Alexander, Jean [real name Jean Margaret Hodgkinson]
- Jeff Evans
Alexander, Jean [real name Jean Margaret Hodgkinson] (1926–2016), actress, was born on 11 October 1926 at 18 Rhiwlas Street, Toxteth, Liverpool, the second child of Archibald Alexander (Archie) Hodgkinson (1895–1969), electrician, and his wife Ellen Frances (Nell), née Hill (1896–1980). She grew up in a Scottish Presbyterian home in Toxteth, shared with her elder brother Kenneth (1924–2017). Her father, a crane-driver at the time of her parents’ marriage in 1918, later worked as an electrician with the liner company Cunard, and the family house, she admitted, was poor, and lacking basic amenities including an indoor toilet. She remembered the family as being ‘hardworking and churchgoing’. ‘You just tried to better yourselves,’ she recalled (The Times, 17 Oct 2016).
For Jean’s part, this meant winning a scholarship to St Edmund’s College for Girls, which she left at the age of fifteen, taking a clerical job with the Liverpool library service but filling her spare time with amateur dramatics, inspired by countless childhood visits to the local Pavilion Theatre to watch touring variety acts. To neutralize her native accent, she took elocution lessons. She left the library for a job at the Adelphi Guild Theatre in Macclesfield, with prospects of becoming a stage manager. This entailed travelling to various towns, putting on short runs of shows in small theatres. Her stage début came in 1949 in the Somerset Maugham play Sheppey, but the local critics were brutal. ‘The worst notice I have ever had,’ she declared about one review. ‘“Incompetent” was the kindest word in it’ (Daily Telegraph, 17 Oct 2016). Nevertheless, the Adelphi experience proved to be a solid grounding for a career and she followed this with periods in repertory theatre in Oldham, Southport, and York, adopting her father’s middle name as her stage surname, before heading to London to further her ambitions.
Although unemployed for a year, Jean Alexander gradually picked up small roles on television in series such as Deadline Midnight, Emergency—Ward 10, Z Cars, the schools’ series Television Club, and the children’s drama Badger’s Bend, but it was back in the north that her breakthrough came when she was offered a small part in Coronation Street, playing a landlady named Mrs Webb. That was in 1962 and two years later the programme’s casting department called again, this time with a more substantial role. The new producer, Tim Aspinall, had decided that an overhaul was needed to keep the now four-year-old series fresh. Several actors were moved on and in their place came new talent, with Alexander cast as one half of a quarrelsome married couple.
As Hilda Ogden, the tittle-tattling pub cleaner, Alexander was handed the role that was to define not just her career but also her life. With Bernard Youens cast as her boozy, workshy husband Stan, she grasped the opportunity with both hands, richly filling the character with humour and pathos in equal measure. She immediately recognized that the constantly sparring nature of the Ogdens’ relationship would soon pall and together with her on-screen partner she progressively added depth to the scriptwriters’ work. The Ogdens would be two of life’s losers who were always letting each other down, but Hilda and Stan would have a bond, one that allowed Hilda to defend her layabout other half to the hilt in the face of detractors while allowing Stan, for his part, proudly to admire his wife’s feisty battling spirit.
Alexander’s character was constructed from shrewd observation of people she saw around her. For instance, Hilda’s headscarf and curlers were things she brought from the war years, after witnessing munitions-factory girls scurrying to work. The scarf ensured their hair stayed safely out of the machinery while the curlers beneath prepared them for the chance of a night out at the end of the day. Sadly, for the ever-hopeful Hilda, the night out rarely followed.
The Ogdens quickly became a fixture and, over the next two decades, Hilda was taken to the heart of the nation with her ill-advised attempts at social climbing and her hilarious malapropisms: the colourful panoramic wallpaper that proudly decorated her living room was always a ‘muriel’, for instance. Viewers adored the Ogdens’ tragic-comic existence—portentously they lived at number 13 Coronation Street—admiring their resilience in the face of countless knock-backs and revelling in their sharp repartee, and they grieved with Hilda when Stan passed away—Bernard Youens himself having died—in 1984. As Hilda slowly unpicked a parcel containing her deceased husband’s glasses, her defiant stiff upper lip finally crumpled. Emotion took over, the dam broke, and the tears flowed. The Royal Television Society, presenting Alexander with the award for best performance of the year, described the scene as ‘one of the most moving moments in TV history’ (The Times, 17 Oct 2016).
Without her sparring partner, Alexander felt that Hilda had nowhere to go and decided to leave the series herself. Her send-off episode in 1987 attracted nearly 27 million viewers as her character departed for Derbyshire to become a doctor’s housekeeper. She made just one return visit, attending Stan’s grave in a short special for ITV’s Telethon ’90 charity appeal. During her 23-year run in the series, Hilda had become a national treasure. In 1979 the broadcaster Russell Harty set up a fan club—the British League for Hilda Ogden—whose committee members included Michael Parkinson, Sir John Betjeman, and, as president, Lord Olivier.
In 1989 Alexander revealed some of her private life in an autobiography, The Other Side of the Street, but fans were often surprised to discover that the actress was very unlike her on-screen persona, particularly in the way that she spoke—those elocution lessons had clearly had an effect—and in her interests. ‘I like gardening and listening to Beethoven,’ she explained (The Times, 17 Oct 2016).
After leaving Coronation Street, Alexander appeared in the film Scandal (1989), playing the part of Christine Keeler’s mother, and provided the voice of Mrs Santa in the Robbie the Reindeer cartoon film Hooves of Fire (1999). On television, she starred as the snooker-mad Granny Trellis in the David Nobbs sitcom Rich Tea and Sympathy (1991) and joined the cast of Last of the Summer Wine (1988, 1989, and 1992–2010) as Auntie Wainwright, the wily junk shop owner who never missed a sale. She was also seen in such series as Boon (1988), Where the Heart Is (2000–02), Barbara (2000–02), and Heartbeat (2001–3), but, for most people, she would remain Hilda Ogden to the end of her life.
Jean Alexander never married and openly declared she was happy never to have had a romantic relationship. ‘I was too busy to find a boyfriend,’ she revealed (The Times, 17 Oct 2016). Instead, she lived with her mother and her cats in Southport and latterly resided alone after her mother’s death in 1980. Osteoporosis was one of the health problems that troubled her in later years, adding to the various phobias that she—and several members of her family, she revealed—had suffered from. In 2016 she felt unwell and was taken to Southport and Ormskirk Hospital, where—after a brief return to the care home in which she had taken up residence—she died on 14 October. The death certificate cited hospital-acquired pneumonia, congestive cardiac failure, and cerebrovascular disease as among the causes.
Tributes from the acting world flowed in. William Roache, who played alongside her in Coronation Street as Ken Barlow, described her as a ‘wonderful actress’ who, as well as having a ‘gift for comedy’, could ‘deliver incredibly moving performances’ (The Observer, 16 Oct 2016). Other Coronation Street stars were equally generous. Julie Goodyear, who played pub landlady Bet Lynch, said she was ‘meticulous in her work. It was an absolute joy to play scenes with her’ (ibid.). Her funeral service took place at Southport Crematorium on 27 October 2016 and, in 2017, her ashes were scattered near Grasmere, Cumbria, along with those of her recently deceased brother.
- D. Little, The Coronation Street story (1995)
- J. Evans, The Penguin TV companion (2011)
- The Independent (15 Oct 2016)
- The Observer (16 Oct 2016)
- The Times (17 Oct 2016); (18 Oct 2016); (25 Nov 2016)
- Daily Telegraph (17 Oct 2016)
- The Guardian (17 Oct 2016)
- History of the Coliseum, Oldham Coliseum Theatre, www.coliseum.org.uk/about-us/history-of-the-coliseum/#image-10, accessed 7 May 2019
- photograph, with Doris Speed, 1967, Mary Evans Picture Library/AF Archive
- obituary photographs