Michael Coveney: Geraldine McEwan was a great comic stylist

McEwan, who has died aged 82, had a ‘syrupy, seductive voice and a forthright, sparkling manner’

Geraldine McEwan with her Barchester Towers co-star Alan Rickman in 2008
Geraldine McEwan with her Barchester Towers co-star Alan Rickman in 2008
© Dan Wooller

At last year's series of platforms celebrating the National Theatre's 50th anniversary, Geraldine McEwan, who died on Friday aged 82, said that when she joined the company, Laurence Olivier told her that, as she could do comedy, she could do anything. So that's what she did.

She told the audience – and fellow panellists Michael Gambon, Sheila Reid, Gawn Grainger, Ronald Pickup and James Hayes, chaired by Nicholas Hytner – that working with Olivier was a joy and that his performance as the Captain in Strindberg's Dance of Death, in which she played his long-suffering wife, Alice, was the greatest she had ever seen.

Her other NT performances between 1965 and 1971 included a mercurial Angelica in Congreve's Love for Love, Raymonde Chandebise in Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear, a gleaming Millamant in The Way of the World and a tremendous, half naked, coquettish Vittoria Corombona in Webster's The White Devil, in a wig like a wedding cake.

McEwan, who was married for almost 50 years to the late Hugh Cruttwell, a legendary principal of RADA, joined her local rep at Windsor after the war and was a West End star before playing lead roles at Stratford-upon-Avon, Jean Rice opposite Olivier in John Osborne's The Entertainer at the Palace (she took over from Joan Plowright), and Fay in the first production of Joe Orton's Loot in 1965.

She was a great comic stylist, with a syrupy, seductive voice and a forthright, sparkling manner which endeared her to television audiences in such major series as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1978 (she often shared roles with Maggie Smith; this was ten years after Smith won an Oscar for the film), Barchester Towers opposite Alan Rickman's unforgettable Obadiah Slope in 1982, the definitive Mapp and Lucia in 1985 (with Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne), Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in 1989 (she won a BAFTA best actress award as Jeanette Winterson's Mother) and as Miss Marple in twelve two-hour films shown worldwide between 2004 and 2009.

Back at the National, she played in the Rattigan double bill of The Browning Version and Harlequinade in 1980, directed by Michael Rudman, and then as Mrs Malaprop in the most wonderful 1984 revival by Peter Wood of The Rivals by Sheridan: Michael Hordern was Sir Anthony Absolute, Fiona Shaw made a professional debut and Bath's Royal Crescent seemed to have landed on the Olivier stage.

She appeared in Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind at the Royal Court in 1988, as Gertrude to Rickman's Hamlet at Riverside Studios in 1992, in an extraordinary 1997 Royal Court revival by Simon McBurney of Ionesco's The Chairs, with Richard Briers, also at the Court (temporarily housed at the Duke of York's during the refurbishment period) and as a wickedly and hilariously obnoxious Judith Bliss in Declan Donnellan's controversial Gothic production of Coward's Hay Fever at the Savoy in 1999.