Gretchen Franklin, who for 15 years played the role of Ethel Skinner in the BBC’s EastEnders, died at her home in Barnes on July 11, 2005, aged 94.
After a successful acting career she was offered the part in 1985, bringing her international fame at the age of 73. It was unlikely though that many of the cast and crew were aware of her work in variety and revue theatre.
Born in Covent Garden on July 7, 1911 Franklin began her career working as a chorus girl for £2 a week in a Bournemouth pantomime. She toured in variety with the comedians Syd and Max Harrison but her big breakthrough came during the Second World War when she was cast in Sweet and Low, the first of a series of highly successful West End revues.
Staged at the Ambassadors Theatre, the revues starred Hermione Gingold. Franklin and Gingold became firm friends and were reunited in another revue, Slings and Arrows (Comedy Theatre, 1948). She appeared in several straight plays and made one of her early screen appearances in Before I Wake (1954), becoming something of a stalwart of the British cinema and had minor roles in Operation Conspiracy (1957), Flame in the Streets (1961), Help! (1965) and many others.
On television she played Alf Garnett’s wife in the BBC Comedy Playhouse pilot of Till Death Us Do Part and was Myrtle Harvey in Crossroads. She also appeared in Quatermass (1979) and Dead Ernest (1982) before landing the role of Ethel Skinner. “I can play the comedy scenes or the tearjerkers,” she said. “The producers and directors have finally realised that.”
Ethel Skinner became one of EastEnders’ most memorable characters. Usually seen with her pug Willy and best friend Dot Cotton (June Brown) she was killed off in September 2000 in one of the show’s most gripping storylines when she told Dot that she was dying of cancer and persuaded her to administer an overdose of morphine tablets.
Off screen Franklin devoted much of her time to charity and gave away all the royalties she received from EastEnders repeats to her favourite animal charities. “At my age one isn’t buying new fur coats and diamonds,” she said. “If you get that lot of repeat fees four times a year you can afford to be a bit more generous to other people.”
Her husband, the writer Caswell Garth, predeceased her.