While inevitably remembered most for her long 1970s run as the ever-suffering Maggie Clegg in Coronation Street, Irene Sutcliffe also had a career of distinction and impressive range in the theatre.
Burnley-born to an ironmonger father and LAMDA-trained, like most of her generation she earned her spurs in the demanding world of regional repertory. In her West End debut as society girl Patricia (nicknamed “Polly Seedy-Stockings”) in George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess, she more than held her own against the dazzling star-turn of Katharine Hepburn in a series of flamboyant Balmain outfits (New Theatre, 1952). By marked contrast, she was one of the Women of Canterbury in TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (Old Vic, 1953) with Robert Donat in his valedictory stage role as Thomas Becket.
As television began its inexorable rise, from 1953 she appeared in many of the era’s top shows (Dixon of Dock Green, Pathfinders in Space, Emergency – Ward 10) before her Coronation Street debut in 1968. Her arrival in Weatherfield bridged a time of sliding ratings soon reversed as the soap entered a golden age, boosted by story-consultant Stan Barstow’s focus on character-led social issues.
As the unlucky-in-love Maggie, running the corner shop and coping with an alcoholic husband (John Sharp) and adopted son Billy (impresario-to-be Bill Kenwright), Sutcliffe had some outstanding scenes with Street stalwarts Elsie Tanner, Ena Sharples and Len Fairclough, with an especially memorable late, soul-baring episode with Eileen Derbyshire’s Emily Nugent.
Sutcliffe continued a busy television career (up to The Royals in 2015) but returned often to her first love: the stage. In 1980, she gave a superb performance as the matriarch of JB Priestley’s Time and the Conways (Greenwich Theatre), especially fine in the middle act, shifting from the post-war elation of 1919 to a clouded, pre-war 1938, now transformed into a spiteful, discontented and disappointed domestic tyrant.
The long-running success of Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God (Mermaid and Albery theatres, 1981) saw her in fine form and she was a hilarious pillar of punctured rectitude as Lady Rumpers in Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus, directed by Mel Smith (Sheffield Crucible, 1979).
The National Theatre brought little joy in 1983 with a less than subtle production of George S Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You. Although luckily cast in a more laconic role, Sutcliffe was one of the few to make an impression. A decade later, a misconceived West End Agatha Christie – Murder Is Easy (Duke of York’s Theatre, 1993) – saw her hampered, along with a fine cast, by a terrible adaptation.
Her final West End appearance was happier; but Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer prize-winning Wit (Vaudeville Theatre, 2000) failed to repeat its New York success – Sutcliffe gave a strikingly incisive performance as a John Donne-specialist visiting a terminally ill literature professor. Back in regional theatre (Salisbury Playhouse, 2004) she was extremely moving in the understated pathos of Sybil Thorndike’s old role as the piano-playing widow in a retirement hotel in NC Hunter’s Waters of the Moon.
A private woman, giving a somewhat austere initial impression, Sutcliffe had a circle of loyal friends (many, like her, avid bridge players) and was a tireless committee member of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund over several decades.
Irene Sutcliffe was born on July 12, 1924 and died on May 3, aged 94.