There are many memorable mothers in British sitcom history: over-the-top nightmare Edwina in Absolutely Fabulous, snobby social-climber Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances, mother-in-denial Joanna Clore in Green Wing and dreamy Ria in Butterflies to name but a few but it’s possible that none can match up to the overbearing, controlling and fearsome Mrs Phyllis Lumsden in Sorry!
Played by the inimitable Barbara Lott, Mrs Lumsden was determined to keep her son as her little boy for as long as possible, often manipulating the events and people in his life to ensure he stayed living with her in the family home, despite him being in his 40s. Even though the main character was supposed to be Ronnie Corbett’s Timothy, Phyllis was the focus of the series; with her withering putdowns and fierce glares she ruled the Lumsden household. What made Lott’s performance as Phyllis so good, however, was the fact that whilst many other actors may have been tempted to play her as a completely comedic role, Lott was more restrained. She knew how to give a line the right emphasis to gain a big laugh but also kept the character real enough to retain credibility so that viewers weren’t just waiting for repetitious catchphrase (think Nelly Boswell’s one-trick hysterical shouting of ‘SHE IS A TART!’ in Bread).
As well as Sorry, Barbara Lott also appeared in many other recognisable television programmes, including Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Dixon of Dock Green, two stints on Coronation Street, Z Cars, The Duchess of Duke Street and as Auntie Pearl in the BBC’s 2point4 Children. Personally, though, the performances for which I feel she should really be revered were 1988’s Mrs Cravat – a character that appeared several times in Ralph McTell’s lovely musical children’s show, Tickle on the Tum – and a turn on bizarre problem-solving celebrity-thon, The Adventure Game.
Barbara was born in Richmond, on the 15th May 1920. Her talent for acting shone through from an early age: her father, William Lott, was an Ealing Studio’s executive and Barbara frequently appeared in very small roles or crowd scenes. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in the 1940s and began her career proper on stage, in small repertory theatres in Harrogate, Barnsley and Brighton. She acted on stage in London in 1944, in John Gielgud’s Love for Love, before joining several touring productions.
Her first television role came in 1950, with the part of Viola in Twelfth Night for the BBC’s Sunday-Night Theatre series and after that she was rarely out of work.
In 1978 she took on the part of Martin Jarvis’ mother, Mrs Bennett, in the sitcom Rings on their Fingers which ran for three series. Obviously the BBC noted this performance as in 1981 she became the character for which she is now remembered in Sorry!
She wasn’t known for film work but she did have parts in Three Silent Men in 1940, The Party’s Over in 1962 and Ballet Shoes in 1975. Without mentioning the word typecast, she also enjoyed critical acclaim in another mother role; this time it was as Ewan McGregor’s mum in Peter Greenaway’s raunchy movie The Pillow Book (1996).
Barbara was married to Stuart Latham. He was a theatre and film actor, a director and a television producer. He was the first Coronation Street producer and took charge of the first 60 episodes as well as seven more in later years. They had no children and Latham died in 1993.
Barbara Lott died in December 2002, aged 82.