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Baker in 1966
4 February 1905
Farnworth, Lancashire, England
|Died||1 May 1986
Epsom, Surrey, England
|Occupation||music hall performer, comedian, actress|
Hylda Baker (4 February 1905 – 1 May 1986) was an English comedian, actress and music hall performer. Born and brought up in Farnworth, Lancashire, she is perhaps most well known for her role as Nellie Pledge in the ITV sitcom Nearest and Dearest (1968–73) and for her role in the 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Early life and career
Baker was born in Farnworth, Lancashire, the first of seven children. Her father, Harold Baker, was a painter and signwriter, who also worked part-time in the music halls as a comedian. At ten, Baker made her debut at the Opera House, Tunbridge Wells, and continued to tour as a single variety act—singing, dancing and performing impersonations. By 14, she had started writing, producing and performing her own shows. Her most famous stage act was as a gossip from the North of England, with a silent, sullen companion named "Big Cynthia", almost always played by a man in drag (most famously by Victor Graham, and last by Matthew Kelly). Her act was full of malapropisms and catchphrases that had become part of her public persona, the most famous of which were "She knows, y'know!" and, when asked the time "It's quarter past ... I must get a little hand put on this watch."
Film and television career
Baker came to national attention in BBC television's The Good Old Days in 1955. This led to her television series, Be Soon (named after another of her catchphrases), in 1957 and a supporting part in the sitcom Our House in 1960, followed by her own sitcom, The Best of Friends, in 1963.
She also appeared in films, including Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Up the Junction (1968) and the film version of Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! (1968). Reisz had seen her performing her sketches at the Chiswick Empire theatre. She had a starring role in the 1962 low-budget black-and-white British comedy film She Knows Y'Know. Taking its title from her most famous catch-phrase, it is described by the BFI as a "low life comedy, unfolded against an industrial town backdrop". The film was restored by Blackpool resident Eurwyn Jones who negotiated use of the print, tracked down copyright holders to ensure it could be shared with fans across the world, and teamed up with Renown Pictures, who restore classic movies, putting the print through modern technology to present a crystal clear picture quality and sound.
Baker's most famous role was as Nellie Pledge in the Granada Television comedy series Nearest and Dearest (1968–73). Playing her brother Eli was the comedian Jimmy Jewel and the series was centred on their characters' love-hate relationship as they tried to run their small family business, Pledge's Purer Pickles. As they bickered onscreen and traded insults such as "knocked-kneed knackered old nosebag" and "big girl's blouse", the insults continued offscreen as the two disliked each other intensely and their arguments became showbiz legend. A film version of the series was made by Hammer Films in 1972 (the same year she was celebrated in an episode of This Is Your Life). Later in the series, Baker began having trouble remembering her lines and had to rely on cue cards and prompts from her co star Madge Hindle, who would whisper her next line to her.
Baker played a virtually identical role in the LWT comedy series Not On Your Nellie (1974–75). In this series she played Nellie Pickersgill, who moves to London from the North to run her ailing father's pub. However the series was short-lived and, by this time, Baker was again finding it difficult to remember her lines and was also refusing to attend rehearsals. After suing the production company for an on-set injury in which she broke her leg (after slipping on beer on the set), the series ended, as did her television acting career.
Baker recreated her variety act in an episode of the BBC series The Good Old Days in 1976.
In an unusual coda to her musical career, she teamed with Arthur Mullard in 1978 to record a comedy version of "You're the One That I Want" from the film Grease. Baker and Mullard, then aged 73 and 68, dressed in wigs and costumes similar to the John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John characters from Grease and appeared on the BBC show Top of the Pops and the Granada Television music show for children Get It Together. The pair recorded an album of pop covers entitled Band on the Trot.
Her final television appearance came the same year in an episode of the BBC arts documentary show Omnibus about comediennes, broadcast on 28 December 1978.
Personal life and death
On Christmas Eve 1961, Baker was hit by a passing car that mounted the pavement in London's Charing Cross Road, not far from her then home at Ridgemount Gardens in Holborn. Left with a broken toe and bruising, Baker claimed she was unable to work for 34 weeks and that the accident had left her with "a waddle". She sued the driver of the vehicle for damages and loss of earnings. Baker refused a settlement offer of £4,000 and took the matter to the High Court where she was initially awarded £2,921 in 1964, but this was increased to £4,073 (plus costs) at an appeal hearing in 1965.
In 1971, Baker's chauffeur Noel Moncaster absconded with £2,500 of her cash. Moncaster was arrested three months later, by which time only £45 of the money remained, after he had used it to travel to France, Spain and Africa. At his trial, Blackpool Magistrates ordered Moncaster to pay Baker £400 (the maximum the magistrates could award) and committed him for later sentencing by Blackpool's quarter session court.
Baker lived the life of a star, dressing in furs and keeping monkeys as pets. She annoyed her neighbours with loud parties at her Blackpool home. In her 70s she developed Alzheimer's disease and in 1981 she moved to Brinsworth House, the retirement home for performers, in Twickenham, London. In 1984, she moved to a psychiatric hospital in Epsom, Surrey, where she died two years later, aged 81, from bronchial pneumonia.
Actress Jean Fergusson, known for appearances in Last of the Summer Wine, wrote a biography and devised and starred in a tribute show, She Knows Y' Know!, at London's Vaudeville Theatre in 1997. The show won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment in 1998.
- GRO Register of Births: Q1 1905 8c 406 BOLTON, Hilda Baker
- GRO Register of Deaths: MAY 1986 17 74 SURREY MID-EASTERN - Hylda Baker, DoB = 4 Feb 1905 aged 81
- "Barbara Windsor's Funny Girls" broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on 5 July 2011
- "Hylda Baker, music hall comedienne". Alt.obituaries.narkive.com. Retrieved 2014-03-04.
- "She Knows Y'Know [DVD]: Amazon.co.uk: Hylda Baker, Cyril Smith, Joe Gibbons, Montgomery Tully: DVD & Blu-ray". Amazon.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-03-15.
- "She Knows Y'know | BFI | BFI". Explore.bfi.org.uk. Retrieved 2014-03-15.
- "He knows y'know ...". Blackpool Gazette. 2011-09-22. Retrieved 2014-03-15.
- Nearest and Dearest (1972 film)
- "£2921 for Hylda Baker". The Guardian. 5 May 1964. p. 7. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
- "Hylda Baker wins extra damages". The Guardian. 11 February 1965. p. 3. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
- "Chauffeur left with the money". The Guardian. 12 October 1971. p. 5. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
- Band, B. (1999) Blackpool's Comedy Greats: Local Careers of Dave Morris, Hylda Baker, Jimmy Clitheroe Bk. 2, Barry Band Publishing, ISBN 978-1-898413-05-9