The actor Jo Kendall, who has died aged 81, was catapulted to fame as the only woman alongside a group of six male Cambridge University students – including John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie – in a revue that wowed the critics in the West End of London and transferred to Broadway in the early 1960s.
A decade later, she spoke the first words in the television soap Emmerdale Farm (now titled Emmerdale), in the role of Peggy Skilbeck, Annie Sugden’s daughter.
In 1963, Kendall – although not a Cambridge student – successfully auditioned to perform in the university’s Footlights Club revue A Clump of Plinths, staged first at the city’s Arts theatre, then the New Arts theatre in London, and directed by another Cambridge student, Humphrey Barclay.
The Guardian described it as “full of high spirits and delightfully fresh, original and funny”, and devoid of the political satire of its famous predecessor Beyond the Fringe. David Hatch, later a BBC radio producer and executive, was also in the cast. Retitled Cambridge Circus, the show then transferred to the Lyric theatre, in the West End.
By the time it reached Broadway in 1964, via a tour of New Zealand, Graham Chapman and Jonathan Lynn were among the septet. The New York Times, in a mixed review of the production at the Plymouth theatre, noted the male-female imbalance – Kendall herself always bemoaned the lack of opportunities for women – observing that she was “one lass with six young men” and the circus’s “glamorous ringmistress” in the opening sketch.
Out of Cambridge Circus came two future “silly” TV comedies, with Cleese and Chapman going on to create Monty Python’s Flying Circus, while Oddie and Brooke-Taylor formed the Goodies.
The BBC was quick to pick up on this new array of talent. Barclay, by then a radio producer, hired the cast to continue their antics in what was billed as “a new kind of laughing” for the show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again (1964-73). Kendall’s popular sketches with Cleese as “John and Mary” were based on a routine from Cambridge Circus in which they played a married couple in the Malaysian jungle swatting flies and talking nonsense.
When the unscripted I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue began its long run as an “antidote” to panel games in 1972, Kendall appeared in the first series.
In the same year, she joined the original cast of the Yorkshire-set Emmerdale Farm as Peggy, and was given the first episode’s opening line: “Matt, who’s she?” The question was directed at her husband, the farm labourer Matt Skilbeck, and referred to a woman in the distance, riding a horse and watching the cortege for the funeral of her father, Annie’s husband. The woman was Marian Wilks, daughter of the newly arrived Henry Wilks, an old friend of the matriarch Annie who helped to map out a future for her farm. They turned it into a limited company with Peggy as secretary, using her previously untapped talents to keep the books in order.
The character also gave birth to the soap’s first babies, the twins Sam and Sally, in 1973. Just three months after that, Kendall decided to leave, tired of the routine. “I didn’t like waking up on a Monday and knowing what I was going to do all week,” she said.
She was born in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, to Martha (nee Charlton) and Bernard Robinson; her parents split up when she was a child. Jo attended Leicester Collegiate school and, on graduating from Central School of Speech and Drama in London in 1961, taught English and drama in a Cambridge secondary school.
Taking the stage name Kendall, she acted with the university’s Amateur Dramatics Club in the ADC theatre, playing Desdemona in Othello (1962) and Maisie King in Expresso Bongo (1963). Barclay said she was “the obvious choice as the female component” when he was casting A Clump of Plinths.
On radio, she then had a prolific 35-year career in dramas (1964-99), as well as taking over from Denise Coffey to appear, from 1977 to 1980, in the sketch series The Burkiss Way and playing Lady Cynthia Fitzmelon in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978-80), who christens the bulldozer that knocks down Arthur Dent’s house in the first episode.
She also had a 1974-75 stint as Kay Munro in the serial Waggoners’ Walk and starred as the parish council leader Mrs Roberts in the satirical soap Little Blighty on the Down (1988-92).
On television, Kendall was reunited with some of her Cambridge Circus cohorts in the surreal sketch series At Last the 1948 Show (1967) and Broaden Your Mind (1968-69), and voiced the Queen in a 1980 Goodies episode.
Her other roles included Anne Stanhope in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Mrs Joe in The Good Companions (1980-81), a 1982-83 run as the mother of Roland Browning in Grange Hill and the spirited Aunty Maud in the children’s comedy series Marlene Marlowe Investigates (1993).
Although she retired in 1999, Kendall was persuaded by the producer Barnaby Eaton-Jones to make two guest appearances, alongside Brooke-Taylor and Garden, on a 2017 stage tour of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again. She was unable to join a 2020 tour after suffering a stroke.
• Jo Kendall (Josephine Mary Robinson), actor, born 17 February 1940; died 29 January 2022