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There is a certain type of woman you see in post offices, dithering over whether to buy a postal order or a Premium Bond.

A 1940s spinster with a 1940s head who's looked 50 since birth. A Woman's Realm made flesh. And you have a name for her. She's a Mavis.

For 26 years, actress Thelma Barlow honed a comic gem until it cut into the national consciousness.

An achievement that elevates her from the world of soap into the company of Alf Garnett, Del Boy Trotter and Basil Fawlty.

Mavis Riley was a masterpiece of observation. It was a woman Thelma spotted working in Granada studios in 1971 who inspired her. But in reality it was triggered by dozens of northern women she had seen battered into submission by worry.

"She had a strong core, but didn't show it," said Thelma of the woman who inspired her. "She was desperate to be liked but she didn't want to appear pushy."

And she stayed true to her for 26 years, sustaining the most timid, world- weary of women with remarkable consistency. Try to recall her great lines and you are stumped. Every sentence she whimpered seemed to begin with "Ooh Derek" and end with: "Well, I don't really know."

But there is one that sticks in my memory for its utter ordinariness.

There she was in the Kabin, looking like a pigeon caught in the headlights of an on- coming newspaper delivery van, speaking her epitaph: "Not many people have been disappointed in life as much as I have." It summed her up. She was a permanent mourner-in-waiting.

But she also graced some of The Street's finest scenes.

The courting of Jerry Booth, the fling with Pedro, the clash between Victor and Derek, the jilting of Derek, the death of her budgie Harriet.

Her finest moments belonged to her Laurel and Hardy act with Rita in The Kabin. The chemistry, the timing, the acting was magnificent.

But towards the end, her and Derek's storylines became too ludicrous, and Derek had to go.

And when he did, so did she. Otherwise she would have gone the way of Emily Nugent and Betty Turpin: No lines, no life, no point.

And she is too precious a national institution to allow that to happen.

Comedian Jo Brand has a gag: "In the 80s I lived the life of Riley. Unfortunately it was Mavis Riley. And it was absolutely crap."

You know what she means. Mavis's life was crap.

But it was a life that enriched the lives of millions. And that is no mean feat.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Reade, Brian
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 24, 1997
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