7 July 1911|
Covent Garden, west London, England
|Died||11 July 2005
Barnes, London, England
|Cause of death||Natural causes|
|Spouse(s)||John Caswell Garth
(m. 1934–1953, his death)
|Relatives||Clive Dunn (cousin)|
Gretchen Franklin (7 July 1911 – 11 July 2005) was an English actress with a career in showbusiness that spanned over eighty years.1 She was born in Covent Garden, west London; a cousin was the actor Clive Dunn. She was best known for playing the character of Ethel Skinner in the long-running BBC One soap opera EastEnders. She played the role on a regular basis from 1985 until 1988. After this she returned to the show intermittently. These appearances became more brief and widely spaced as time went on. Her final appearance was in 2000, when her character was killed off.
Franklin was born into a theatrical family. Her father had a song-and-dance act, while her grandfather was a well-known music hall entertainer at the turn of the century.1
She entered show business as a teenager, making her début as a pantomime chorus girl in Bournemouth. In 1929, she took dancing lessons at the Theatre Girls Club in Soho in London's West End and she later became a renowned tap dancer and founder member of a quartet known as Four Brilliant Blondes.1
She toured in variety with the comedians Syd and Max Harrisonwith and on the Gracie Fields Show, and performed with another dance group, The Three Girlies, before making a gradual switch to straight dramatic roles.
Her big breakthrough came during the Second World War when she was cast in Sweet and Low, the first of a series of highly successful West End revues. Staged at the New Ambassadors Theatre, the revues starred Hermione Gingold. Franklin and Gingold became firm friends and were reunited in another revue, Slings and Arrows (Comedy Theatre, 1948).2
She also appeared in several straight plays and made one of her early screen appearances in Before I Wake (1954) and later had minor roles in Operation Conspiracy (1957), Flame in the Streets (1961), Help! (1965) and many others.
Franklin appeared in several productions for the BBC and on stage. One of Franklin's best known stage roles was playing Mrs Roper in the 1958 play Verdict by British mystery writer Agatha Christie. It was produced by Peter Saunders and directed by Charles Hickman, and ran for 250 performances.
Franklin was acting on stage in the West End in Spring and Port Wine in 1965 when she was cast as the first Mrs Alf Garnett in a pilot episode of Till Death Us Do Part, with Warren Mitchell. However, she missed the chance to become a permanent part in what was to become a successful series - because she couldn't obtain her release from her stage role (unable to take a regular role in the series, it was Franklin who recommended her friend Dandy Nichols for the part in the series). Both Gretchen Franklin and Dandy Nichols have a cameo part in the Beatles film Help.
Later Franklin had regular roles in several television series, including Crossroads, in which she played Myrtle Cavendish; the short-lived soap Castle Haven; the British sitcom George and Mildred as Mildred's mother Mrs Tremble, and Rising Damp as Rigsby's Aunt Maud. She was also a regular supporting figure on television dramas such as Dixon of Dock Green and Z-Cars. She had bit parts in series such as Danger Man, Follyfoot and Quatermass (to which she returned for the final Quatermass serial in 1979) but was more often seen in comedy. Franklin also played the cranky, troubled sad mother Mrs Janes in the episode "Five on Billycock Hill" on the 1978 television show, Enid Blyton's Famous Five.
In 1990, Franklin played Daddy's Fiance in Keeping Up Appearances.
It was her role as Ethel Skinner in EastEnders that made Franklin a household name at the age of 73.
EastEnders creators Julia Smith and Tony Holland spent a long time trawling around pubs and street markets in the East End of London, soaking up the atmosphere and making mental notes for when they were to actually create the characters for their show. Smith was very taken with an elderly lady, with ill-fitting false teeth and a face "...made up to rival a neon sign...". Clutching a Yorkshire Terrier dog in one hand and a glass of Guinness in the other, she was the life and soul of the party; Julia saw that there was much comic mileage to be gained from such a character, and as a result Ethel Mae Skinner was born.3
Ethel was a firm favourite from the start of the soap's run. She was a gossip who did not always get her facts right and this was often used to comic effect, as was her use of malapropisms. However, when Julia Smith announced that the character of Ethel was to go into an old people's home, Franklin, in her own words "resigned on the spot". "I didn't want Ethel becoming a sad old dear who the others visited occasionally." She did make return visits to the series, but her bitterness at being, in her words "superannuated" never really left her.
Franklin's character owned a dog, a pug named Willy (the writers had intended it to be a Yorkshire terrier but a suitable canine could be found) and a lot of rather puerile humour was derived from his name, her famous lines being either: "Where's my Willy?" or, in a double entendre "Has anyone seen my Willy?"
Franklin's character departed in 1997 when it was revealed that she had left Walford to live in a retirement village. She returned in July 2000, but was killed off from the show on 7 September 2000, at the age of 86 in a controversial euthanasia storyline. Ethel had learned that she was terminally ill, and asked Dot Cotton (June Brown) to assist her in taking her own life by an overdose of her morphine tablets.
Franklin retired from acting on her departure from EastEnders.
Off-screen, Franklin devoted much of her time to charity and gave away all the royalties she received from EastEnders repeats to her favourite animal charities. “At my age one isn’t buying new fur coats and diamonds”, she said. “If you get that lot of repeat fees four times a year you can afford to be a bit more generous to other people.”2
In May 2005 at 93 years old, it was confirmed that Franklin would present the Lifetime Soap Achievement Award to former colleague June Brown at the British Soap Awards but was too ill to attend. It was later given by another EastEnders actor Anna Wing who played Lou Beale, who mentioned her in the speech.
Franklin died at her home in Barnes on 11 July 2005, four days after her 94th birthday.2 Her life and work was honoured at the British Academy Television Awards in 2006. In 2007 it was revealed that she had left a sum of £872,772 in her will. One third went to charity Help The Aged, while the rest went to friends and relatives, one of whom was her cousin Clive Dunn, who played Corporal Jones Dad's Army.8
- In the Fall song "Telephone Thing", Mark E Smith repeatedly asks "How dare you assume I would want to parlez-vous with you? You Gretchen Franklin nosey matron type." In an interview for the NME Mark E Smith revealed that he had thought he had made the name up and that it wasn't a reference to the actress. 
- Franklin was less than pleased to find out that Willy the pug was being chauffeur-driven to Elstree Studios where EastEnders is made, yet she had to struggle in on the bus.
- Franklin was a Tiller Girl at the London Palladium. They were famous for their high kicks, and, when Pat Wicks married Frank Butcher in EastEnders she provided the high-kicks at the wedding reception - she was 78 at the time. Similarly, she appeared opposite Eartha Kitt in an episode of the British espionage series The Protectors ("A Pocket Full of Posies"), in which she performed a memorable song and dance routine.
- "Obituary: Gretchen Franklin", BBC news. URL last accessed on 2006-10-09
- "EastEnders favourite Gretchen Franklin dies at 94", The Stage. URL last accessed on 2006-10-09
- Smith, Julia; Holland, Tony (1987). EastEnders - The Inside Story. Book Club Associates. ISBN 0-563-20601-2.
- "Gretchen Franklin", The Telegraph. URL last accessed on 2006-10-09
- The Mail 24th Feb 2007 accessed 3 March 2007