Date of Birth: 11 October 1926, Toxteth, Liverpool, UK
Birth Name: Jean Mavis Hodgkinson
Nickname: Jean Alexander
Hilda Ogden was Weatherfield’s answer to Carmen Miranda. While Miranda wore fruit in her hair, Hilda favoured curlers and headscarf, as if her hairdo were permanently in preparation for a glamorous invitation that never came. And when she warbled in a reedy, affected soprano (usually as she dusted the Rovers Return under the landlady Annie Walker’s patrician eye), those on the receiving end winced. And yet, against the odds, Hilda, conceived by Coronation Street’s writers in 1964 as a nagging wife and gossiping char, became much more than that and found a place in the hearts of millions of the enduring soap’s fans.
She was regularly confused with her alter ego. Once, Alexander reported she was coming out of Woolworth’s and a woman pinned her against a shop window. “I know who you are,” the woman said, and then, recalled Alexander, “backed away as though I were a priceless painting”. Fans frequently asked her “Where’s your curlers?” or “Where’s Stan, then?”
Hilda Ogden was born during Granada TV’s 1964 night of the long knives. Eager for ratings and worried that the four-year-old soap had become too cosy, the show’s 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 (it’s 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 37 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 didn’t send him in the direction of a pint. They were like us, or like what we feared becoming.
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 weekend’s second honeymoon at a four-star hotel with Stan. In their suite, after drinking freebie champagne, Hilda, in seventh heaven, sang Vera Lynn’s 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 BLHO’s lapel badge featuring Hilda in curlers.
She was born in Toxteth, Liverpool, the second child of Archie Hodgkinson, an electrician, and his wife, Nell, who lived in a terraced house very similar to Hilda and Stan’s (except it didn’t have a bathroom or indoor lavatory). Jean got the acting bug early after staying at a guesthouse in Barrow-in-Furness where her dad was working at the shipyard. In the guesthouse back yard, 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 O’Connor 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 didn’t quite work: in later life, she reported, someone would always ask: “What did you say, scouse?”
In 1949, after five years working for Liverpool’s 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 Maugham’s Sheppey as Florrie.
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 O’Neill’s 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 kidnapper’s landlady.
The year after leaving Coronation Street for good, Alexander made a guest appearance in the BBC’s 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 Keeler’s mother in Scandal, the 1989 film about the Profumo affair, and voiced Mrs Santa in Hooves of Fire, the 1999 Robbie the Reindeer film.