Jean Alexander, the actress famous for playing Coronation Street’s Hilda Ogden, has died aged 90.
As no-nonsense Hilda, she enthralled millions of Corrie fans for 23 years with her sharp-tongued antics.
But now family, friends and former colleagues are mourning the loss of the Street legend, who passed away peacefully earlier today.
She had been taken to hospital on Tuesday, her 90th birthday.
It is understood the star had been treated for an infection recently. Heartbroken relatives paid tribute to the Scouse-born actress with the steely determination to succeed that ended with her becoming a household name both in Britain and abroad.
Niece Sonia Hearld said: “At one time she was the world’s all-time favourite soap star. I think people just took her to their hearts and thought she was their friend.
“People would come up to her when she was in the street and just want to hug her and say, ‘Hello.’ I think people felt she was part of their lives.”
Sonia, 64, told how when she last saw her aunt, who had a mild stroke in 2014, she “seemed weak”. She added: “But this was still a shock. The hospital phoned me and said they were very sorry but Jean had passed away.”
Jean had fallen ill a few days before her birthday as relatives and friends planned a celebration. Sonia said: “She had been feeling a little poorly and had gone in for some tests. On Tuesday she was still not too good and it was decided she might be better going back into hospital.”
Sonia and her sister Valerie Thewlis, 60, were told of Jean’s death by staff at Southport and Ormskirk hospital.
They had to break the sad news to her brother, their father Kenneth Hodgkinson, 91. The trio are Jean’s only relatives as she never married or had children.
Despite becoming one of TV’s most famous faces, Jean, who lived near the hospital where she died, never forgot her humble background and would treat all fans with the utmost respect.
Sonia said: “She always said it was people watching her and people thinking she was great that put her where she was.
“She was very grateful for that. They made her who she was, so she would never ever be nasty to a fan.
“I would be with her at meals and she would stop eating and sign things.
“As she said, ‘Without the public liking me, who am I? I’m nothing. If they don’t like me, I don’t exist really.’
“She was a lady who knew her own mind. She knew what she wanted to do and did it. She was determined to become a success and she did.”
Jean was not only single-minded in her career, but she also had an iron will to battle on when her health suffered.
After she was rushed to hospital following her stroke, she told worried fans through the Mirror: “Don’t worry, I am fit and well, but thank you so much for your goodwill messages. I suffered a very slight stroke but I hope to be back in the garden in no time at all.
“I’ve spent my career playing old ladies, now I am one.” But she added: “Don’t write me off yet, there’s still so much I plan to see and do.” Sonia said: “She recovered well and was back in her own home. But it got to the point she was having problems with her mobility and getting down to the shops.
“So it was decided she would be better off where she would have someone to care for her.
“But she was still fully independent and always said she was going to go back to her own home.
“She was well but she sometimes needed a little help walking, she would lean on people.”
Born Jean Hodgkinson in 1926 at Toxteth, she longed to become an actress. But she had to earn a living before the breaks came and worked for five years as a library assistant in Liverpool.
She began her stage career at in 1949 at the Adelphi Guild Theatre in Macclesfield.
She later worked as an actress, wardrobe mistress, and manager in Oldham, Stockport and York, taking on the stage name Alexander. Her television debut was in the police series Z-Cars and she first appeared in Coronation Street on October 8,1962 as landlady Mrs Webb.
Jean started playing Hilda on July 8, 1964 and quit on December 25, 1987. That year, she won a BAFTA TV Award nomination for Best Actress and retired from acting in 2012.
In 1984, Jean was swamped with condolence cards after the death of her on-screen husband Stan Ogden, played by Bernard Youens, who had died shortly before his character was killed off.
She worked alongside a string of other Street legends including Johnny Briggs, who played spiv Mike Baldwin, Bill Twarmy (Jack Duckworth) and William Roache, who is still in the ITV soap as Ken Barlow. In 1985 Jean received the Royal Television Society Award for her performance on the famous cobbles. Her final touching scene in the Rovers Return attracted 27 million viewers and there were even “Save Hilda” campaigns in a bid to bring her back.
She said later: “I loved playing Hilda. I never envisaged how iconic she would become, but to be able to make her someone so many people recognised was an honour. Hilda was fun, especially with the scrapes Stan got in. I understood her because I knew a lot like her when I was young. Hilda was a hard worker and kept Stan in order. They’d bicker, but let anyone say anything about the other and they were up in arms. I’m flattered the character was so successful. I appreciate people enjoyed what I did. It makes me feel very grateful for my existence.”
In 2005, Jean was voted the nation’s favourite soap character. And in her 80s heyday, Hilda was behind only the Queen, Queen Mother and Princess Diana in a poll of the most recognisable British women. Jean said: “I don’t know why she was so popular. I think because she was a downtrodden, poor little soul. I think people were sorry for Hilda. She went plodding away, doing her best, always aspiring to better things. She was a gift to play but I wouldn’t want her living next door to me.”
After leaving Corrie, Jean made a 1988 guest appearance in the long-running BBC comedy series Last of the Summer Wine, as Auntie Wainwright, the money-grabbing local junk shop owner. She became a regular in the show until it ended in 2010.
When she recovered from her stroke, she revealed she was also suffering from osteoporosis, which made her shrink. She said: “I have lost four inches in height. I used to be 5ft 4in, now I’m just 5ft.”
That may have been so, but Jean Alexander will be forever remembered as a soap giant.