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Jean Boht: the life and times of the Bread actress

Jean Boht  in 2013 during the Save BBC Television Centre Studios. Simon Harries,flickr.com
Jean Boht in 2013 during the Save BBC Television Centre Studios. Simon Harries,flickr.com

Stephen Roberts looks back on the life of the actress whose role as Nellie Boswell in Carla Lane’s TV hit Bread made her a household name.

Best known for her role as matriarch Nellie Boswell, from the BBC TV series Bread, Jean Boht was active as an actress for well over half a century

Born Jean Dance in Bebington, Wirral, on March 6, 1932, she was the daughter of confectionery importer and local fire brigade chief entertainment officer Thomas Dance and the pianist Edna May ‘Teddy’ Dance, née Macdonald. Her father, an amateur actor, magician and musician, and mother Teddy, with her keyboard skills, were able to form a family troupe that toured Cheshire and Lancashire during the war, entertaining at forces' camps and hospitals. Jean was educated at Wirral Grammar School for Girls then did am-dram including with the Birkenhead Amateur Operatic Society, while working as a secretary. Jean married her boss William (Bill) P. Boht, the manager of the Ritz Cinema and Theatre in Birkenhead, in 1954, his surname being the one she would adopt as her stage name. He was almost 30 years older than her. They divorced in 1970 and he’d die eight years later.

Great British Life:  Plaque commemorating Jean Boht's mother, Edna 'Teddy' Dance, who played her piano in Basnett Street, Liverpool, to raise money for cancer research at Clatterbridge Hospital. She died in August 1989, aged 81. commons.wikimedia.org Plaque commemorating Jean Boht's mother, Edna 'Teddy' Dance, who played her piano in Basnett Street, Liverpool, to raise money for cancer research at Clatterbridge Hospital. She died in August 1989, aged 81. commons.wikimedia.org

It was 1962, meanwhile, when the 30-year-old Jean began training at the Liverpool Playhouse, embarking on her career as a professional theatre actress although it would be the relatively new medium of television that gave her all her major breaks. She started on a £1 a week apprenticeship before being taken on full-time as an actress and assistant stage manager. The following year saw her singing in a tragicomedy, The Hostage. Her West End debut followed in 1964. In 1970 she married the American-British conductor and composer Carl Davis (1936-2023). Their daughters, Hannah and Jessie Jo Davis, were born in 1972 and 1974.

Jean appeared in popular shows such as Softly, Softly(1971), Z-Cars (1973), and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Grange Hill and Last of the Summer Wine’ (all 1978), Scully (1984), Juliet Bravo in the mid-1980s, and Casualty (1986). In the much-feted Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) she played an uncompromising employment office boss but the role that would make her a household name would finally come in Carla Lane's Bread (1986-91), which introduced regular audiences of some 20 million to her character of matriarch Nellie Boswell, who was firmly on the other side of the benefits divide. Her magnum opus role as acid-tongued Nellie saw her lording it over a family of working-class Catholics in Liverpool when unemployment was rife. Some felt the series indulged in stereotyping, depicting Scousers as work-shy scroungers, while the pre-watershed language also attracted criticism

Jean Boht's TV acting credits would eventually extend to some 55 or so different shows. Stardom had touched her in her mid-50s and this was emphasised when she was the subject of This Is Your Life (1989). She was honoured with a British Comedy Award in 1990. A touring stage show, Bread – the Final Slice would follow.

In demand following her TV success, Jean trod the boards again, appearing for two seasons at the Chichester Festival Theatre (1991-93), touring in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads (1992-93) and in Kindertransport (1996). She also starred in another TV sitcom, Brighton Belles (1993-94), but this failed to attract the loyal following Bread had enjoyed.

Great British Life: Jean Boht and fellow Bread cast members Peter Howitt and Nick Conway at Liverpool Cathedral for the funeral of television comedy writer Carla Lane, in June 2016. Andy Kelvin/PA WireJean Boht and fellow Bread cast members Peter Howitt and Nick Conway at Liverpool Cathedral for the funeral of television comedy writer Carla Lane, in June 2016. Andy Kelvin/PA Wire

Among her dozen or so film credits were Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), a story set in Liverpool; Mothers and Daughters (2004); and Understudy (2008), co-directed by daughter Hannah, in which Jean and real-life husband Carl Davis played a married couple.

Back in the theatre, she appeared alongside Jeremy Irons in Embers (2006), an adaptation of a Sandor Marai novel. Her TV appearances continued too with a guest appearance in the soap Doctors (2008). Jean was still acting in 2018 when she was in her mid-80s. She summed up her approach to the craft in these few words: ‘The thing about being an actor is not to act. You have to observe and become your character – acting is all about reacting’.

Carl Davis, died on August 3, 2023, aged 86, ending a union that had lasted, like Jean’s acting career, for more than 50 years, and Jean herself wouldn’t be long in following, dying on September 12 in Northwood, London, aged 91. She had been diagnosed with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s but battled on with her unquenchable spirit and zest for life until the end. Throughout her life she retained her deep affection for her native North West and was active in promoting Liverpool’s successful bid for European City of Culture in 2008.

CHRONOLOGY

1932 – Birth of Jean Dance in Bebington, Wirral, Cheshire (March 6)

1954 – Marries William P. Boht (they divorce in 1970)

1962 – Begins training at the Liverpool Playhouse to become a professional actress

1970 – Marries Carl Davis

1982 – A regular role as a Department of Employment manager in Boys from the Blackstuff

1986 – Stars in Bread (until 1991) as Nellie Boswell through all seven series

1989 – Is a worthy subject of This Is Your Life as her career peaks

1990 – Wins a British Comedy Award (today’s National Comedy Awards)

2023 – Death of Jean Boht in Northwood, London, (September 12) aged 91



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