The seventies were still hugely patriarchal times, and British comedy was no different. The heavy hitters of comedy at the time were Morecambe and Wise, the Two Ronnie, Les Dawson… all men. There were, however, some women who managed to break through to become household names.
A comedy performer without comparison, Penelope Keith was one, a comedy actress who starred in no less than two landmark sitcoms, made cameo appearances with Morecambe and Wise on the biggest entertainment show of it’s day – which she also started her career on – and outlive her peers to become the High Sheriff of Surrey, England, in 2002.
“I was very tall and very plain – I wasn’t going to get very far on looks – so I thought I’d better be the funny girl” – Penelope Keith.
She was rejected from her first acting school due to her height, but would go on to win Olivier and Bafta awards.
Her biggest hit was The Good Life, a sitcom following a couple – Tom and Barbara Good – who had decided to become wholly self-sufficient, growing their own plants, rearing their own animals. In the middle of the suburbs. Living next door to a very proper, conservative couple Margo and Jerry Ledbetter – Margo played by Keith.
Margo was bossy and proper. An upper middle class suburbanite passionate about living a life like those of aspirational magazines and adverts. She was very much head of her household, with husband Jerry broken into submission. The clash of the proper, straight-as-a-die Margo with Tom growing his own spuds and brewing his own wine made the show, with Margo the viewer’s favourite.
Ian Hislop, an influential satirist, once said that the best British comedy is based on class. Essentially, that’s what The Good Life is about. It’s the cold war between the middle class and the working class – that is where the bulk of the comedy is derived from – each with their own vision of the perfect world and each vision clashing with the other’s.
The series is also notable for two of its other stars – Richard Briars and Paul Eddington, the former sadly past away in February of this year after a long career in UK television, while the latter starred in Yes Minister as James Hacker, a hapless MP constantly battling with civil servants to get his own way. That sitcom would also become one of the UK’s greatest.
Keith went on after The Good Life ran for 3 series from 1975 to star in To The Manor Born, another hit sitcom centred on a will they/won’t they love story. Just before To The Manor Born started, she appeared with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise for their show, to take part in a musical number.
A phenomenal comedy actress, she went on to many more projects on television, on radio and on the stage. Her’s is a story of one woman’s talent outshining the societal and institutional sexism of the day to become a household name and the star attraction in two landmark sitcoms.