‘Dandy Nichols…was a law unto herself, and one of the best and most subtle scene stealers in the business.'
Best remembered as the stoical wife of Alf Garnett in the often-controversial BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, Dandy Nichols enjoyed a long and distinguished career, not only on television, but also on the big screen and in the theatre. To many, Nichols was the essential small-part character actor typically appearing as a cockney charlady, a busybody neighbour, or a dowdy housewife. But here performance in Till Death Us Do Part was an accomplished example of an understated performance that was vital to the series success. Even if she wasn’t writer Johnny Speight’s first choice to play the role of Else (short for Elsie) Garnett.
Till Death Us Do Part was launched on an unsuspecting British public as a single one-off production under the banner of the seminal series Comedy Playhouse. Speight’s sitcom was, as writer Graham McCann points out in his book Spike & Co. ‘the nightmare that the BBC’s internal censors had been dreading ever since the bad old days of the head-shaking, finger-wagging, tut-tutting Green Book. For those unfamiliar with this particular ‘bible’, the book (actually titled the BBC Variety Programmes Policy Guide for Writers and Producers), which had been first published in 1949, was a strict – not to be ignored at any cost – guideline as to what was deemed appropriate in the world of comedy on radio or television. Among jokes banned were those concerning politics, the royalty, immorality of any kind, suggestive references to honeymoon couples, derogatory references to "the working class" or jokes about pre-natal influences. Till Death Us Do Part didn’t simply tear the Green Book to shreds, it put it through a pulper and disintegrated it.
Despite some reservations in the hallowed halls of the BBC, there was enough support for Till Death Us Do Part to be given a full series in 1965. Cast as the misogynistic, racist, bigoted Eastender Alf Garnett (Alf Ramsey in the original pilot), was Warren Mitchel. Cast as his long-suffering wife was Gretchen Franklin, who at that time was regarded as the most recognisable 'walk on' actresses of the British film industry. But Franklin missed her chance to continue the role in the full series because she couldn't obtain her release from a stage role she was playing at the time. Instead, she recommended her friend Dandy Nichols for the part in the series.
Born Daisy Sander on 21 May 1907 in Fulham, London, England, Dandy Nichols started her working life as a secretary in a London factory but harboured a desire to become an actress. She invested her salary in drama, diction and fencing classes and began acting on an amateur basis. After being spotted in a charity show by a producer, she was invited to join a Cambridge repertory company, which she did, choosing the stage name of Barbara Nichols, which she later amended to Dandy - her childhood nickname. With the outbreak of the Second World War she returned to secretarial work, but two years later began touring with ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association established in 1939 by Basil Dean and Leslie Henson to provide entertainment for British armed forces personnel.
In 1942 Nichols married newspaper editor Stephen Bagueley Waters but the marriage was destined not to last. Nichols returned to the theatre after the war where she became a dependable talented support actress. In 1947, she was rewarded with her first minor screen roles (uncredited) in Hue and Cry and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and a more substantial role in a BBC play, Power Without Glory a psychological drama which also starred Kenneth More and Dirk Bogarde. By the late 1950s, Nichols had an impressive list of credits behind her and in 1957 she was offered her first regular role in a prime-time television series appearing in 15 consecutive episodes of Emergency-Ward 10.
Over the next decade, Dandy Nichols became a familiar face on television and in a number of British films. Her credits included Ask Mr. Pastry, Maigret, Probation Officer, Dixon of Dock Green and numerous BBC and ITV plays. In 1965 she appeared briefly alongside Gretchen Franklin in The Beatles film Help! (in which Warren Mitchell also had a cameo) and had by now appeared with many famous faces on screen and in the theatre. Her successes in theatre include the Royal Court Theatre and Broadway playing alongside Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud in David Storey's Home.
When Gretchen Franklin recommended Nichols for the role in Till Death Us Do Part producer Dennis Main Wilson was already an admirer of her talent as a subtle character actor who would fit seamlessly into the role of Alf’s put-upon wife who always bore the brunt of his tirades with a seemingly cold detachment that belied her ability to put her husband in his place with a withering look or cutting remark. The ‘silly moo’ wasn’t as silly as she seemed and could unseat her husband from his political soapbox without him even realising until it was too late:
Rita: He blames everything on Labour. He’d blame the weather on them if he could.
Alf: No one’s talkin’ about the weather, Miss Clever Dick.
Else: No. But we haven’t had no decent weather. Not since they’ve been in. I noticed that.
Alf: Look, as a cabinet minister of this realm…
Else: Rain, rain, rain it is…
Alf:…you’re perfectly entitled to…
Else: And gales. Terrible gales…
Alf:…on a ministerial level…
Else: And now snow in April!
Alf: Why don’t you shut up you silly mare? I’ve lost the thread of me argument!
Graham McCann thinks that the scripts alone made the show watchable, but the high quality of the acting made it enjoyable, picking out Dandy Nichols’ performance for particular praise. ‘Dandy Nichols…was a law unto herself, and one of the best and most subtle scene stealers in the business. She could fascinate just by making the most fleeting adjustment to her spectacles or the most furtive sideways glance.'
By the time Till Death Us Do Part came to an end in 1968, Dandy Nichols was a household name. She was able to shake off the character of Else and appeared on television in one-off plays, in sitcoms – in particular The Trouble With Lillian in which she appeared with Patricia Hayes, and as a storyteller on Jackanory. But she didn’t shake off Else altogether. In 1971 she guest starred in 6 light entertainment shows for Cliff Richard in which she played Una Stubbs mum. Stubbs, of course had played her daughter Rita in Till Death Us Do Part. And the following year the BBC revived the series, now in colour, for another three-year run. But by the end of that three years she was written out at her own request.
Speaking on the Parkinson show years later, Warren Mitchell admitted that he and Nichols had not always got on but suggested that the reason she left the series was because she had become bored with her part. “Johnny (Speight) was obsessed with the character of Alf and he wrote reams for me and Dandy had very little to say.”
Dandy Nichols returned twice more to play Else, first in an ITV revival, Till Death... (ITV, 1981), and finally in In Sickness and in Health (BBC, 1985-1992). But by the second of those series she was now suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, so her character was written as confined to a wheelchair. Nichols only appeared in seven of the episodes. On 3 February 1986 Nichols had a bad fall in her flat and was admitted to the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, East London. She passed away on 6 February of pneumonia and heart disease. She was 78 years of age.
According to the other cast members of Till Death Us Do Part, Dandy Nichols was a very caring mother hen figure on the set of the series, and the handbag she had on set, which she had brought from home contained a number of ‘remedies’ for any potential ailments. According to Tony Booth, Warren Mitchell got a little more than he bargained for on one occasion. After Mitchell had been particularly irascible during one rehearsal, Nichols offered him one of her ‘remedies’ to help him sleep at the end of the day. The following day Mitchell turned up for rehearsal late, having overslept. Apparently, Nichols had ‘confused’ her downers with uppers and given Mitchell a ‘black bomber.’ “I caught Dandy’s eye and she winked.” Said Booth. “This was no accident.”
Published on February 13th, 2022. Written by Malcolm Alexander for Television Heaven.