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Obituary: Eileen Essell

Eileen Essell (centre) with Rosie Cavaliero and Michelle Gomez in BBC2's 2006 comedy Feel the Force. Photo: BBC/Alan Peebles/Catherine Bailey Eileen Essell (centre) with Rosie Cavaliero and Michelle Gomez in BBC2's 2006 comedy Feel the Force. Photo: BBC/Alan Peebles/Catherine Bailey

Few actors find themselves being acclaimed as “a spectacular find” at the age of 84. Producer Sue Vertue’s hailing of Eileen Essell as such followed her casting of the elderly performer as a grandmother with advancing senility in Michael Aitkens’ 2007 drama Fear, Stress and Anger, her performance seeming all the more remarkable for being a non-speaking role.

No less remarkable was the revival of Essell’s career long after her retirement from the stage in 1958 following her marriage to the playwright and actor Gerard McLarnon. She had been acting for more than a decade by then, having spent seasons with the Sheffield Repertory Company, with whom appearances included Maggie in Hobson’s Choice and, alongside a young Paul Eddington, Terry Bowden-Jones’ Better to Have Loved.

In 1948, she was seen in London in Alfred Sangster’s The Brontes at the St James Theatre, and in 1952 appeared in Howard Spring’s Jinny Morgan with the Kenton Theatre Company, in Henley-on-Thames, and in A Streetcar Named Desire at Butlin’s, Skegness, with Forbes Russell’s rep company. She spent the following year at the Preston Hippodrome and the Oxford Playhouse, where her credits included Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.

This was followed by a long silence, during which Essell raised her son and taught at the Central School of Speech and Drama and London’s City University. In 2000, she returned to acting in an episode of the BBC daytime soap Doctors. Although she never resumed her career on stage, Essell’s television profile flourished, her credits ranging from The Bill and London’s Burning to Ali G Indahouse, French and Saunders, Torchwood and Land Girls.

Her film work included the 2003 comedy Duplex, the JM Barrie portrait Finding Neverland (2004) and two 2005 remakes: The Producers and Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In her later years, she was a volunteer with Samaritans and patron of the arts charity Create.

Eileen Essell was born in London on October 8, 1922 and died on February 15, aged 92. She is survived by her son, the actor Fergus McLarnon.

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