Denise Coffey, the actress, director and playwright, who died aged 85, was best known to viewers as the only female member of the comedy lineup of Do Not Adjust Your Set, the ITV series whose surreal humor and anarchic foreshadowed Monty Python.
Tiny and quirky, she starred alongside three members of the future Python gang — Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin — with David Jason performing satirical sketches, interspersed with musical interludes by Vivian Stanshall’s Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and, later, bizarre animations designed by Terry Gilliam.
In a popular series of mini-adventures, Denise Coffey would play Mrs. Black, “the baddest woman in the world” — nemesis of David Jason’s parody superhero Captain Fantastic. Jason would be seen wielding his gadget-stuffed umbrella and sporting a bowler hat, while Denise Coffey clutched her “ugly purse”, creating plans for world domination.
In a Christmas special, Don’t adjust your bottom, she appeared in a feather boa, sequins and Thora Hird glasses to feature Terry Jones impersonating the London Symphony Orchestra riding up the Zambezi in a storm. Although designed for children, Don’t adjust your set won a following among adults and raced from 1967 to 1969.
Denise Coffey went on to enjoy a modestly successful career in television, although she later became better known for her radio work, including two Sue Limb series. She played Dorothy Wordsmith in her Lakeland Poets parody The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere (Radio 4, 1985-87) alongside Geoffrey Whitehead as William Wordsmith, Tim Curry as Lord Biro and Simon Callow as Samuel Tailor Cholericke.
Later, she teamed up with Miriam Margolyes in Alison and Maud (Radio 4, 2002-04) as two sisters who set up a haphazard bed and breakfast establishment in Norwich. Joss Ackland played their petulant, bedridden father. As a playwright, Denise Coffey collaborated with Scottish comedian Rikki Fulton on A touch of classtranslating Molière The Bourgeois Gentleman in Glasgow in the 19th century, in which they also performed.
Huge success at the Edinburgh Festivals of 1985 and 1986, it was hailed in the Telegraph as a “stunning tartan-and-Hogmanay frolic”.
Denise Dorothy Coffey was born in Aldershot, Hampshire on 12 December 1936 to Denis Coffey, an RAF officer, and Dorothy, née Malcolm.
She began a career in representation, then worked as a BBC radio interviewer. She played Lynn Redgrave’s friend in Georgy Girl (1966) and the following year appeared in John Schlesinger’s Hardy adaptation Far from the madding crowd. She was a member of the Young Vic repertoire company, writing children’s shows and touring extensively in various roles.
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In addition to supporting roles in film and television, she was a regular at Stanley Baxter Show, while in the ITV sitcom Girls on the town (1970-1971), she and Julie Stevens played bored housewives trying to get their husbands to notice them more. In the children’s slapstick sitcom hold the first page (ITV, 1974), which she wrote, she was Gloria Glamorsox, an investigative journalist looking for Mr Big.
After a role in The Burkiss Way, a series of BBC Radio 4 comedy sketches, in 1979 she appeared in End of the first part, the television version of the series by LWT. In 1998, she was the disgusting Edna, director of Alexei Sayle’s comic book Scouse, Bobby Chariot, in Sayle’s Carousel. She has also appeared on game shows such as I’m sorry, I don’t have a clue and Just a minute.
A vegetarian, Denise Coffey refused to appear in advertisements, believing it was wrong to try to persuade people to buy things they didn’t need. She was single and retired to Salcombe, Devon, where she enjoyed fishing from her small boat.