Obituary: Maria Charles

A formidable presence who played Yente opposite Topol in Fiddler on the Roof


There were plenty of Jewish roles to pick from, both on stage and screen. The dreaming matchmaker, Yente, opposite Topol in Fiddler on the Roof invoking that unforgettable stream of spectral Jewish ancestors.

The anxious mother in Jack Rosenthal’s award-winning 1976 BBC play Bar Mitzvah Boy, a dramatic unravelling of the pressures facing a boy on the verge of manhood. The prime minister’s mother in Disraeli: Portrait of a Romantic (1978). So deep did the Jewish influence go that her fans called her Mus, as in mazaltov.

It was a career spanning seven decades that saw Maria Charles, who has died aged 93, often portray Jewish characters in the UK and the US. She played Madge Fellows in early episodes of Thomas and Sarah (1979), she was noted for her performance as the neurotic, domineering mother Bea Fisher in the ITV sitcom Agony Aunt, opposite Maureen Lipman.

Charles had a formidable presence and was often viewed as a leading lady even when playing supporting roles. One critic called her a “glamour puss” in Elsa Shelley’s delinquincy drama Pick-Up Girl at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Charles was a show-stopper even in minor roles.

She had a talent for comedy helped by her bird-like, expressive face. She appeared in many original West End productions, including musicals by Stephen Sondheim, Charles Strouse and Sandy Wilson. Her versatility created countless stage and TV opportunities for her, as actress, director and comedian.

She was born Maria Zena Schneider in west London, the elder of the two daughters of Celia (née Ashkenaza) and David Schneider, a hairdresser, who had arrived in England from Poland aged four and changed the family name during the Second World War. In his work he became known as Mr Charles. From an early age Maria Charles was fixated on a stage career.

She was expelled from school in Fulham for truancy (though that did not stop them from inviting her back many years later to give a prize). Her parents were not happy in her career choice, but eventually respected it. She entered Rada aged 15 in 1944 having lied about her age to get in, and then won its bronze medal.

She graduated in 1946, but completed her first professional job the previous Christmas as the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland at Worthing Repertory Theatre.

It generously offered free performances for ex-prisoners of war and their families, while the children were waited on by the cast during the interval.

In that same year she appeared in the supporting role of Ruby Lockwood, in Elsa Shelley’s juvenile delinquency drama Pick-Up Girl at the Prince of Wales Theatre, starring Patricia
Plunkett as Elizabeth Collins. In 1951, working with the Buxton Repertory Theatre she met and married the actor Robin Hunter, with whom she had two daughters.

Her major break came in 1953 as Dulcie in the Players’ Theatre original production of Sandy Wilson’s 1920s satire The Boy Friend. It ran for four years, and 40 years later she directed its anniversary revival.

But life became tougher after her divorce in 1966,when she had to work hard as a single parent, augmenting her career with house cleaning and understudying to support her family.

Things took a turn for the better when Charles won major TV roles in Country Matters (1972), Secret Army (1977), the Upstairs Downstairs spin-off Thomas and Sarah (1979), as Maria in Disraeli: Portrait of a Romantic, in Brideshead Revisited (1981) and an acclaimed BBC production of Somerset Maugham’s Sheppey (1980) in which she played the despairing wife of a philosophic barber (Bob Hoskins) wringing her hands as she sees him offering his enormous lottery win to the poor.

Charles stole the show as the awkward neighbour in Shine on Harvey Moon (1982) and in 2000 as the mother of Charles Hawtrey (Hugh Walters) in Cor, Blimey!, an ITV drama focusing on the Carry On films’ stars.

Stage success continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including her role as Miss Hannigan in Annie, (Victoria Palace, 1979), in the original 1981 comedy production of Steaming, as Yente in the first London revival of Fiddler on the Roof (Apollo Victoria, 1983), as Solange LaFitte in Sondheim’s Follies, (Shaftesbury Theatre 1987) and alongside John Thaw in David Hare’s The Absence of War (National, 1993). She also chalked up many film credits to her name.

But the millennium saw her embark on teaching and directing, while still appearing in big-screen comedies, including soaps such as Coronation Street. She became drawn to fringe theatre, notably appearing in Carole Braverman’s Yiddish Trojan Women at the Cockpit in 1995.

Later, the woman whose towering personality surpassed her 5ft frame, became drawn to character roles. Her flat in Barnes resembled a theatrical grotto, filled with at least three cats. She was aware of the value of money.

When Michael Hordern, co-starring with her in Tom Stoppard’s Enter a Free Man (St Martin’s, 1968) took her out to lunch, she was shocked at the prices on the menu. In true thespian style, Hordern replied: “Darling, let joy be unconfined!”

She loved that so much, it became her mantra.

Maria Charles is survived by her daughters, Sam, a production stage manager, and Kelly, an actress and director.
Gloria tesSler

Maria Charles: born September 22, 1929, died April 21, 2023

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive