Keith’s Good Life

Dame Penelope Keith celebrates the British countryside in her Hidden Villages series. Here she tells Jeananne Craig about her passion for the great outdoors – and reveals the secret of her happy marriage
Penelope Keith’s theatre work has taken her the length and breadth of the country, but she isn’t one for relaxing in soulless hotel rooms before the curtain goes up. ‘I have my days free, so I do get out a lot and I’ve explored quite a lot of the country when I’ve been on tour. As long as I’m back by about 3pm or 4pm to put my feet up for an hour or so before the evening,’ the actress reveals in those instantly recognisable, deliciously rich tones.

‘It is extraordinary how different everywhere is. When you’re in Sussex you could only be on the Sussex Downs, and Devon and Cornwall have the wonderful hedgerows and long winding lanes. It’s just glorious; I don’t know why people don’t stay in this country for their holidays. Who needs the sun? It’s not very good for us anyway!’

The To The Manor Born star indulges this passion and pride in the great British outdoors in Penelope Keith’s Hidden Villages, which is returning to our screens for a second series. The More4 documentary show sees Keith visit some of our best-loved villages, including Alfriston in East Sussex (which she visited as a child) and Upnor in Kent, and reflect on rural life with local people she meets.

Over the course of the series, the 75-year-old also explores whether our villages are as robust as ever, or groaning under the weight of 21stcentury pressures.

So has the death knell sounded for the British village as we know it? Keith doesn’t think so. ‘I think they’re a fairly resilient lot, villages. And with the advent of the motor car, that’s what’s changed village life, the fact that people can get out,’ she muses.

‘But I was looking at the news recently and seeing farmers protesting about the price of milk and I thought, “Quite right too”. It’s terribly hard work being a farmer. You see all these people wandering around with bottles of water and the water is now more expensive than a pint of milk. I think that’s shocking.’

Keith adds: ‘With a lot of village life, people don’t understand the way it works really. It’s so important to keep communities together and have young people growing up there.’

Born in Sutton, Surrey, the actress was sent to boarding school in the coastal town of Seaford, East Sussex, aged six. As a schoolgirl she discovered a love of performing, and went on to study at London’s Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art (at around 5ft 10in, she was apparently rejected from the Central School of Speech and Drama for being too tall).

She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1960s, and in 1975 landed her big TV break in BBC sitcom The Good Life, as the fabulously snobbish suburbanite Margo Leadbetter.


Another hit, To The Manor Born, in which she played the widowed aristocrat Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, followed soon after, and Keith has put her wonderful voice to good use as the narrator for children’s show Teletubbies and in adverts for everything from Pimm’s to Parker Pens.

She is also involved in several charities, including the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, prison organisation KeepOut and the National Memorial Arboretum. Her contribution to the arts and charity was recognised in the 2014 New Year Honours list, and while she’d never insist on being addressed as Dame Penelope, she admits with a laugh, ‘It’s lovely when people do’.

These days she is ‘firmly rooted in the country’, living in Surrey with her husband, former policeman Rodney Timson, their two cats and two dogs (who are ‘of mixed heritage – mongrel doesn’t sound as nice’).

The couple, who have two adopted sons, wed in 1978 after meeting at a Chichester theatre where Keith was performing and Timson was on duty. Does it feel like almost four decades of marriage? ‘I don’t think so. When you get older, as we always say, it’s always Friday and it’s always Christmas… time just goes so quickly and you have to make the most of it,’ smiles Keith, who jokes that the secret to successful marriage is ‘homemade marmalade’.

Theatre, TV and charity work keep Keith very busy, but unlike her Good Life character Margo, who was more interested in soirées and social climbing than spades and shrubbery, Keith loves nothing more than donning her gardening gloves.

‘Margo didn’t like gardening, but I get my hands dirty; very dirty,’ she reveals. ‘I’m desperate for rain today, because we need it. If it doesn’t rain I’ll cut back the lavender. I find gardening very relaxing. It’s my passion.’

Keith isn’t one for Twitter, and believes people are ‘too bound up with computers’ these days.

She confesses: ‘I got an email this morning that I’ve got to go through and I think, “Oh dear, I’d sooner be in my garden.” We must remember that the internet and technology is our servant, not our master. I’m afraid it’s taking over, isn’t it?’

Recently, Benedict Cumberbatch pleaded with fans not to record his performance of Hamlet at London’s Barbican Centre on their phones, and Keith agrees that mobiles in the theatre are ‘the most annoying thing in the world’.

‘Phones going off are distracting for the actors, but actors are used to distractions – one’s used to people drinking or leaving or whatever. I’ve never stopped and said “Will you please answer that phone?” because I think my job is to keep people’s disbelief going. But I think it’s terribly distracting for everyone else.’

Next up for Keith is a return to Chichester to appear in the onewoman play Mrs Pat, about the celebrated English actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, at the Chichester Festival Theatre in October.

‘I work when I want to,’ she admits. ‘I’m in the happy position of just working when something interests me, and that’s a lovely point to reach.’

Series two of Penelope Keith’s Hidden Villages begins on 1 September at 9pm on More4.