The actor Sheila Mercier, who has died aged 100, was best known for playing Annie Sugden, head of the original focal family in the long-running ITV soap opera set in the Yorkshire Dales, Emmerdale Farm (latterly Emmerdale), from 1972 to 1994.
She was totally convincing as the pragmatic, no-nonsense farmer’s widow, grounding the series with a credible rural matriarch at its core. Annie was at the centre of the very first episode, burying her late husband, Jacob, and coming to terms with having to rebuild the farm’s fortunes while managing the strained relationship between her sons, Jack (Andrew Burt, later Clive Hornby) and Joe (Frazer Hines).
Over the years Annie lost her daughter (to a brain haemorrhage), her twin grandchildren (killed at a level crossing), and was involved in one of the show’s most sensational storylines when a plane fell out of the sky, killing her new husband, Leonard Kempinski (Bernard Archard), and leaving her in a coma. She eventually recovered but, bereaved, moved to Spain: in reality, Mercier had decided to leave the series after 22 happy years.
She briefly returned to the soap to marry another iconic character, Amos Brearly (Ronald Magill), and to bury both of her sons: Joe in 1995 and Jack in 2009. The latter was dictated by the real life death of Hornby, and Mercier came out of retirement in order to pay tribute to her co-star, a testament to the bond she had formed with her fellow actors both on and off-screen – Hines once described her as being like a real mother to her fictional family.
Annie was tough and level-headed but not without a sense of humour, with Mercier’s naturalistic acting giving the series ballast, despite her theatrical background and an upbringing that could not have been more different from that of her TV alter ego.
She was born in Hull, East Yorkshire, to Herbert Rix of the family shipbuilding company JR Rix & Sons, and his wife, Fanny (nee Nicholson), an amateur actor and singer. The third of four children, when Sheila was young she saw more of her nanny than her parents, and was educated at the Canonesses of St Augustine school in the city and then St Ethelburga’s in Hornsea, where she began acting in school plays and performing in concerts put on by her mother.
Encouraged by her elocution teacher to pursue her dream of entering the theatre professionally, she completed her formal education at Hunmanby Hall girls’ school, near Filey, and then attended the Stratford-upon-Avon College of Drama. By the age of 18 she was appearing at the Hull Little theatre with the visiting Croydon repertory theatre, which included John Le Mesurier and Joan Craft. In 1939 she was performing at the city’s Palace theatre in a thriller for the actor-producer Carl Bernard, and also joined Donald Wolfit’s touring Shakespeare company.
During the second world war she continued acting in Hull, mounted charitable theatre productions in Hornsea and also served in the WAAF division of the Royal Air Force, becoming an adjutant in fighter command.
After the war she had stints in repertory theatre in Warrington, Cheshire, and Tonbridge, Kent, and in 1948 played the Queen in The Eagle With Two Heads in a production by her younger brother Brian (later Lord Rix) in Ilkley. She was with him when his Viking theatre company produced a 20-week season at the Margate Hippodrome in 1949. During this time she fell in love with her fellow actor Peter Mercier and changed her professional name after they married in 1951.
When Brian began to excel at farce, she and Peter became mainstays of his long-running and hugely popular residency at the Whitehall theatre in London. While there, her consummate stagecraft and perfect comic timing came in useful for roles in Dry Rot (1956-58), Simple Spymen (1958-61), One for the Pot (1961-64), Chase Me Comrade (1964-66, plus a 1966 summer season in Morecambe and national tour) and Uproar in the House (1967-69).
After her small screen debut in a broadcast of the stage play Exercise Bowler in 1946, most of her many small-screen appearances between 1958 and 1972 were television versions of Rix theatre productions, culminating in Six with Rix (1972), a tour of Vernon Sylvaine farces adapted by Michael Pertwee, which were then recorded for the BBC. They were to be her last television appearances before her long commitment to Emmerdale Farm began.
Apart from her brief returns to the soap, and in 2000 a special internet-only tie-in drama, in which she played opposite Hornby, she had no desire to return to acting once she had retired.
She had become pregnant after being raped by a South African RAF officer at a New Year’s Eve party in 1939 (the day before her 21st birthday). Her parents insisted that the baby be given up for adoption and Sheila reluctantly acquiesced – she did not see her daughter, Janet, again until 1969. Opening up about these events – which she had been obliged to keep secret for many years – in her 1994 autobiography, Annie’s Song: My Life and Emmerdale (written with Anthony Hayward), gave her much needed closure: “My life is complete,” she said.
Peter, who eventually gave up acting and became her agent, died in 1993. She was also predeceased by their only child, Nigel, who died in 2017. Janet survives her.
• Sheila Betty Mercier, actor, born 1 January 1919; died 4 December 2019