Hilda Ogden was in Coronation Street all through my childhood. I can remember her breaking down after Stan had died and thinking blimey perhaps we really don’t all live forever after all (I thought all the good people got let off death and was secretly allowed to live forever.)
One sunny Saturday afternoon I thought I’d have a drive across to Southport Hospital and Crematorium where life narrowed to an end. Jean was in Coronation Street for 23 years and then played Auntie Wainwright in the long-running sitcom Last of the Summer Wine for 22 years. “Not bad for a poor girl from Liverpool” - her last words.
She was born in Toxteth, Liverpool and had two brothers and they shared a rented terraced house with no fridge, washing machine or indoor toilet. She wanted to become an actress from young and succeeded well in a fickle industry where you can expect to be unemployed for 80% of your days. She’d seen the variety acts at the Pavilion theatre and her ambition was decided. She joined an amateur theatre group while at secondary school and took elocution lessons to be rid of the strong Scouse accent.
After school she worked in a library for a few years until her acting career started aged 23. She worked at Adelphi Guild Theatre in Macclesfield and got minor roles on and off in theatre in the North West. The first time she ever appeared on television was in Z-Cars and when not acting she worked as a stage manager or wardrobe mistress.
She seemed to be in Coronation Street perennially but she was 36 when she procured a minor role (after a year on the dole.) Two years later she returned again as Hilda Ogden and a national treasure was cast in bronze. This no-nonsense down-trodden lass who ruled the roost in hair rollers was adored by the public. The lonely woman whose life of disappointed dreams seem to strike a chord with people (she based herself on the hair-netted women she’d seen in munitions factories during the war.) In 1984 when her on-screen husband Stan died (Bernard Youens had died months earlier) she received thousands of condolence cards. In 2005 she was voted the "Greatest Soap Opera Star of All Time".
She left the show forever on Christmas Day in 1987. Fans had started a "Save Hilda!" campaign not knowing she’d decided on a new change of scene. 27 million viewers watched her go - the highest number of viewers in the show's history.
In 1988 Jean appeared in as the money-grabbing local junk shop owner Auntie Wainwright in Last of the Summer Wine and became a regular a year later. Still loving acting she nabbed many cameo roles in various popular programmes like Boon, Rich Tea and Sympathy, Heartbeat and Where the Heart Is. She was even in the odd film and I remember her as Christine Keeler’s mum in Scandal (thinking “That’s Hilda Ogden” (I couldn’t see her as anyone else.))
Though the public voted her the most adored woman after the Queen and Princess Diana she was solitary. She never married nor knew romantic love and admitted she was pure. By the sounds of it she didn’t look for love, never wanting to give up her highly-guarded privacy and independency. She once said: “I was too busy to find a boyfriend. I didn’t want to be looked after by anyone. I wanted to do it all myself.” Know what you mean, Jean.
Though recognised in public she was private and once said: “I wasn’t an extrovert. I can do all that on stage but not in real life.” Life was comfortable but sparse. She never owned a car and her most far-reaching excess was getting a taxi back home from the supermarket (after getting the bus there.) She lived happily with her mum in a modest semi-detached house in Southport, preferring the company of her cats to the Corrie cast.
After 60 years in the industry she Jean announced her retirement and died in Southport Hospital three days after her 90th birthday.
That sunny Saturday morning I had a stroll in the pleasant grounds surround Southport Crematorium. Bouquets were everywhere, not just in obvious places but by trees away from paths and under specific growths of foliage. Bird feeders and squirrels were everywhere too which was apt as Jean who had an affinity for animals than human beings.
The main room where the services were held was empty so I strolled in and sat down for a while. I’d never been up to the rollers that push the coffin out through the door to the waiting flames and got people blubbing a bit. I did a few pictures of me saluting and pointing but noticed a security camera watching me. At least I didn’t stand on the platform and do a triple somersault for the sakes of these newsletters.
The hospital is a few minutes away where Jean died so I took a photo of it. A red traffic light had stopped cars and the people in them must have wondered why the prat was doing a salute into a camera but I’m used to it.
Jean loved Southport and I drove down to the nucleus which was packed with day-drippers under an azure sky. I sat on a bench at Lord Street, the main shopping drag off the front as I’m sure Jean did.
At Southport Hospital where Jean died three days after her 90th birthday…
The grounds surround the crematorium are a haven for squirrels. Here’s a young Jean Alexander with a squirrell…
As I remember Jean as she is on the right…
Pointing at the chimney of the crematorium…
I’m sure Jean would have gone into central Southport and done some people-watching…