992), and she was Mrs Cadwallader in Middlemarch (1994). More recently, she was in Shackleton (2002) and Jericho (2005).

Film credits included Three Into Two Won’t Go (1969), Sense and Sensibility (1995) and she played the Fat Lady in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001). Her final film was Is There Anybody There? (2008) with Michael Caine.

Spriggs continued to teach drama throughout her career, often as a guest lecturer at schools such as Coventry School of Speech and Drama.

Summing up her career in 1996, she said: “I don’t feel bitter that I am not a celebrity. I think I am very, very fortunate that I’m so versatile and I’m lucky that at my age I’m still in demand.”  

She died on July 2, aged 78. She was married three times, to Kenneth Spriggs, Marshall Jones and to Murray Manson, a classical guitarist. He survived her, as does Wendy, a daughter from her first marriage.

Patrick Newley

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