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Dame Penelope Anne Constance Keith, DBE, DL (born Penelope Anne Constance Hatfield; born 2 April 1940) is an English actress, best known for her roles in the British sitcoms The Good Life and To the Manor Born.

She began her career in repertory theatre before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963 and was a mainstay in the success of the Chichester Festival Theatre. Her theatre credits include Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests in 1974 and Michael Frayn's Donkeys' Years in 1976, for which she won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy Performance.

Having started her television career in the 1960s, she became a household name in the UK in the 1970s, when she played Margo Leadbetter in the sitcom The Good Life (1975-1978), winning the BAFTA TV Award for Best Light Entertainment Performance in 1977. In 1978, she won the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress for the television adaptation of The Norman Conquests. She then starred as Audrey fforbes-Hamilton in the BBC series, To the Manor Born (1979-1981), a show that received audiences of more than 20 million. In the 1980s and 1990s, she appeared as the lead character in six other comedy series.

Since the late 1990s, she has worked mainly in the theatre, including Keith Waterstone's Good Grief (1998), Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit (2004), Richard Everett's Entertaining Angels (2006) and as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (2007).

She succeeded Lord Olivier as president of the Actors' Benevolent Fund after his death in 1989. She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1990,Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2007, and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to the arts and to charity.

Early life

Keith was born in Sutton in 1940. Her father, who was a Major by the end of World War II, left her mother Connie when she was a baby, and Keith spent her early years in Clacton-on-Sea and Clapham. Her great uncle, John Gurney Nutting, was a partner in the coachbuilding firm J Gurney Nutting & Co Limited and Keith recalls sitting in the Prince of Wales's car.

Although not a Roman Catholic, at the age of six she was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Seaford. It was here that a young Keith first became interested in acting, and frequently went to matinees in the West End with her mother. When she was eight years old, her mother remarried and Penelope adopted her stepfather's surname of Keith. While she did not get on with her stepfather, her mother was a "rock of love" to her. She was rejected from the Central School of Speech and Drama, on the grounds that, at 5'10", she was too tall. However, she was then accepted at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, and spent two years there while working at the Hyde Park Hotel in the evening.

She began her career working in repertory theatre across the UK, including Lincoln, Manchester and Salisbury. Keith's earliest appearances were in The Tunnel of LoveGigi and Flowering Cherry. In 1963, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company both in Stratford and at the Aldwych Theatre in London.

Early career

She started her television career in programmes such as The Army GameDixon of Dock GreenWild, Wild Women and The Avengers. In the early 1970s, she appeared in The Morecambe & Wise ShowGhost Story and The Pallisers. Her film appearances during this time included Every Home Should Have OneTake A Girl Like YouRentadickand Penny Gold. In 1967, she had a minor role in Carry On Doctor, but the scene was cut from the final edit.

Her best known theatre appearance, in 1974, was playing Sarah in The Norman Conquests, opposite Richard Briers, her co-star in The Good Life. Keith and Briers would often film The Good Life during the day and perform on stage in the West End in the evening.

Ongoing work

Keith has regularly appeared on stage, taking the classics and new plays across the country. These include Shakespeare, Shaw, Sheridan, Wilde, Rattigan and Congreve. She played Lorraine in Noël Coward's Star Quality, while in 2004 she played Madame Arcati in Coward's Blithe Spirit at the Savoy Theatre. In 2004, Keith starred in the first of 5 full-cast BBC radio dramatisations of M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin novels, playing the title role. Two years later, she appeared at the Chichester Festival in the premiere of Richard Everett's comedy Entertaining Angels, which she later took on tour.

In 2007, she played the part of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest on tour, which transferred to the West End in 2008, at the Vaudeville Theatre. She has voiced adverts including ones for Pimm's, Lurpak, Tesco and, most famously, The Parker Pen Company, which was named one of the 100 Greatest Adverts in a Channel 4 programme. In 2012, she starred in Keith Waterstone's Good Grief, having previously appeared in the play'a premier production in 1998.

In 1997, she provided the voice of the narrator for Teletubbies, and also starred in the radio adaptations of To the Manor Born. In 2003, she appeared opposite June Brown in the television film Margery and Gladys. In 2007, she starred in a one-off To the Manor Born Christmas Special,

In 2009 she presented Penelope Keith and the Fast Lady, a one-off documentary for BBC Four about Dorothy Levitt, the Edwardian motoring pioneer. She returned to television in 2011 presenting the four-part BBC documentary The Manor Reborn.

Actresses

  • Jackanory (1965-1996) - Reader
  • Marie the White Female Kitten (1988) - Martha the Cow
  • I Wanted a Black Cat (1988) - Giraffe
  • Oliver's Christmas Carol (1988) - Martha the Cow
  • Santa and the Toothfairies (1991) - Queen Elisa
  • Tales of the Toothfairies (1993-) - Queen Elisa
  • Teletubbies (1997-2001) - The Bear with Brown Fuzzy Hair
  • House of Mouse (2000) - Martha the Cow

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