British Icon of the Week: 'The Good Life' Star Dame Penelope Keith

(Photo: Getty Images)

Happy birthday Penelope Keith! The widely respected actress is celebrating her 83rd birthday this weekend, so we're making her our latest British Icon of the Week. Here are 10 of the things that we admire and find interesting about her.

1. She starred in The Good Life.

One of Keith's signature roles came in this iconic BBC sitcom, which ran from 1975 to 1978 and picked up a stateside fanbase on PBS. She played Margo Leadbetter, a snobby suburban social climber who, along with husband Jerry (Paul Eddington), befriends her far less conventional neighbors Tom and Barbara Good (Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal). It's a culture clash comedy that pokes plenty of fun at the British class system.

2. She also starred in To the Manor Born.

This BBC sitcom ran from 1979 to 1981 and followed the love-hate relationship between Audrey fforbes-Hamilton (sic), an upper-class woman forced to sell her grand family home, and Richard DeVere (Peter Bowles), the nouveau riche businessman who bought it. The season one finale attracted nearly 24 million viewers, making it one of the 10 most-watched programs in U.K. TV history (not including live events).

3. She was President of the Actors' Benevolent Fund for many years.

Keith succeeded Laurence Olivier in this post when he died in 1990, and held it until last year. The ABF supports actors and stage managers who are experiencing financial hardship due to injury, illness, or old age; it's currently distributing grants to help performers struggling during the cost-of-living crisis.

4. She is an award-winning stage actress.

In 1976, Keith won an Olivier Award – the top prize in British theater – for her performance in the classic farce Donkeys' Years. She has also worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and starred in West End productions of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit.

5. In building her career, she overcame self-consciousness about her height.

Keith, who stands at 5'10" or 178cm, has said this self-consciousness was exacerbated by an insensitive crew member early in her TV career.

"I remember this man saying: 'I'm not going to get you in shot' and I had to walk with my knees bent. Isn't that a dreadful thing to say to a young person?" she told The Scotsman. "But I knew I was alright when I was doing another television thing [a few years later] and the director asked the male lead to wear lifts. I thought, 'I've arrived!' Or if I haven't arrived, I'm part of the way there."

6. She has a passion for traditional English villages.

Keith has presented a couple of documentary series on this topic, Penelope Keith's Coastal Villages and Penelope Keith's Hidden Villages. You may have caught them a few years ago on Acorn TV.

7. She has an absolutely fabulous speaking voice.

Keith's crisp diction was honed at London's Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, where she trained as an actor in the 1960s. You can enjoy her articulate speaking style in this touching TV interview she gave in 2013, shortly after the death of Richard Briers, her co-star in The Good Life.

8. She is a true pillar of the community. 

In the past, Keith has put in stints as both Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of Surrey, the leafy English county where she lives. In her capacity as Deputy Lieutenant, she would have been required to open local ceremonies and official events, while her High Sheriff role involved helping to maintain law and order. The latter is very much in Keith's wheelhouse as her husband of 45 years, Rodney Timson, is a retired police officer.

9. She is a keen gardener.

Keith has said that these days, she prefers to take on acting work in the winter, when there is less to do in her garden. This '90s TV commercial for Heinz Soups really leans into her green-fingered reputation (as well as her natural authority!).

10. And finally, she knows she is associated with well-spoken, formidable characters – and has no problem with it.

Keith has said that though some of her characters haven't necessarily been popular, "it's far more interesting playing someone with a bit of guts, rather than just looking pretty. I was never small and pretty so I wasn't liable to get those parts."

She also said of her career generally: "To me, all the people I play are totally different. I suppose if I played thousands of different accents they might think: 'Isn't she clever, that she can do that?' But it isn't something that's worried me. It's something that people would like to think would worry me. I've been lucky enough to play two of the greatest parts in situation comedy written for women, and that was wonderful."

Well said, Dame Penelope!

Do you have a favorite Dame Penelope Keith role?