All Brits of a certain age will be well familiar with comedienne Hylda Baker (1905-86) from her many TV sitcoms, though Yanks know her not at all. I discovered her in the best way possible. I caught her in one of her two movies from the early ’60s on television, either Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), or She Knows Y’Know (1962), was impressed with her natural, funny performance, and began investigating.
“She knows, ya know” was one Baker’s big catchphrases from the stage. She was second generation music hall. Her dad was a comedian and sign-painter in Lancashire. Hylda began performing at age 10, singing, dancing, doing impressions and performing comedy routines. She became known for playing a coarse, working class woman who inadvertently uttered inappropriate things.
Her most famous routine involved her spewing gossipy monologues to a much taller woman, usually played by a man in drag, who listened silently, unable to get a word in. In the mid ’50s she broke into British television, notably on the long-running The Good Old Days, a variety show that recreated the atmosphere of Edwardian music hall. There followed a succession of sitcoms, in all of which she played variations on her popular character (all of whom were named Hylda, Henrietta, or Nellie): Be Soon (1957-58), Our House (1961-62), Best of Friends (1963), Nearest and Dearest (1968-73), and Not on Your Nellie (1974-75). Nearest and Dearest is probably her best known show. On this one she was partnered with fellow music hall vet Jimmy Jewel as a pair of bickering siblings who run a pickle business. Several episodes are up on Youtube; I had the joy of familiarizing myself with it a few months ago.
And if you’re American, I lied. Odds are good that you HAVE seen Hylda Baker, without noting her name. She plays Mrs. Sowerberry in the musical film Oliver! (1968).
To learn more about vaudeville and the variety arts, including British music hall and TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,