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Beloved character actress did not achieve fame until her 50s

Liz Smith, who famously played Nana in the TV comedy hit The Royle Family, was one of the best-known and beloved character actresses of her generation.

She was playing leading roles, both comedy and serious, on stage and on television, well into her 80s.

Her acting career burgeoned relatively late in life - she was nearly 50 when she made her first appearance on television - but she eventually became a household name and a popular favourite in both sitcoms and TV dramas.

Elizabeth Smith was born in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, on December 11 1921 - her mother died in childbirth and her father later abandoned her.

Recalling one memory of her father, she said: "One day he met me coming out of Sunday school. He said 'Bye bye kid, I'll write' and backed away. That's the last I saw of him."

In 1945 she married Jack Thomas, but they divorced in 1959 and she brought up their two children on her own.

But it was not until 1970 that she made her first appearance on television, in Leo The Last. However, her appearance was not credited in this production.

It was after that her career, which had so far been unspectacular, began to blossom.

The following year, she appeared as the downtrodden mother in Mike Leigh's Bleak Moments, and was working in Hamleys when she was given the part.

She once said she owed "everything to Mike" - the man who gave her her first break.

This role was followed by others in Last Of The Summer Wine as one of Compo's dates, Bootsie and Snudge, Crown Court, I Didn't Know You Cared and The Sweeney.

Smith also appeared as Madame Balls in The Pink Panther Strikes Again although her scenes were deleted. However, she did appear in this role in the 1982 film Curse Of The Pink Panther.

In the 1970s and 1980s, she appeared in many TV programmes, including The Duchess Of Duke Street, Within These Walls, In Loving Memory, The Gentle Touch, Agatha Christie's Partners In Crime, One By One and the Lenny Henry Show.

In the 1980s, she received a Bafta award for best supporting actress, for her role as Maggie Smith's mother in the film A Private Function.

Her career continued to burgeon in the 1990s. She appeared in 2point4 Children, in which she had regular roles as Aunt Belle and Bette.

In 1994, she was given the role of Letitia Cropley in the popular sitcom The Vicar Of Dibley, a role which made her a household name. But her character died in the 1996 Easter special episode.

Then she became Nana in The Royle Family until 2000. She reappeared in the special episode in 2006, where her character also died.

Meanwhile she also made appearances in The Queen's Nose, The Bill and Secrets & Lies.

In 1999 she featured in A Christmas Carol as Mrs Dilber, a role she played in a 1984 production of this work.

Her popularity continued into the Millennium, with roles in Wallace & Gromit, The Curse of The Were-Rabbit, Oliver Twist and Keeping Mum.

In 2005, she played Grandma Georgina in Tim Burton's remake of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.

The following year she published her autobiography, Our Betty, and at around the same time she moved into a retirement home in Hampstead, north London.

But that did not mean her career was over.

In 2007, she appeared in the Little Man Tate music video This Must Be Love, and also released a book of short stories and musings called Jottings: Flights Of Fancy.

And in the same year she went on to scoop Best Actress at the British Comedy Awards for her role as Nana in The Royle Family special, The Queen Of Sheba.

Smith's career was recognised when she was awarded an MBE in 2009.

Handed the accolade by the Prince of Wales, Charles told her the sofa-bound characters in The Royle Family were "nothing like my family, thank God".

She then went on to take part the next year in the BBC's The Young Ones, in which six well-loved celebrities in their 70s and 80s turned back the clock to the 1970s.

Smith also starred in BBC4's Grey Expectations series, which aimed to challenge preconceptions about what is possible for the over-60s.

The programme saw her invited to do something she had never done before, which was to embark on a luxury cruise.

It was her first journey on a cruise ship since the Second World War when she was crammed into a cabin with 20 fellow Wrens.

Following a series of strokes Smith announced her retirement from acting in 2009.

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