By Ian Payn
The actress Liz Fraser has died, aged 88, after a short illness. She was an avid Bridge player, having been a regular at the London Duplicate Club, the Young Chelsea and, more recently, the Hurlingham Club, close to where she lived by the Thames in Fulham.
Liz came from South London and a hard-working, if not necessarily opulent family. During the war like others of her age she was evacuated. During this period she met both Churchill and the village prostitute, albeit not at the same time.
Despite her earlier glamour girl image she was a serious actress who learnt her trade properly, so by the time proper film roles came along – I’m All Right, Jack, notably – she was ready. Early co-stars who became close friends included Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock and Sid James. Large parts in three Carry On films followed. She is regularly identified with these because they appear frequently on television, but part of the motivation for writing her autobiography, Liz Fraser…and Other Characters (2010) was to show that over a long career there was much more to her work than just being a Carry On girl. Always the shrewd businesswoman, when she returned to the series for Carry On Behind (so called because it’s about a caravan park, allegedly) she received prominent billing, despite her part requiring only a couple of days’ work. Later appearances on the television included decent parts on Holby City and Foyle’s War.
Work was important to Liz: when not filming, she was touring in plays, not all of them bog-standard comedies and thrillers. When the British film industry collapsed in the early seventies, she joined the rush to appear in low-budget sex comedies (although there was no question of nudity). Before turning one’s nose up at this, it would pay to recall that it’s better to work than not to work, and a look at some cast lists show she was in very distinguished company.
Always a keen poker player, she memorably once played in a game with such luminaries as Sean Connery and Stanley Baker and the slightly less glamourous Charlie Drake, walking away with the spoils. This transformed into a passion for Bridge, which stayed with her for the rest of her life.
Apart from the aforementioned clubs, she also played Rubber Bridge at the London School of Bridge, in the 25p partnership game. Now, 25p doesn’t sound like much these days. That’s because it isn’t. And frankly, it wasn’t much then, either, but Liz was always what we now call “low-risk”. She would turn up for this largely social game with top players as partners, and brought a competitive edge to the game. One such top-class partner was seen to shuffle to the bar after one particularly strenuous rubber and order, as was his habit as a confirmed non-drinker, a small orange juice. “And,” he added sotto voce to the barmaid, “the merest hint of a large vodka”.
Liz had her fair share of misfortune. In the seventies her husband died, and she suffered from cancer. Happily recovered, she returned to work and the Bridge table. In her autobiography she relates the story of how a liaison with a renowned Bridge player involved communications with her via his Bridge column, in which he referred to her, week in, week out, as the Queen of Hearts, with added innuendo. Liz was on tour at the time, and she and one of her co-stars would eagerly scan the column for the latest message. This Gainsborough-style romantic tale is perhaps brought slightly down to earth by the fact that said co-star was Su Pollard.
Charity work was important to Liz, and so were her friends. Comfortably-off because of wise investments, in later years she turned down more offers than she accepted, preferring to do what she wanted to do rather than get tied-up in long engagements (EastEnders tried, unsuccessfully, to woo her). She was a popular speaker at charity dinners, and a frequent guest on radio and TV shows in the booming nostalgia craze. At the Bridge table she could occasionally be a demanding partner, being interested less in the theoretical expert plays of her partners than in actual results, but by the end of play all was forgiven. And it was always possible to divert attention from what happened at the table by asking her to remind you why she loathed Jack Douglas: she would oblige, but as her indignation at the (largely, it must be said, imagined) iniquities of Mr. Douglas rose, so the twinkle in her eye became more obvious. She didn’t really mean it, but she knew a good story when she saw one.
Whenever one met Liz, by accident or design, she had always just come back from a charity meeting or was off to a tribute lunch. Not letting people down was important to her. Frequently with a lugubrious basset hound in tow, she would go the extra mile for others, at an age when some of us might well be more interested in putting our feet up.
So, that’s Liz Fraser. You may have known her as an actress, a Bridge player or as a friend. To have known her as all three was a privilege. May she rest in peace.
An interview from English Bridge, February 2008
One of Britain’s most popular comic actresses, Liz Fraser has sixty-three film appearances to her credit. Recently she has appeared in episodes of Foyle’s War, Doctors and Holby City on television.
How did you start playing bridge?
In the early ’60s I went to play golf at the Mill Hill golf course, and was intrigued by the funny card game some ladies were playing. So I got a book and taught myself in three days! I was helped by having a good grasp of card games, especially whist, as I had played a lot when evacuated during the war.
How often do you play?
Not as often as I would like now that my regular partner has moved to Spain. I still manage the occasional Monday and Wednesday at Young Chelsea, my favourite club.
What does bridge mean to you?
I enjoy the competitive side of bridge, so even when I go on a bridge holiday as I will this Christmas, with Hilton, I look for a good game.
What are your other hobbies?
Bowls, golf, charity work, and especially walking. Usually I walk my basset hound two hours a day.
Name up to six people you would invite to your Dream Dinner Party.
It would be six people who don’t play bridge! I think bridge players are extremely boring, since for the most part their conversation starts with: ‘You hold . . .’