Not everyone knew her name - but we all knew her face. Television has lost one of its most underrated yet instantly recognisable comic actresses with the death of Bella Emberg, aged 80.
This gifted, grin-inducing performer was best known as spoof superheroine Blunder Woman, a comedic crime-fighter who foiled villains alongside Russ Abbot’s hapless “Cooperman” - a mash-up of Superman and Tommy Cooper.
The Russ Abbot Show ran from 1980 to 1996, first on BBC One and then on ITV, at its peak attracting a staggering 18 million viewers. Emberg was second on the bill in an ensemble cast which also included Les Dennis, Dustin Gee, Jeffrey Holland and Michael Barrymore.
The show’s broad humour and cartoonish slapstick made it particularly beloved by younger viewers. For a generation, merely a glimpse of Emberg’s hook nose, expressive mouth and knowing twinkle is enough to provide a Proustian rush back to the Eighties.
Emberg could get a laugh simply by walking on-screen in star-spangled hotpants, red boots and satin tights. Yet she also had perfect comic timing, bittersweet acting ability and deft physicality, honed by years in variety theatre and sketch shows.
Emberg was a generous performer and the perfect comedic foil. She was also a regular on another landmark, quintessentially British sketch show, appearing on the anarchically saucy Benny Hill Show for more than a decade.
Emberg always graciously insisted that the Blunder Woman character had been a blessing rather than a curse, despite making it harder for her to find roles afterwards.
"I went for jobs and they'd say: 'We'd love to hire you but you're too well known with Russ,’" she said last year. “But once every few weeks, I go and look at that Blunder Woman costume, still hanging up at home, and feel nothing but gratitude. Blunder Woman saved my career and I still view her as a complete blessing.”
She also recalled how she had to be persuaded to try on the outfit which made her famous: “The first time I saw it, I said: ‘I am NOT wearing that!’ The first time I put it on, I span around and my boobs fell out! I was always very careful after that.”
Longtime collaborator Abbot led the fond tributes to his former co-star. ”It is with a heavy heart that I heard the news about Bella," he said. "She was my leading lady throughout most of my career. Not only a great sport but a huge comedy talent. Genuinely funny but most of all, a woman of immense warmth and generosity. I count myself very lucky to have worked alongside her. She really was a one-off.”
Born Sybil Dyke in Brighton in 1937, one of her earliest memories was doodlebugs landing near her childhood home. She dreamed of a showbiz career but didn’t get her first break until the age of 25 in an Isle of Wight summer season.
Minor TV roles followed but her big break came in 1980 with Abbot. His casting criteria were hardly flattering, though. “Russ said he was looking for a fat woman who could keep a straight face,” Emberg recalled “That was fine by me.”
In a TV career spanning six decades, she appeared in many classic shows including The Basil Brush Show, Z Cars, Father Brown, The Tomorrow People and Grange Hill. She was a familiar figure to younger viewers from her role as Aunt Barbara in CBBC sitcom Bear Behaving Badly.
She popped up three times in Doctor Who, most notably as Mrs Croot in the Tenth Doctor adventure Love & Monsters, with David Tennant as the Timelord and Peter Kay as monstrous alien The Abzorbaloff.
Emberg’s most memorable film role came in Mel Brooks' 1981 cult classic History of the World: Part I, alongside starry names such as Spike Milligan, Sid Caesar, John Hurt, Jackie Mason and Orson Welles.
She also appeared in Matt Lucas’s dialogue-free sitcom Pompidou and said proudly that she’d been “lucky enough to work with three geniuses: Benny Hill, Mel Brooks and Matt Lucas”.
Tributes have poured in from fellow light entertainment stalwarts. Old cohort Les Dennis said: “So sad to lose the lovely Bella Emberg. A funny, lovely friend.”
So sad to lose the lovely Bella Emberg. A funny, lovely friend. Thoughts and love with Rosemary. Goodnight Sweetheart x pic.twitter.com/SNYQK92BmO— Les Dennis (@LesDennis) January 13, 2018
EastEnders star Cheryl Fergison said she was "lovable and always an inspiration”. Paul Chuckle of the Chuckle Brothers added: "Just heard. RIP the lovely Bella Emberg. Funniest fairy ever with us. Will miss you.”
Her final screen appearance will be opposite Bill Bailey in upcoming Sky One series In the Long Run - a semi-autobiographical comedy created by Luther star Idris Elba, set in 1985 on a Hackney council estate. Despite immobility from gout in both legs - the legacy, Emberg admitted, of enjoying fame a little too much in her heyday - Emberg had finished filming her scenes. It’s expected on-screen later this year.
Until then, bye bye Blunder Woman. You truly were a wonder.