Bella Emberg obituary

Actor and comedian best known for her TV role as Blunderwoman alongside Russ Abbot

The actor Bella Emberg, who has died aged 80, played stooge to comedians such as Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Dick Emery, Stanley Baxter and Les Dawson on TV before gaining her greatest fame as a foil to Russ Abbot.

Alongside his spoof superhero Cooperman, a fusion of Tommy Cooper and Superman, she was memorable as Blunderwoman, one of her many metaphorically and physically larger-than-life characters. “It’s my fate to play fat, ugly bags,” she said in 1987. “My big break came when Russ wanted a fat lady who could keep a straight face.”

Emberg held back the smiles and donned the star-spangled headband and hot pants, along with red boots, in Russ Abbot’s Madhouse (ITV, 1980-85) and The Russ Abbot Show (BBC, 1986-93; ITV, 1994-96) but also demonstrated her all-round talents in other roles. Her performance with Abbot as Sonny and Cher singing I Got You Babe, with Emberg in a tent-like purple dress, remains a popular clip online. Along with other members of Abbot’s team – who included Les Dennis, Dustin Gee and, originally, Michael Barrymore – Emberg brought energy and vitality to weekend light-entertainment TV.

However, her sketch-show success overshadowed her acting roles in both comedies and dramas, and she later rued that she was typecast as Blunderwoman, making it difficult to land other TV parts.

Bella Emberg and Russ Abbot in a Cooperman and Blunderman sketch on Russ Abbot’s Summer Madhouse, 1985. YouTube

Born Sybil Dyke in Hove, East Sussex, to William and his wife, Hilda (nee Finch), she gained a love of the stage through free tickets to Brighton’s Theatre Royal given to her grandmother for displaying posters in her launderette. “That was on Mondays,” she recalled. “On Thursdays, I’d go into the gods for 2s 6d.” This eventually led her into repertory theatre in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, performing comedy one week, tragedy the next, and taking the professional name Bella Emberg.

She made her debut in a 1961 episode of the children’s show Playbox, presented by Eamonn Andrews and Tony Hart, and followed it by acting in plays such as Autumn Near the Angel (1964), by Ted Willis, and Olive Latimer’s Husband (1965), from the Rudolph Besier novel.

There were also roles in television drama series, including The Troubleshooters (two, in 1966 and 1969) and Z Cars (three, 1972-74), and Emberg played Mrs Corder in the Dennis Potter serial Pennies from Heaven (1978) and three characters in Doctor Who – a nurse in Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970), a kitchen maid in The Time Warrior (1974) and Mrs Croot in Love & Monsters (2006). She reprised this last role for The Runaway Bride story (2006), but her scene was deleted from the final edit.

However, Emberg’s love of comedy, impeccable timing and willingness not to take herself too seriously meant that sitcoms and sketch shows came to dominate her career. There were episodes of Scott On… (1968), Father Dear Father (1969), Curry & Chips (1969), Sykes (1973), Man About the House (1974), George & Mildred (1976) and A Sharp Intake of Breath (three roles, 1978-79).

Emberg brought energy and vitality to weekend light-entertainment TV, as demonstrated by her performance of I Got You Babe by Sonny and Cher, with Russ Abbot. YouTube

Her all-round skills came to the fore in The Benny Hill Show (1966-86), The Dick Emery Christmas Show (1977), Freddie Starr’s Variety Madhouse (1979) and Freddie Starr (1994), The Dawson Watch (1979-1980), and, during her run with Abbot, The Les Dennis Laughter Show (1987-90). After Abbot’s TV show ended, she continued with him on radio (BBC Radio 2, 1997-2002).

Children’s TV was a natural home for Emberg. She took an uncredited role as a cleaner in Grange Hill in 1980 before, more significantly, playing Mrs Frisby in Billy Webb’s Amazing Stories (1991) and Aunt Barbara (2008-10) from the second series of Bear Behaving Badly, both for the BBC. Later, Emberg returned to comedy as her namesake Bella in the experimental series Pompidou (2015), co-created by Matt Lucas.

On stage, Emberg enjoyed many tours and summer seasons with Abbot during the 1980s, as well as his Palladium Madhouse (1990), and found that TV recognition brought her offers to perform in pantomime, where she excelled as the resident fairy. “I like playing a fairy, even if it is a rather large fairy,” she once said.

On the 1996-97 British tour of Prisoner Cell Block H – The Musical, she played Minnie Fiddlebrass.

She also appeared in the Mel Brooks film History of the World: Part I (1981) and, in 2017, shot the role of Sheila for In the Long Run, a semi-autobiographical sitcom created by the actor Idris Elba, due out on Sky One later this year.

In recent years, Emberg suffered from gout, which necessitated her walking with a stick, and which she said was probably brought on by excessive drinking in her heyday.

Emberg is survived by her partner, Rosemary Ellis.

Bella Emberg (Sybil Dyke), actor, born 16 September 1937; died 12 January 2018


Anthony Hayward

The GuardianTramp

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