Hilda and Stan Ogden, played by Bernard Youens, in a 1967 episode of Coronation Street. The ducks came along later. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
Hilda Ogden was born during Granada TVs 1964 night of the long knives. Eager for ratings and worried that the four-year-old soap had become too cosy, the shows new producer, Tim Aspinall, purged several actors including Frank Pemberton, Doreen Keogh and Ivan Beavis. The character Martha Longhurst, who had been the gossipy foil of Minnie Caldwell and Ena Sharples, had a heart attack and collapsed on a table in the Rovers snug (its how, perhaps, she would have wanted to go). In a bitter prefiguring of more recent employment practices, the press knew who was to be sacked before the actors.
In came the bracing new Ogden family. Stan was played by a former leading man and Granada continuity announcer Bernard Youens and his wife Hilda by Alexander, who was then 38 and whose acting career until that breakthrough had consisted of character parts in theatres at Southport and York, and minor TV roles. They were cast as stock soap characters, comedy proles, about whom the likes of Annie Walker, Elsie Tanner and Rita Fairclough would be insufferably snooty. Stan was a boozy layabout slob, she his common wife with laughable pretensions. Hilda had an Alpine mural on the living room wall which she called a muriel and three plaster ducks rising up it a vista Stan later ruined by letting his bath overflow.
But Hilda and Stan confounded that blueprint. Viewers loved them for their daily battles against their plight in the seemingly cursed 13
Coronation Street she destined to live on her wits, he dodging any task that didnt send him in the direction of a pint. They were like us, or like what we feared becoming.
As for Youens and Alexander, they established an off-screen rapport perhaps more straightforwardly fond than the relationship they acted out on screen. She called him Bunny and the two actors often rehearsed their lines over convivial games of Scrabble.
In a bittersweet storyline in November 1977, Hilda had a rare stroke of luck. She won a competition organised by Loving Cup Shandy with her slogan: Be a mistress as well as a wife and your husband will always be your boyfriend. The prize was a weekends second honeymoon at a four-star hotel with Stan. In their suite, after drinking freebie champagne, Hilda, in seventh heaven, sang Vera Lynns Room 504. When Hilda reached the last line of the song, Alexander recalled, and gave him a wistful look, a slurred voice said Shurrup! It was Bunny, putting on his own unscripted line, a piece of inspired improvisation that made a perfect end to a sad little comedy.
And yet the Ogdens marriage was hardly loveless, as Alexander recognised. Hilda could criticise him but she defended him furiously if anyone cast aspersions on his character, Alexander wrote. There was always a sense of deep pride when she talked of my Stan, just as our ilda contained a tinge of awe. Together they formed an alliance against a world that was out to do them down.
In 1979, the British League for Hilda Ogden was founded: its honorary life president was Sir John Betjeman, and Russell Harty, Willis Hall and Michael Parkinson were on the committee. They were proud to wear the BLHOs lapel badge featuring Hilda in curlers.
In 1984, Youens died and so, after a bizarre interval, Stan was written out, dying in his sleep upstairs at no 13 that November. Nothing became Hilda so much as the manner of her grieving Stans passing. Alone in that muriel-dominated living room, she took her husbands specs from their case and unfolded and folded them one last time. It was a shattering moment, and one repeated in Jonathan Harveys 2011 stage show Corrie. Alexanders performance was honoured with a Royal
Television Society best performance award. I did not bring any of my real sorrow to the screen, said Alexander. After, all Bunny had died some months earlier.
Alexander couldnt carry on in Coronation Street for much longer after that. Hilda holed up with her cat, Rommel, until, on Christmas Day 1987, she was invited to move to the country with the widowed Dr Lowther and keep house for him. Her departure was front page news. TA-RA CHUCK! was the News of the Worlds headline. Hilda was 63 at the time, Alexander only 61, and looking for new challenges.
She was born in Toxteth, Liverpool, the second child of Archie, an electrician, and Nell, who lived in a terraced house very similar to Hilda and Stans (except it didnt have a bathroom or indoor lavatory). Jean got the acting bug early after staying at a guest-house in Barrow-in-Furness where her dad was working at the shipyard. In the guest-house backyard, 12 dancing girls practised their routines. Jean was captivated: Little Jean, skinny, crop-headed, scabby-kneed, standing on a stage and making people laugh or cry it would have been too absurd. But not to me
At the Pavilion theatre, Liverpool, she saw variety acts that deepened that ambition Lucan and McShane, the Four Charlottes, Cavan OConnor and Teddy Brown. The last act was an enormous American, all girth and smiles, who played the xylophone. She wanted to emulate him: I began to wonder just where in Toxteth I could learn the xylophone. As a teenager, she spent spare time at the Playgoers Club, an amateur theatre troupe where she became adept at stage management, set building and prompting. She also sought to obliterate her native accent with five-shilling weekly elocution lessons. They didnt quite work: in later life, she reported, someone would always ask: What did you say, scouse?
In 1949, after five years working for Liverpools library service, she was hired to act at 5 a week by the Macclesfield-based Adelphi Theatre Guild. She made her professional debut in Somerset Maughams Sheppey as Florrie. It was not a success. I just could not simper, flutter my eyelids or gaze adoringly into the leading mans eyes my performance was as inadequate as I feared it would be. She received her first and worst review. Incompetent was the kindest word in it, she wrote.
During the 1950s she worked in theatre in Southport and York. She took relatively minor roles, such as the front end of a pantomime horse and the bargewoman in Eugene ONeills Anna Christie. At the end of the decade she headed to London where in 1960 she made her TV debut in Deadline Midnight. A string of minor TV roles followed, including in 1962 a small part in Coronation Street as a kidnappers landlady.
The year after leaving Coronation Street for good, Alexander made a guest appearance in the BBCs long-running sitcom about northern gents in their dotage,
Last of the Summer Wine. She played Auntie Wainwright, a money-grabbing local junk shop owner, a role she reprised from 1992 until the series ended in 2010. She also had minor roles in films: she was Christine Keelers mother in Scandal, the 1989 film about the Profumo affair, and voiced Mrs Santa in Hooves of Fire, the 1999 Robbie the Reindeer film.
Alexander successfully kept any hint of a personal life out of the papers. She wrote: I wanted to be an actress from a very early age and I dedicated myself to achieving that ambition. Marriage was never part of that long-term plan After all, there are millions of women in the country who have preferred a career to a marriage. I am just one of them.
She is survived by a brother, Kenneth Hodgkinson, 91, and nieces Sonia Hearld, 64, and Valerie Thewlis, 60.
Jean Alexander, actor, born 11 October 1926; died 14 October 2016