Jean Heywood, actress best known on the small screen for ‘When the Boat Comes In’ and on the big screen as Billy Elliot’s grandmother – obituary

Jean Heywood, left, with Susan James in 'When the Boat Comes In'
Jean Heywood, left, with Susan James in 'When the Boat Comes In' Credit: Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images

Jean Heywood, who has died aged 98, was an actress who in the 1970s arrived on British television screens late in her career, most notably in When the Boat Comes In. 

The BBC’s political period drama, set in the fictional town of Gallowshield in the North East, starred James Bolam as a First World War veteran who returns home to face the economic, social and political challenges of the interwar years. Jean Heywood played Bella Seaton, matriarch of a family with whom Bolam’s character becomes closely involved.

Having made her mark, she went on to appear in Emmerdale, Coronation Street and All Creatures Great and Small; she also had three roles in Casualty over the years, and on the big screen played Billy Elliot’s grandmother.

With Stephen Fry in 'Jeeves and Wooster' Credit: ITV/REX

Jean Heywood had experience of hardship in the North-east: she was born Jean Murray at Blyth in Northumberland on July 15 1921; the family lived for several years in New Zealand, but after her mother died and her father remarried, she spent the rest of her childhood in Birmingham.

She began her acting career in rep, but it was not until she was 47 that she made her small-screen debut, a bit part in the Zola adaptation Nana, starring Katharine Schofield, in 1968. She followed it four years later with another Zola adaptation, Germinal, and, the same year, the BBC’s epic account of War and Peace.

Jean Heywood had a couple of mid-1970s roles in Dixon of Dock Green, and then, following When the Boat Comes In, she featured in 13 episodes of Emmerdale in 1978 as the snobbish Phyllis Acaster. The same year, she sparkled in the ITV sitcom Leave It to Charlie, about the highs and lows of a determined but incompetent Lancastrian insurance agent.

In 'Emmerdale' in 1978 Credit: ITV/REX

In 1982 she had a small part in Boys from the Blackstuff, and appeared in three episodes of Coronation Street as the widow Alice Kirby. Then for three years from 1985 she was in all 26 episodes of the Street spin-off The Brothers McGregor, about two brothers and their dodgy second-hand car business.

In 1990, she decamped to the Yorkshire dales as Mrs. Alton, the housekeeper, in All Creatures Great and Small. During the ensuing decade she also played David Jason’s mother in A Touch of Frost and John Thaw’s mother in Kavanagh QC, and there were appearances in Our Friends in the North, The Bill and Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. In 1997 she was in nine episodes of the Channel 5 soap Family Affairs.

In 2000 she played the grandmother in Stephen Daldry’s acclaimed film Billy Elliot, set in Co Durham during the miners’ strike and starring Jamie Bell as an aspiring young dancer. The scenes Jean Heywood shared with Bell were heart-wrenching; granny is sliding into dementia, her world growing smaller. “I could have been a professional dancer, you know,” she tells her grandson.

With James Bolam and Susan Jameson in 'When the Boat Comes in' Credit: Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images

The same year she appeared in Brookside, and over the next few years she featured in Doctors, twice in Where the Heart Is (once as “Cat Pee Rita”), as well as Holby City and Heartbeat, while in 2005 she starred as an old lady suffering from dementia, alongside Richard Briers and Kevin Whately in the BBC Wales drama Dad, as part of Comic Relief’s Elder Abuse campaign.

On stage Jean Heywood appeared in The Plotters of Cabbage Patch Corner (1970) with Alison Steadman, at the Swan Theatre, Worcester.

Her final role was in the television drama Accidental Farmer as the sitting tenant on a farm which is bought by an advertising executive (played by Ashley Jensen) with her boyfriend’s credit card as revenge for his infidelity.

Jean Heywood married Roland Heywood in 1945; he died in 1996, and she is survived by their daughter and son, and by a son from a previous relationship.

Jean Heywood, born July 15 1921, died September 14 2019