Hylda Baker (born February 4, 1905 in Farnworth, near Bolton, Lancashire
Hilda Baker was her original name, and she changed it to Hylda with a Y as it was more glamorous!
This dark-haired barrel-shaped comedienne and character actress was the daughter of a Lancashire comedian. She made her professional stage debut in 1915 aged 10 and toured for decades in variety and second rank revues, several of which she produced herself. She had a reputation for being difficult to work with, but this was probably because she was a perfectionist and had to fight for equal treatment in the male-dominated world of British show business. Her most popular act was malapropism-filled gossip with a tall, mute stooge called Cynthia (who was nearly always played by a man in drag).
Baker became nationally famous in 1955 after a guest appearance on the TV show "The Good Old Days" (1953) and was kept busy in TV and on stage for the rest of her career. When success came she lived the life of a star to the full: dressing in furs, buying a large house, driving huge cars and keeping monkeys as pets. She allegedly had a voracious sexual appetite and a liking for very young men and rumours circulated about wild parties at her Blackpool home. She only appeared in five films but these include the classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and the Oscar-winning Oliver! (1968)
She is now best remembered for the role of Nellie Pledge in the TV sitcom "Nearest and Dearest" (1968). This ran for seven series and spawned stage and film spin-offs. In it she played a prim northern spinster forever locking horns with her dissolute brother Eli after they jointly inherit their father's pickle factory. Her screen brother was played by comedian Jimmy Jewel. Off-screen the pair hated each other and their on-set battles became part of British showbiz legend. As the series progressed Baker found it increasingly difficult to remember her lines and began to rely on cue cards. This was the first symptom of the Alzheimer's disease that would eventually overwhelm her.
Her next starring vehicle was the TV sitcom "Not on Your Nellie" (1974), in which she played Nellie Pickersgill - a thinly disguised version of Nellie Pledge - this time a teetotal spinster called down to London to run her ailing father's pub. This series was less successful and ended suddenly when the accident-prone Baker injured herself after slipping on prop beer that had been spilled on the studio floor. She sued the production company and effectively ended her television career.
In 1978 she was teamed with cockney character actor Arthur Mullard to record a parody of the Grease (1978) anthem `You're The One That I Want'. This became an unlikely novelty hit, reaching number 22 in the UK singles chart and leading to the pair making a memorably embarrassing appearance on Top of the Pops (1964). Clips of this performance are often used in 'Worst TV moments' compilation shows. This proved to be Baker's TV swansong. Her memory was getting worse and she was unable to work. In 1981 she moved into Brinsworth House, a home for retired variety performers in Twickenham, Middlesex and then in 1984, as her condition deteriorated further, to Horton Psychiatric Hospital in Epsom, Surrey. She died there in 1986 from bronchial pneumonia. Baker had often alienated those close to her and less than a dozen people attended the funeral of the woman who had entertained millions in a career lasting over fifty years.
Hylda Baker is now a cult figure and is often quoted by today's British comediennes as an influence and a trailblazer. A one-women play about her life and career called "She Knows You Know" has played in London's West End and toured throughout the UK and Baker is becoming known to new audiences through satellite and cable TV showings and DVD releases of her TV and film work.