Date of Birth: 16 June 1929 St Helens, Lancashire, Merseyside, UK
Birth Name: Pauline Lettice Yates
Nicknames: Pauline Yates
The gentle good nature of the BBC’s anarchic 1970s comedy The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin that made it such a hit owed much to the innocent yet tacitly conspiratorial support of Reggie Perrin’s wife, Elizabeth, played by Pauline Yates, who has died aged 85. She was a spirit of domestic calm in the mayhem created by David Nobbs’s other characters, led by Leonard Rossiter as the erratic Reggie Perrin, whose bizarre behaviour she treated as normal and in need of no explanation.
The show ran for three series between 1976 and 1979, in the course of which Elizabeth became almost as serenely batty as Reggie. Although she was practically teetotal, Yates needed a large gin and tonic at the end of each recording.
Yates’s career path was almost like a route map through British television comedy in the 70s and 80s. She was a consummate comic foil, appearing in The Ronnie Barker Playhouse on ITV in 1968, but also taking on central roles as the Tory MP in the BBC’s My Honourable Mrs (1975), opposite Derek Nimmo, and the divorcee finding a new life after marriage in Thames TV’s Harriet’s Back in Town (1972).
She was born into a working-class household in St Helens, Lancashire (now in Merseyside), the eldest of three daughters of Thomas Yates, a commercial traveller, and Marjorie (nee Blackie), who ran a corner shop. Raised in Liverpool, Elizabeth was determined to be an actor, much against her parents’ wishes. When she left Childwall Valley high school at 17, her mother gave her an ultimatum: get a job within a year or train as a teacher.
In two weeks she had found work as an assistant stage manager at Chorley theatre, before moving on to rep companies throughout the north and in London, where she shared digs with the actor Peggy Mount. She met the actor and writer Donald Churchill when both were working in Liverpool in 1960, and they were married later that year.
Yates’s looks and ability to learn lines quickly, a trick perfected during her years in rep, made her a popular choice for TV casting directors. In 1957 she was in the one of the first hospital soap operas, ITV’s Emergency Ward 10, and she appeared in the BBC police series Z Cars and Softly Softly, and, on a number of occasions, in ITV’s Armchair Theatre, for which Churchill wrote several plays.
Later, she was in four series of the Thames Television sitcom Keep It in the Family (1980-83) as the put-upon wife of a cartoonist, Dudley Rush (Robert Gillespie), and in 1985 appeared with Julie Walters in the film She’ll Be Wearing Pink Pyjamas as one of a group of middle-aged women at a survival school. Her last TV appearance was in the 2002 pilot for the ITV crime series Rose and Maloney, starring Sarah Lancashire and Phil Davis.
On stage she was Mrs Bennett in a Liverpool Playhouse production of Pride and Prejudice, and toured as Lettice in Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage (1991).
Domestic life in the Churchills’ Primrose Hill, north London, home could have been a sitcom script. They loved to entertain, and the house was often full of actors, writers and directors sitting around a drinks-laden table gossiping and laughing. Yates could sometimes be found in the kitchen pouring wine down the sink to encourage the guests to go.