Hylda Baker was a major music hall star before she found national fame as Nellie Pledge in Granada TV’s most successful sitcom Nearest and Dearest.
Born at 23 Ashworth Street, Farnworth, in February 1905, Baker was 63 when she first started playing the joint owner of Pledge’s Purer Pickles alongside Jimmy Jewel in 1968.
Nearest and Dearest ran for seven series over five years. It made Baker, with all her trademark Northern catchphrases and mannerisms, a household name.
As well as her TV work, Baker landed the role of undertaker’s wife Mrs Sowerberry in the movie version of Oliver! in 1968 and played an abortionist in the ground-breaking 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Baker revived her Nellie Pledge character in the LWT comedy Not On Your Nellie in 1974. This time she played Nellie Pickersgill, who moved to London to take over her father’s pub. The series lasted a year.
Theatre was in Baker’s blood. Her father Harold, a painter and signwriter, worked part-time as a stage comedian and the young Hylda was determined to follow in his footsteps.
She made her debut at the age of 10 at Tunbridge Wells Opera house and toured the country as a single variety act. Her show consisted of singing, dancing and impersonations.
By the age of 14, she was writing and performing her own shows and stage routines. Her most famous was a little-and-large act with Baker as the short one who did all the talking!
Her silent companion – Big Cynthia – was always a man. The routine produced a number of Baker’s most famous catchphrases, including ‘She knows y’know’ and ‘Be soon I said.’
When asked the time, Baker would say: ‘It’s quarter past… I must get a little hand put on this watch.’
Baker’s famous comments and malapropisms transferred brilliantly to the character of Nellie Pledge in Nearest and Dearest. Each episode was packed with them.
Much of the dialogue revolved around Nellie’s arguments with brother Eli (Jimmy Jewel). Classic insults included ‘you big girl’s blouse’ and ‘knock-kneed knackered old nosebag.’
In the programme, the Cynthia character in Baker’s stage act was replaced by Walter, the ageing husband of Nellie’s cousin Lily (Madge Hindle).
Exactly like Cynthia, Walter (Edward Malin) never said a word but his pained expressions conveyed a lot.
As well as appearing in Oliver! and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Baker took the lead role in the 1962 film comedy She Knows Y’Know. Based on Baker’s own catchphrase, the movie depicted life in a Northern industrial town.
Baker’s swansong was an extraordinary parody of Grease made with Arthur Mullard in 1978 when she was 73. The two dressed up in wigs as Olivia Newton John and John Travolta singing the chart hit You’re the One that I Want.
Baker’s malapropisms were once again to the fore. The line ‘filled with affection’ quickly became ‘filled with infection’ and ‘better take my direction’ turned into ‘medicate in my direction.’
The song was tuneless and grotesque, but still reached the Top 40 after the veteran couple performed it on TV’s Top of the Pops.
Baker’s final TV appearance also came in 1978 when she took part in an Omnibus arts documentary about comedians.
She died in Epsom, Surrey, at the age of 81 in 1986.