Barbara Keogh was one of the original members of AWL. She was well known for her roles as series regulars in Eastenders as Lilly Mattock and as Nan Grimley in The Grimleys. She worked extensively in television, her most recent credits included Mike Bassett, Bloodlines, Little Britain, Ready When You Are Mr McGill, Spooks and My Family. Theatre work included seasons at the Royal Court, National, Royal Exchange and Hampstead theatres.
I first met Barbara back in the early 1980s at the Equity branch meetings we used to hold in the Lyric Theatre bar in Hammersmith. We became good friends and shared much laughter and good times from the very earliest days of AWL, which was then based at Riverside Studios. When we weren’t performing we would gather together at the rear of the pokey ‘room on the roof’ (a bizarre room literally perched on the roof of Riverside Studios, dimly lit by a smallish number of 60watt light bulbs that seemed to make the room go darker when they were switched on). Our gaggle of actors became known as ’The Back Row Club’ - mainly consisting of Barbara, myself, Sarah Vernon, Joan Geary, Harriet Keevil, Jane Partridge and a few others.
Through many years we listened and watched, acted and directed, commented and supported through some wonderful (and not so wonderful) plays. Bar always breezed in with immaculate grace with her signature perfectly coiffured white hair, followed as though from the fogs of 50’s London by a trail of cigarette smoke from her ever-present French fags, which she smoked incessantly. We would share stories and throw ourselves into the AWL plays, either as actors or observers in the Back Row Club.
At the discussions afterwards Bar would inevitably contribute with incisive comment. How often we heard her saying “Well darling, it’s not a play is it?” as she puffed away on her umpteenth Gauloise. As we broke for half time drinkies I would rush to the bar to get her glass of white wine ready before the rush. One felt instinctively that this was the right thing to do.
Apart from her many years of AWL activity, it is worth recording that Barbara had a long and very accomplished theatrical career spanning stage, television, radio and film. She possessed that glorious British eccentricity that is the hallmark of our greatest character and supporting artistes. It is testament to her enduring talent that she could be seen in early 1960’s episodes of the classic British sitcom The Rag Trade right up to her final appearances in Little Britain. She worked constantly and regularly in all theatrical mediums, eventually becoming most widely recognizable as Lily in Eastenders, though one feels that this really didn’t do her much broader talent justice, fun though it was.
Bar’s eccentric ways extended to her private life too. Always something of a mystery woman, she travelled the world frequently and would often turn up at meetings and rehearsals after having flown in from some exotic far eastern location. We often wondered how on earth she managed to do all this on an actors earnings, but even as a close friend one sensed that to enquire of such things would be an irrelevance - and certainly nobody I ever knew did.
She lived in a small flat in King’s Cross in her latter years and it was a rare honour to be invited round. I recall being invited to dinner with fellow actor Jane Partridge. I had picked Jane up from her home in Barnes and we’d driven up to King’s Cross on that hot and sultry summer’s evening.
Bar answered the door of her flat wearing a thin white gown that reminded me somewhat uncomfortably of Kath in Orton’s glorious Entertaining Mr. Sloane’. I recall Bar’s flat as being absolutely crammed with knickknacks; every space on every surface was filled with a curio of some sort. We all sat together (though how we found room is a mystery to me), drank wine and ate fish paste nibbles from an enormous white ceramic platter that Bar eventually brought in.
After an hour or so Jane and I began to wonder when we were going to eat? We were starving! There was no sign of any dinner - visually or nasally. After another hour or so she disappeared into the kitchen and brought in yet another even bigger platter of fish paste nibbles.
By 10pm we had had three tray-sized platters of fish paste things and both Jane and I were unable to process any more. We’d had a fun evening with lots of laughter but it was definitely time to go. We said our fond goodbyes and repaired to my car for the journey home. As we shut the car doors Jane and I looked at each other and burst into fits of hysterical laughter. It had indeed been one of the most wonderful, unique and surreal dinner parties that either of us had ever been to.
I suspect that those who knew Barbara would have many, many more stories and anecdotes to tell; why not tap up an AWL member and ask? We all adored her and miss her very much. Even now I find myself looking towards the back row at AWL meetings and expect to see that fabulous white hairdo there gracing her mischievous smile and happy laughter.
The internet is a wonderful thing and I’m thrilled that Bar is a part of it through the AWL group that she loved so much.
In fact, I think I can hear her now saying“Well I should bloody well think so darling”. Bless you Barbara and thanks for all the fun.
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