Heather Chasen obituary

Actor best known for her roles in Crossroads and The Navy Lark

The actor Heather Chasen, who has died aged 92, landed her best-known screen role in the television soap Crossroads. As Valerie Pollard, she played a cheating wife whose conquests in the bedroom mounted up while her millionaire husband, J Henry, took care of affairs in the motel boardroom.

It came after playing more than 20 characters – most of the female parts – throughout the 18-year run of the BBC radio sitcom The Navy Lark (1959-77), set on board the Royal Navy frigate HMS Troutbridge.

With adept changes of voice, Chasen’s roles included Ramona Povey, the wife of Richard Caldicot’s commander; Miss Simpkins, assistant to the Sea Lord; and Wren Chasen, alongside Leslie Phillips and Jon Pertwee as, respectively, the sub-lieutenant and chief petty officer perpetually trying to get the vessel out of the trouble they had personally created.

The arrival of Valerie Pollard at the Crossroads motel in 1982

Chasen held her own against the male cast during the Sunday studio recordings. Judy Cornwell, one of only a handful of other women in the show over its entire history, was in awe of them at first but told the author Richard Webber: “Heather showed me how to push the men out of the way, because they would grab the microphones and not let us in, so we had to kick them in the shins and get to the microphones that way.”

In 1981, four years after The Navy Lark ended, Chasen appeared in Crossroads for the first time, in the role of a newspaper reporter for just one episode. The following year, she returned for a four-year run (1982-86) as Valerie, whose husband (played by Michael Turner) became a shareholder in the motel.

A former fashion model, Valerie was used to the finer things in life, spending her husband’s money, devouring Tom Collins cocktails – and men. Knowing of her infidelity, J Henry cancelled her credit accounts and effectively grounded Valerie by finding a job for her behind the motel’s bar.

She sought revenge by having an affair with Adam Chance (Tony Adams) – who was previously in a relationship with her daughter Miranda (Claire Faulconbridge) – after he became engaged to Jill Harvey (Jane Rossington). However, Valerie showed a softer side when she provided support to Miranda after her daughter’s rape ordeal.

Heather Chasen in 1959
Heather Chasen in 1959. Photograph: ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

Heather was born in Singapore to British parents, Agnes (nee McCullock) and Mickey (Frederick Nutter) Chasen, an authority on south-east Asian birds and mammals who was assistant curator, later director, of the Raffles Museum (now the National Museum of Singapore). Her parents split up when she was 10, and both remarried. She was educated at a Malaysian boarding school, Pensionnat Notre Dame, in Pahang.

In 1942 Heather, with her mother and siblings, Christine and Jeremy, fled Singapore for England on the last boat to leave before the Japanese wartime occupation. Her father died the following day on a steamer that was sunk, and her stepfather, Ginger (GCR) Franks, died in the fighting that followed the invasion.

After attending Princess Helena college in Hertfordshire, she trained at Rada in London in 1944, though leaving after one term when she failed to get a scholarship. She made her professional debut as Marcella in Donna Clarines at the Castle theatre, Farnham (1945). Her first London stage role was as Leonardo’s wife in the Federico García Lorca tragedy Blood Wedding at the Arts theatre in 1954, directed by Peter Hall.

Chasen spent a year (1958-59) in the role of Mollie Ralston in the Agatha Christie whodunnit The Mousetrap (Ambassadors theatre, London) and many West End roles followed. She played Antonia in A Severed Head, JB Priestley’s adaptation of the Iris Murdoch novel (Criterion, 1963-64), a production that transferred to Broadway (Royale, 1964).

On television, she had runs as Helen Baker in the Francis Durbridge thriller The World of Tim Frazer (1960), Caroline Kerr (1968-69) in the BBC soap The Newcomers, Isabel Neal in the afternoon serial Marked Personal (1973-74), Mary Queen of Scots in the children’s adventure A Traveller in Time (1978) and Aunt Rachel in Young Sherlock: The Mystery of the Manor House (1982), as well as playing Margaret Thatcher in the drama-documentary Who Bombed Birmingham? (1990).

In 2011, Chasen returned to soap to take over the role of Lydia Simmonds, Janine Butcher’s grandmother, in EastEnders for a short stint when Margaret Tyzack had to pull out.

Six years earlier, Sean O’Connor, the producer of the Channel 5 soap Family Affairs – who directed her in various stage plays – created the part of Madge Bennett, an elderly woman in hospital in an Armistice Day story, specially for Chasen.

She had a natural eccentricity that was on display at O’Connor’s wedding – she turned up in camouflage pants and dark glasses with impenetrable blue lenses. Chasen also had an elegance and grand air about her that endeared her to friends, and she was often seen with a glass of champagne in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Heather Chasen being interviewed about her career

However, this high living meant she was often short of money. The former Coronation Street actor Amanda Barrie, who had a 10-year relationship with Chasen after appearing on stage with her in 1980, recalled her “loose grasp on reality”.

“Once, we were in a cafe on Marylebone High Street,” Barrie told me, “Heather was completely and utterly broke and said, ‘I’m going to phone the bank manager.’ She did, then said, ‘It’s wonderful. I’ve managed to get a £40 overdraft.’”

Throughout her life, she had relationships with both men and women – sometimes at the same time. In the 1940s, a stunning portrait of her was painted by Ella Mollo, with whom she conducted an affair while also sleeping with the artist’s Russian husband.

She said she partly based the alcoholic lesbian she played in the Enid Bagnold play Call Me Jacky (Oxford playhouse, 1967-68) on the novelist Patricia Highsmith, with whom she had a brief relationship in the 1960s.

Chasen’s 1949 marriage to John Webster ended in divorce. She is survived by their son, Rupert.

Heather Jean Chasen, actor, born 20 July 1927; died 22 May 2020

• This article was amended on 29 May 2020. Mention of Heather Chasen having been nominated for a Tony award for A Severed Head was deleted.


Anthony Hayward

The GuardianTramp

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