Barbara Young, actress with credits ranging from I, Claudius to Coronation Street – obituary

Barbara Young
Barbara Young

Barbara Young, who has died aged 92, made her name playing Agrippina the Younger, the scheming mother of the future emperor Nero (Christopher Biggins) in the 1976 BBC television drama I, Claudius starring Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips and Brian Blessed.

Small in stature but big in personality and opinions, she was also a stalwart of soap opera, notably Coronation Street, in which she played several roles. From 2008 she was Nora Batty’s sister Stella in Last of the Summer Wine after Nora (Kathy Staff, who was unable to continue because of ill health) had left for Australia.

Barbara Young also regular trod the boards in the classics, notably for Frank Hauser at Oxford Playhouse. “I did lovely things like Antigone, the Jean Anouilh play, and lots of Shakespeares and [William Wycherley’s] The Country Wife,” she told a British Library oral history project. “You would do three plays in repertory, a kind of season.”

Barbara Young was born at Brighouse, West Yorkshire, on February 9 1931, to parents who were keen on amateur dramatics. Her sister Mary played the piano and Barbara was soon singing, tap dancing and acting. In her teens she appeared with the Brighouse Players at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield.

She was sent for elocution lessons, “because I came from Brighouse and you didn’t talk posh in Brighouse”, and studied at Bradford Civic Theatre School, which produced such luminaries of the stage as Robert Stephens and Glenda Jackson.

Rudolf Laban, the modern-dance choreographer, was involved with the school and recommended her to Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, then in Manchester.

The company toured the Welsh valleys, singing folk songs on the back of a lorry as they travelled between mining towns. On one occasion Barbara was almost thrown off for singing a jazzed-up version of the American hit Frankie and Johnny. “It had to be pure folk music, and I rather liked the jazz,” she explained.

Coronation Street, 2007, left to right: Doreen Fenwick (Barbara Young), Rita Sullivan (Barbara Knox) and Norris Cole (Malcolm Hebden) - ITV/Shutterstock
Coronation Street, 2007, left to right: Doreen Fenwick (Barbara Young), Rita Sullivan (Barbara Knox) and Norris Cole (Malcolm Hebden) - ITV/Shutterstock

In 1952 she appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe in The Travellers by Ewan MacColl, Joan Littlewood’s ex-husband. The show took place on a train set up in the middle of Oddfellows Hall, with the audience seated on either side peering through the carriage windows.

The following year the Theatre Workshop moved to Stratford, East London, where on one occasion she angered Joan Littlewood by arriving late for rehearsal because of a dental appointment. “I had a really sore mouth and she actually pushed me, and it hurt and I just lashed out and clouted her one,” she recalled.

By then Barbara Young was cutting a bohemian figure, wearing leopard-skin clothing and smoking Gauloises cigarettes. In 1956 she married Jack Pulman, whose Jewish mother moved into their marital home to ensure that her new daughter-in-law was cooking properly. Pulman had been a tax inspector, but his young wife persuaded him to take up writing, leading to screenplays for I, Claudius and (also for the BBC) War and Peace (1972), in which she played St Petersburg socialite Anna Scherer.

Her stage work continued, including the 1960 revue Look Who’s Here at the Fortune Theatre, London, where one critic hailed her as “the liveliest of the company”. On television she featured in the BBC’s Sunday Night Play and ITV’s Television Playhouse.

Then came Coronation Street, in which she played, first, Betty Ridgeway, an attractive hostess at the Orinoco Club; she returned to the Street in 1982 as Dorothy Stockwell, whose husband Wilf ran off with Elsie Tanner; later she was Barbara Platt, whose son Martin married Gail Tilsley; and her most recent run was as Rita Sullivan’s old pal Doreen Fenwick.

Elsewhere Barbara Young was the vicious Miss Scatcherd in the 1970 TV movie of Jane Eyre, Eileen Clancy in the 1975 series Looking for Clancy. Other credits included Crown Court, the Yorkshire TV comedy How’s Your Father? and, as she continued working into her eighties, Hollyoaks and Doctors.

Her heart, however, remained in the theatre: “It’s simply because there’s a live audience sitting out there watching you, and it’s very, very special.”

Pulman died from a heart attack in 1979 and Barbara Young is survived by their daughters, the singer Liza Pulman and the actress Cory Pulman.

Barbara Young, born February 9 1931, died April 27 2023