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Obituary: Ann Emery

Ann Emery in Billy Elliot. Photo: Alastair Muir

When news of Ann Emery’s death at the age of 86 was announced, Stephen Daldry, who had directed her in the hit musical Billy Elliot, approvingly described her as “an old pro, who never seemed old and never took the profession for granted”.

Emery had been a late replacement for Anne Rogers, who left the production fearing that her part as the eponymous Billy’s Grandma would be cut as the show over-ran in rehearsals and needed to be shortened. With just three weeks to go before previews of the show began in early 2005, Emery stepped in.

Aged 75 at the time and with a career that stretched back to the 1930s, Emery would spend a decade at the Victoria Palace Theatre in the successful adaptation of Lee Hall’s 2000 film, with music by Elton John. She was just weeks short of her 85th birthday when back trouble forced her to retire in January 2015 because, she told The Stage, “I just couldn’t give it the pizzazz it needed.”

The daughter of performing parents – her father was the music-hall comedian Lawrie Howe, her mother the ballet dancer Grace Verdie – she was also a half-sister to the television comedian Dick Emery. Appearing alongside her father, she made her stage debut at the age of six and developed an early interest in dancing.

After training at the Cone Ripman school, she appeared in Babes in the Wood at Hammersmith’s King’s Theatre in 1942 and with the Crazy Gang at the Victoria Palace in 1947. She went on to establish herself as a much-in-demand variety artist noted for her dancing (tap was a speciality), singing and comic abilities – The Stage approvingly noted her similarity to the eccentric American comic Phyllis Diller.

She began her career as Ianthe Howe, then Janice Howe before changing her name a final time to Ann Emery. By the time she supported Vivian Blaine in the 1953 Royal Variety Performance at the London Coliseum, she was already a regular on London’s late-night club circuit. In the early 1960s she appeared in and directed cabaret shows for the Club Panama on Great Windmill Street.

The rest of the decade saw her profile on the variety circuit continuing to rise and a move into pantomime, summer seasons and cruising. She formed her own troupe, the Fol-de-Rols, in 1966 and the following year toured South Africa with the Minstrel Scandals, where she was billed as “principal comedienne.”

In 1971 Emery ventured into straight drama with a tour of Under Milk Wood for Grapefruit Productions and toured with the well-received The Jolson Revue, later taking it to Australia in 1978.

Having previously appeared in sketches on her half-brother’s highly popular The Dick Emery Show, in 1976 she made her way onto children’s television as Ethel Meaker – co-owner of an agency renting out phantoms and spooks – in Rentaghost and into the imagination of a generation of young viewers.

She returned to Australia in 1979 for a six-month stint in Sydney with the revue On Together alongside Lee Young.

While continuing to appear in variety, in 1982 Emery spent a summer season in Blackpool with Dick Emery and coached ex-Royal ballet star Wayne Sleep in tap dancing for his television show, Dash. The following year she choreographed William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

She made a tentative move into musical theatre as Jennyanydots (the Gumbie Cat) in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, directed by Trevor Nunn, at the New London Theatre in 1983 and was later seen as workhouse matron Widow Corney in Theatr Clwyd’s 1991 revival of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and alongside Dora Bryan in Kander and Ebb’s 70, Girls, 70 on tour and at the Ashcroft Theatre in 1992.

With appearances in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (Forum Theatre, Wythenshawe, 1993) and Follies (Haymarket Theatre, Leicester, 1994) and the first production of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s Martin Guerre (Prince Edward Theatre, 1996) her theatre credentials strengthened.

Emery seemed to become more adventurous with age, giving an eccentric twist to the maid Clara in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at the Leicester Haymarket in 1998 and venturing into fringe theatre with Eve Merriam and Helen Miller’s gritty musical Inner City Dream at London’s Cockpit Theatre in 1999.

She returned to the West End as the wife to Roy Hudd’s Sleary in Christopher Tookey and Hugh Thomas’s musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 2000 – in which she memorably inserted a tap routine into her death scene.

In 2001, she reunited with Nunn to play Mrs Hopkins in his National Theatre revival of My Fair Lady – a production noted for the unpredictable appearances of ex-soap star Martine McCutcheon as Eliza Doolittle – transferring with it to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until 2005 when she took on the role of Grandma in Billy Elliot.

Emery’s decade-long run was interrupted only by a short spell in the ill-fated musical Betty Blue Eyes (based on Alan Bennett’s 1984 film, A Private Function) at the Novello Theatre in 2011. She was seen in the live television broadcast of Billy Elliot: The Musical in 2014.

An active member of the Concert Artists Association, Emery also served for several years on the committee of the Grand Order of Lady Ratlings. In 2010 she was received a lifetime achievement award from the British Music Hall Society.

Ann Emery was born in London on March 12, 1930, and died of cancer on September 28, aged 86.

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