How Doreen Mantle made Mrs Warboys – a woman who could bore for England – such a joy

Annette Crosbie as Margaret Meldrew and Doreen Mantle as Jean Warboys in One Foot In the Grave
Annette Crosbie as Margaret Meldrew and Doreen Mantle as Jean Warboys in One Foot In the Grave - BBC/John Rogers

For a much-loved British sitcom to contain one indelible comic character is an impressive achievement, but for it to contain two is something very rare indeed. When most people think of David Renwick’s One Foot in the Grave, it is the perpetually irascible, fist-shaking Victor Meldrew that immediately comes to mind, brought to life by Richard Wilson’s indelible performance.

Yet there is also the scene-stealing Mrs Warboys, the Meldrews’s neighbour and frenemy, who often manages to provoke hilarity simply by her presence in a scene. Thanks to the skilful and subtle work of Doreen Mantle, who has died at the age of 97, Jean Warboys has deservedly taken her place in the pantheon of great British figures, often producing laughs of recognition and incredulity in the same scene.

As written, the character – one of Renwick’s sublime running jokes is that, despite an acquaintanceship of many years, she always refers to Victor as “Mr Meldrew” while he calls her “Mrs Warboys” – could easily have been a stock caricature, the next door neighbour who pops up to act as a foil for Victor’s wilder antics. Yet Renwick had the inspired decision to make her, if possible, even more eccentric and untoward than Meldrew.

Just as Wilson and Annette Crosbie – as Victor’s long-suffering wife Margaret – were actors who were predominantly known for dramatic roles before they were cast in One Foot in the Grave, so much of the joy of Mantle’s performance can be derived from the complete rigour with which she approached her character. As she told the Guardian in 2015: “I’d always been more of a serious-drama person, I’d never done sitcom, and at first I found it absolutely terrifying.”

On set, Renwick was a good-natured but exacting taskmaster, who placed complete faith in the actors’ abilities to interpret his scripts to the letter, but did not allow deviation or improvisation. As Mantle recalled: “I’d done lots of theatre, but playing to an audience and cameras simultaneously and getting the timing right was really tough. You couldn’t slip up, and the scripts were so tightly written. David didn’t allow any ad-libbing. It was a very serious business.” Nonetheless, she praised it as “beautifully written…with a marvellous sense of comedy. David has a very good idea of what is funny and what isn’t funny.”

Mrs Warboys appeared in the show’s very first episode, Alive and Buried, in which she is subjected to some of Margaret’s failed attempts at conjuring tricks, only to be utterly terrified by them. It was, given what would occur later, a relatively inauspicious introduction to the character. But from the outset, Mantle proved to be magnificent at nailing Mrs Warboys’s mixture of apparent gormlessness, busybodying instincts and the ability to be peerlessly, hilariously annoying.

She would later go on to make appearances throughout all six series of the sitcom, as well as popping up in the specials One Foot in the Algarve, Who’s Listening and Starbound. Appearing in 18 episodes in total, Renwick and Mantle knew how to use the character perfectly. Had Jean Warboys been in the sitcom too much, then she would have become little more than an irritant, but if she had only made fleeting appearances, she would never have been given the time and space that she needed to become a vital part of the show’s tightly-honed ensemble.

And as the character, as written, did not have much in the way of grounding, it was up to Mantle to provide it. “She didn’t have any backstory, so I sort of had to make it up as I went along,” Mantle said of Jean. “I concluded she was well-meaning but not very intelligent; she’d make these terrible mistakes and not realise.”

Doreen Mantle and Richard Wilson in One Foot In the Grave
Doreen Mantle and Richard Wilson in One Foot In the Grave - BBC/John Rogers

Mr Warboys – aka, Chris – is one of comedy’s never-seen characters, and, if he’s hardly a legend on a par with Jean Mainwaring or Maris Crane, the resolution to his storyline is a suitably uproarious one. As Mantle put it: “There was one plot strand where she began to suspect her husband was having an affair, and hired a private detective. He turned out not to be, but then he ran off with the private detective.” Yet while a lesser sitcom might have used this development to try and elicit feelings of pathos or sympathy for Mrs Warboys, Renwick and Mantle never gave into sentiment; she remains ineffably self-centred, monumentally tedious, and a character who enlivened any scene that she appeared in.

Mantle said of her, accurately, that she set out “wanting to do the right thing but always finding out that it was the wrong thing”, and it was her perpetual clashes with Victor, who would be worked into a near-apoplectic state by her apparent inability to behave in a normal and rational way, that elicited some of the show’s most sublime moments. Many of her antics and activities would lead to his shouting “MRS WARBOYS!” in a state of exasperated rage, and the guffaws of laughter that one would hear from the studio audience were absolutely genuine. The interplay between the two was one of a wonderful comedy’s true highlights, and Mantle’s unforgettable performance made a superbly written character one of the greatest figures in British sitcom history.

Mrs Warboys’s finest hours

1. Starbound

Mantle’s own favourite scene as Mrs Warboys came in the 1996 Christmas special Starbound, in which she persuades a reluctant Victor to adopt a deceased neighbour’s dog, Nippy. As Meldrew enters into the spirit of looking after the canine, building a kennel and acquiring a stack of dog food, he is aghast to discover that Nippy is, in fact, stuffed – a detail that Mrs Warboys had not considered worth mentioning.

In a particularly amusing scene – in which she is carjacked by a drug dealer, whose supply Victor later gets high on, and another character aptly describes Jean as “really tedious company” – her matter-of-fact presentation of the stuffed dog leads an outraged Victor to shout “He doesn’t look very nippy from where I’m standing!”

2. Descent into the Maelstrom

One Foot in the Grave contains many moments of sublime comedy, but a scene that really ought to be regarded as the equal of Monty Python’s “dead parrot” is when Mrs Warboys, unwisely dispatched to the dry cleaners to bring back a suit for Victor, returns with a gorilla suit. Meldrew’s apoplectic response – “I mean where do you think I shop? King Kong at C&A’s!” – is hilarious, but even funnier is her unfazed judgement on the cleaning: “She said they got almost all the beetroot out if you didn’t look too closely. Myself, I can hardly see a thing”. Then, when tackled as to how she could possibly believe that this was his outfit, her deadpan reply: “Well, I don’t know what your suit looks like, do I?”

3. Only a Story

One of the relatively rare episodes in which Mrs Warboys took centre stage came in this second instalment of the fifth series, in which she moved in with the reluctant Meldrews after her flat was flooded. Mantle absolutely nails the character’s mixture of tactlessness (saying of some pasta that Margaret has cooked for her “This is nice. Not that I can taste it with my allergy of course; might be absolutely horrible” and taking it upon herself to clean their home unasked, while cheerily saying: “Just thought I’d get some of the filth out of these cupboards for you”) and comical naivete. When it is made clear to her that police can use DNA testing for suspects by taking samples of their sperm, as an alternative to fingerprinting, Jean is disgusted: “Don’t see what was wrong with the old ink pads.”

4. The Beast in the Cage

Renwick’s writing has been justifiably compared to Pinter and Beckett, and there is no better example of this than the fourth episode of series three, in which Victor and Margaret, attempting to head to Whipsnade Zoo, found themselves miserably stuck in the car in an endless traffic jam. What elevates it from amusing to sublime is the sudden and unexpected appearance of Mrs Warboys halfway through, who has been asleep in the back of the car, unbeknownst to the Meldrews. She then proceeds to bore for England. Her presence eventually leads Victor, in one of Renwick’s wittiest speeches, to contemplate cannibalism: “I’m afraid there’s only one thing for it: we’ll have to eat Mrs Warboys. I know she’s a bit gristly but these are desperate times, and as a close friend of the family I’m sure she will agree to do the decent thing and shoot herself.”

5. One Foot in the Algarve

After the disappearance of Chris, it was surely time that Mrs Warboys was offered some romantic opportunities. This duly came in the form of Edward de Souza’s suave Afonso, a Portuguese pen-pal with whom she had been avidly corresponding. Unfortunately, during the course of the episode, she not only finds out that he is not the lonely widower that he has been pretending to be, but that his wife has faked her death to escape him. Then Victor accidentally offers her up for sexual favours for money, thanks to his inexpert Portuguese.

The episode does contain a moment when Margaret angrily defends her supposed friend, saying to Victor that he treated her merely as “a jibbering old bat who popped round twice a week to polish off our digestive biscuits”. But her innate qualities come to the fore towards the end when Victor, angrily reminiscing about the time that he and Margaret returned from holiday to find their house demolished, is met with Jean’s blithe response: “Yes, funny you can laugh about it now, right?” She soon discovers that they cannot.