“In a long career, Kathleen Harrison was rigidly type-cast, kept firmly below stairs. On the few occasions she was not a maid or the daily, she was a nosy neighbour or a Cockney mum – clearly the British character actress par excellence. She has been loyal, cheeky, vague ( ‘I dunno, dear’ is one of her stock remarks) and chin-up cheerful -‘common’ to use a word she (the screen Harrison) uses about others but never herself. There have been other actresses of this vernacular – Thora Hird, Dandy Nichols and the more eccentric and divinely funny Irene Handl – but Harrison is the only one who achieved real film stardom. In her own modest way she was as accomplished a screen artist as any.” – David Shipman – “The Great Movie Stars – The International Years” (1972)
Kathleen Harrison was long a stalwart of British cinema. Her place was always firmly below stairs – a cook perhaps, or a cleaning lady often answering the door with a puzzled expression always fearful that trouble was just around the corner. She was born in 1892 in Blackburn in Lancashire. She studied at RADA and then went to live in Agentina for some time. On her return to Britain, she made her stage debut in 1926 in “The Constant Flirt”. Her first major film role was in 1931 in “Hobson’s Choice”. Kathleen Harrison made one film in Hollywood in Emlyn Williams “Night Must Fall” in 1937 as a maid (naturally). She achieved national fame as Mrs Huggett in four films about the Huggett family. In the mid 1960’s she starred in a very popular television series Mrs Thursday about a cleaner who won the football pools. She died in 1995 at the age of 103.
Her “Independent” obituary by Anthony Hayward:One of the greatest British film character actresses of the Forties and Fifties, the homely Kathleen Harrison made a career out of playing cockney mothers, maids and charwomen. After fame as the cleaner Ma Huggett in the series of Huggetts film comedies and a long-running radio serial, she found a new audience on television in the Sixties with the hugely successful comedy- drama Mrs Thursday.
She was born in Blackburn, Lancashire, in 1892. Her family moved to London when she was five and the aspiring actress trained at RADA (1914-15), where she won the Du Maurier Bronze Medal. While playing Eliza Doolittle there in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the writer attended rehearsals and gave her a piece of advice that was to become the inspiration for many of the roles she would later play. “Go out into the Old Kent Road and just listen to the women talking,” he told her.
However, on graduation, she married and went abroad to live in Argentina and Madeira for eight years. On her return to Britain, Harrison made her stage debut as Mrs Judd in The Constant Flirt, at the Pier Theatre, Eastbourne, in 1926, and appeared in the West End for the first time the following year as Winnie in The Cage, at the Savoy Theatre. Her many subsequent West End plays included A Damsel In Distress, The Merchant and Venus, Lovers’ Meeting, Line Engaged, The Corn is Green, Night Must Fall – later repeating her role as the housekeeper in the 1937 film version – and Sailor Beware!, in which she took over the lead role of fearsome mother Emma Hornett that had made a star of Peggy Mount.
Harrison had already made her film debut with a small role in Our Boys, back in 1915, when she returned to the screen in the 1931 picture Hobson’s Choice, based on Harold Brighouse’s play set in her native Lancashire. Cast firmly in the mould of cockney domestics and mothers, she appeared in another 85 films, including The Man from Toronto (1932, as Jessie Matthews’ maid), The Ghoul (1933, with Boris Karloff), Home from Home (1939, as Sandy Powell’s wife), In Which We Serve (1942), Oliver Twist (1948, as Mrs Sowerby), The Winslow Boy (1948, repeating her stage role as the excitable maid), Scrooge (1951, with Alastair Sim), The Pickwick Papers (1952, as Miss Wardle), Lilacs in the Spring (1954, as Anna Neagle’s dresser), The Big Money (1956, as Ian Carmichael’s mother), Alive and Kicking (1958, with Sybil Thorndike and Estelle Winwood as three lively old ladies escaping from a home), On the Fiddle (1961, as Stanley Holloway’s wife) and West 11 (1963, as Alfred Lynch’s mother).
Harrison first played the London East End charwoman Ma Huggett in Holiday Camp (1947), a film featuring the fictional Huggett family and capitalising on a post-war leisure innovation. The public loved it and the actress continued in the role, alongside Jack Warner as her screen husband and, at various times, Jimmy Hanley and Petula Clark playing two of their children, when Rank tried to capitalise on the original’s success by making the sequels Here Come the Huggetts (1948), Vote for Huggett (1949) and The Huggetts Abroad (1949). When the series received a critical mauling, Rank axed it, but such was the Huggetts’ popularity that they switched to radio in Meet the Huggetts, a serial that ran from 1953 to 1962.
As her cinema appearances became less frequent, Harrison also turned to television, finding a large following as the star of Mrs Thursday, a role created for her by Ted Willis in 1966. Again, the series was panned by the critics, but viewers loved it and immediately made Mrs Thursday the most popular programme on television, even toppling the mighty Coronation Street from its No 1 slot in the ratings. In the programme, also featuring Hugh Manning – later to play the Rev Donald Hinton in Emmerdale Farm – Harrison acted a charwoman who inherits pounds 10m and the controlling interest in a multinational company.
Five years later, she turned down the title role in Jeremy Sandford’s acclaimed BBC play Edna the Inebriate Woman, which won Patricia Hayes a Best Actress on TV award. Harrison’s other television appearances included Shades of Greene, Danger UXB and two BBC serialisations of Charles Dickens novels, Our Mutual Friend and Martin Chuzzlewit (Dickens was her favourite author). She made her final screen appearance in the 1979 Disney comedy chase film The London Connection in the small role of an elderly bystander.
In 1992, Harrison owned up to reaching the grand old age of 100 and received her telegram from the Queen, after a lifetime of making herself out to be six years younger. She was one of Britain’s oldest surviving actresses.
Kathleen Harrison, actress: born Blackburn, Lancashire 23 February 1892; married 1916 John Henry Back (died 1960; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died 7 December 1995
Kathleen Harrison’s “Independent” obituary can also be accessed here.