Remarkable, unique, unforgettable Betty Marsden was one of Britain’s most talented comedy actresses, best known for her multiple roles in the Kenneth Horne shows on BBC radio in the 1960s.
Betty Marsden was born in Liverpool on 24th February 1919, and appeared at Bath Pavilion aged 11 as the First Fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She made her London debut later that year as the Prince in The Windmill Man (Victoria Palace), a fairy play with music.
Gaining a scholarship for six years to the Italia Conti Stage School, she first acted in the West End in Closing at Sunrise (Royalty, 1935).
Other pre-war West End work came in Basil Dean’s production of Autumn (1937), Ivor Novello’s Comedienne (1938), and J B Priestley’s morality play, Johnson Over Jordan (1939).
During the Second World War she entertained the troops with ENSA, and played in the war-torn West End in the American comedy, Junior Miss (1943). In 1947 she won critical praise as the amorous Mrs Corcoran to Alastair Sim’s murderous medico in Dr Angelus and in Sacha Guitry’s Don’t Listen, Ladies! (1948).
Then came 12 years in intimate revue. She started at the tiny Irving Theatre Club in London in 1950-51 and went to the Edinburgh Festival with After The Show. She was in her element, and in the 1950s spent years at the Royal Court in Laurier Lister’s Airs on a Shoestring (1953-55) and its successor From Here and There.
In 1958 she appeared in a revue by John Cranko, Keep Your Hair On, which was so disastrous that the gallery was filled each night by audiences who wanted to take turns at making their own jokes at the expense of the stage action. The plot hinged on a revolution in London. Many scenes were for some reason set in a Mayfair hairdressers; she made a brave attempt at a song called Crowning Glory.
In the 1960s she was at the peak of her career, appearing on BBC radio’s Round the Horne which co-starred Kenneth Williams. She delighted millions of listeners who never knew what she looked like, with her radio characters, such as Daphne Whitethigh, the cookery expert, whose delivery owed something to Fanny Craddock. And there was a regular double-act with Hugh Paddick in the Brief Encounter genre. Much of the dialogue in this spoof would be a low-toned, breathy exchange of the remark “Darling”.
Her most famous film role is without doubt the oblivious, guffawing character of Harriet Potter, alongside other comedy heroes Terry Scott and Charles Hawtrey in Carry On Camping (1969). They make an exceptional comedy team throughout the film. In her later years, she appeared in character roles on French and Saunders (1987) and Casualty (1986).
Throughout, the filming of Carry On Camping (1969), Miss Marsden suggested to fellow actress Dilys Laye that she wanted to die with a glass of gin in her hand.
In July 1998, 24 hours after moving into a residential home for old actors, this is exactly what happened. Miss Marsden had been chatting to friends in the home’s bar when she collapsed and died. She was 79 and had been recovering from a bout of heart problems and pneumonia.