Denise Coffey was born in 1936 in Aldershot. She began her career at the Gateway Theatre in Edinburgh. Her films include 1962’s “Waltz of the Toreadors” and “Far From the Maddning Crowd” with Julie Christie and Terence Stamp.
Denise trained at the College of Dramatic Art and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music. She began her career in rep. at the Gateway Theatre in Edinburgh and then transferred to the Palladium Theatre, also in Edinburgh, where she appeared in various variety shows. She worked as an interviewer for BBC radio before finding work as an actress on the West End stage. Her theatre credits include West End productions of ‘High Spirits’, ‘The Beggars Opera’ and ‘Let’s Get a Divorce’ and numerous productions at the Mermaid Theatre. Denise appeared in the feature films “Waltz of the Toreadors”, “Georgy Girl” and “Far From the Madding Crowd” and made many television appearances, most notably the “Stanley Baxter” series, “Do Not Adjust Your Set”, “Captain Fantastic” and “Girls About Town”. Denise’s pastime interests include sea angling and playing the flute.
Irish Times obituary in 2022:
Denise Coffey obituary: Comedy maven
Sat Apr 2 2022 – 01:21
Born December 12th, 1936; Died March 24th, 2022
There have been few genuine clowns in theatre and television as good as Denise Coffey, who has died aged 85. She was a key TV presence in British comedy over its most redefining postwar period, and to see her on stage, always puckish and delightful, was to invest in two or three hours of an invaluable spiritual tonic.
She was a crucial member of the ebullient Young Vic company formed in London in 1970 under the aegis of the National Theatre at the Old Vic to deliver classics and new plays with regard to a younger audience. She had already, in the 1960s, played a series of classical and low-life roles at Bernard Miles’s Mermaid theatre in Puddle Dock.
She emerged at the Young Vic, under Frank Dunlop’s direction, trailing several film credits and a high profile in surreal TV comedy – notably in ITV’s Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69) – influenced by the radio comedy of the Goons and prefiguring Monty Python. She and David Jason formed the “legit showbiz” element in a company of university wits – Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, the producer Humphrey Barclay – with musical incursions from Vivian Stanshall’s delirious Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
There followed two popular series on ITV: Girls About Town (1970-71) in which she and the singer Julie Stevens were living it large in Acacia Avenue; and Hold the Front Page (1974), in which Coffey led a bunch of crazy newsroom assistants chasing down a “Mr Big” involved in a Great Rug Scandal. End of Part One (1979) was a satirical soap in which Mr and Mrs Straightman (Tony Aitken and Coffey as Norman and Vera) were disrupted in their domestic dullness by a panoply of famous people on TV; Coffey herself turned up as Robin Day in those trademark cruel glasses.
She was a total one-off: under 1.5m tall, elfin-looking, punchy and eccentric. In her private life, she was determinedly single, vegetarian and finally remote, especially after she discovered the joys of the West Country – she moved from London to Salcombe in Devon – and living by the sea.
Denise was born in Aldershot, Hampshire, the only child of Dorothy (nee Malcolm), and her husband, Denis Coffey, a proud Irishman from Cork and squadron leader in the RAF. They moved north to Dorothy’s native Scotland,where Denise was educated at Dunfermline high school and trained at the Glasgow College of Drama and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music.
She made a professional acting debut at the Opera House, Dunfermline, in 1954, “as various apparitions” in Macbeth. By 1962, she was playing the star turn, the word-mangling Mrs Malaprop, in Sheridan’s The Rivals at the Gateway in Edinburgh .
She had made her TV debut in 1959 in a BBC adaptation of Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet and consolidated her theatre reputation at the Mermaid in various classics and new plays.
She also featured in several important 60s films: as Peter Sellers’s eccentric daughter Sidonia Fitzjohn in John Guillermin’s Waltz of the Toreadors (1962); as Lynn Redgrave’s mousy little friend, Peg, in Georgy Girl (1966); and as Soberness in John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates.
On location in Dorset for the last of these, she visited nearby Devon, where she would return to live permanently. But not before her Young Vic stint – as both actor and associate director – in the 70s.
She toured Europe and the US with the company, appearing with them at the Edinburgh festivals of 1967, 1971 and 1972, notably as a harassed Scottish housewife in a Comedy of Errors relocated from Ephesus to Edinburgh.
Her work on radio included guest appearances on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and Just a Minute, and two series by Sue Limb: The Wordsmiths of Gorsemere (1985-87), a very funny send-up of the Lakeland poets.
A 1980 film written by Stanshall, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, in which she played a tapeworm-obsessed woman called Mrs E, won cult status when issued on DVD in 2006. “It’s impossible to do justice,” said the critic Nigel Andrews, “to the film’s arrant and quite unique lunacy.” In the 80s, in Canada, she directed plays for John Neville at his Neptune theatre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and for Christopher Newton at the Shaw festival in Ontario.
Her output was increasingly sporadic as she happily hunkered down in Salcombe, “exploring my artistic bent”, fishing in a small boat with a tiny outboard motor, gardening and making rare excursions to London, always travelling by taxi.
She is survived by a cousin, Linda