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Emotional funeral for Bellingham

A choir performed the carol Away In A Manger as friends, family and showbiz stars said their farewells at the funeral of late actress Lynda Bellingham - who had longed to see one final Christmas.

The 66-year-old, known for her role as the Oxo mum and as a Loose Women presenter, had spoken of her plans to spend one more Christmas with her family with a real tree just days before she lost her battle with cancer a fortnight ago.

Mourners gathered at a Somerset church to pay tribute to Bellingham, who was described as an "extraordinary force of nature".

Her close friends reminisced with jokes, verse and near-the-knuckle anecdotes as they fondly recalled the star, with her "honking laughter", who died after she made the decision to end treatment for her cancer.

Bellingham - who in recent years had become known as a presenter of ITV's Loose Women - had asked for a lively send-off, so her husband Michael Pattemore lined up a string of guests who turned her funeral into a variety show-style celebration of her life.

But there were also tears from her widower - who met her 10 years ago to the day - who told mourners: "In my wildest dreams I could never imagine finding this warm and wonderful woman."

And they also heard the raw, painful content of a letter she had written to her two sons in which she acknowledged that they would be "cross" with her for deciding to withdraw from treatment and cut short her own life. But in her letter she told them: "I love you both so much it hurts."

Guests gathered at St Bartholomew's Church in Crewkerne, Somerset, to mourn the actress who was loved by generations for her roles in shows such as Faith In The Future, All Creatures Great And Small and for one of her most enduring roles as the mother in a long-running series of ads for Oxo.

Her screen husband from the hit adverts, Michael Redfern, was among those attending along with Loose Women Coleen Nolan, Jane McDonald, Andrea McLean and Kate Thornton. Other notables included Julia Sawalha, Coronation Street's Helen Worth, Robert Lindsay, Gyles Brandreth and Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes.

Old friend Christopher Biggins attended wearing a vivid pink suit which he said would have cheered her and "put a smile on her face".

Bellingham had colon cancer which later spread to her lungs and liver. She was diagnosed last July but in late September she disclosed that she had decided to end her treatment to limit the amount of suffering her family would witness.

In her last few weeks, she spoke openly about her illness and its effect on her family, giving an emotional final interview to her friends on Loose Women which was screened just days after her death. In interviews leading up to her death she had talked about how she wanted to see one more Christmas with her family and had planned to have a real Christmas tree.

More than 100 members of the public lined the path outside the church to pay their respects as guests carrying umbrellas trooped into the church for the service led by her friend, former Archdeacon of London Peter Delaney.

Bellingham's widower - her third husband, whom she married on her 60th birthday - helped carry her coffin adorned with white flowers accompanied by her sons Michael, 31, and Robert, 26, as Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations played.

Mourners following in behind the coffin wept as they carried single white roses. The congregation sang the hymn Lead Us Heavenly Father before Loose Women star Lisa Maxwell read The Epistle to the Romans (ch 8.31-39).

Among those who spoke was her friend Brandreth, the broadcaster and former MP.

He said: "Sometimes sadness and celebration can go hand in hand. Here we are in this beautiful, amazing church in Michael's home town saying goodbye to lovely Lynda.

"Brave, beautiful, brilliant, funny, fabulous Lynda. As we say goodbye to her in here, her book is No 1 bestseller. I think she would have liked to have gone out on a high.

"I first met her nearly 40 years ago when we were introduced by Biggins. Of course, I fell for her at once. She was so funny and so sexy - even gay men fancied her.

"Lynda was an extraordinary force of nature, intelligent, gifted, generous, funny, feisty, open, honest, kind and caring.

"I don't think I have known anyone more alive than Lynda Bellingham. She showed us how to live and in the last year or two of her life she taught us how to die - with grace, courage, humour and acceptance."

Tributes were read by her sister Jean Bellingham and actress Maureen Lipman.

Fighting back tears, Lipman recalled her occasionally smutty sense of humour. She told guests: "I wish I could reproduce the fun times, the joke-telling.

"Her sudden honking laughter, her craziness, her rich, throaty and slightly metallic voice, her high campery and her beautiful brown eyes.

"In this sad time we must conjure up over a Campari and soda or three as we attempt to adjust to living in a belligerent, sometimes bellicose world, which no longer holds our Belly."

Tributes were also paid by McDonald and Christopher Timothy - her on-screen husband from All Creatures Great And Small.

Denise Welch read an ode about her friend, which included the lines: "If you are looking down from wherever you are, I am sure you will be having a hoot, at the oddbods that loved you so dearly like Biggins in that bloody pink suit.

"Your humour is what I will remember and the dirtiest laugh known to man. Your jokes even I said you can't tell, 'C'mon Denzy, you know that I can'."

It concluded: "As she said, today must be joyous, full of laughter and try not to cry, and because she was ever so bossy, let's obey her - here's to Lynda with a 'y'."

Nickolas Grace spoke of his 48-year friendship with Bellingham, whom he had met at drama school as a teenager. He told mourners how he held her hands as she quietly slipped away at hospital with her family at her side.

Biggins had mourners laughing with a theatrical five-minute tribute to his great friend, during which he read the poem Codicil, written by Julia Deakin.

Fighting back tears, Biggins turned to the coffin and said: "Lynda ... Belly ... we will cry but eventually at the end of the day we all love you, we will always love you as you were so, so special. Thank you."

To a round of applause, Biggins was then embraced by Mr Pattemore, before actress Sue Holderness - Only Fools And Horses' Marlene - read Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.

Bellingham's two sons together took it in turns to read out a letter their mother had written them both.

In it she explained: "My decision to stop the chemo was personal and probably the only thing I had left to myself. I know you boys will be upset and will probably go through a cross period with me but you have to respect my needs - I know you do.

"One thing I can assure you is that Michael loves you both very much and he will need you as much as anybody because you are his link to me. We know we are all different people and will not always see eye to eye.

"When the moment comes to say goodbye, let's just hold hands and love each other as we surely do."

The brothers finished by together saying:

"As she always told us on a bad day 'onwards and upwards sons, tomorrow's another day and don't let the buggers get you down'."

Mr Pattemore told of their first meeting in Spain 10 years earlier: "When our eyes met I knew there was an immediate attraction. Apparently the first thing Lynda whispered to her friend Pat was 'There's a Jack the Lad if ever I saw one'. Honestly I am not.

"As I stood in that Spanish sunshine 10 years ago falling in love with a beautiful woman, never in my worst nightmares did I imagine that today I would be speaking at her funeral.

"Thank you Lynda for letting me be a lucky, lucky man who shared your life for 10 wonderful, far too short years."

Fighting back tears, Mr Pattemore said: "I did try and keep my promise to keep her safe but the only thing I couldn't do was protect her from this vicious cancer.

"I don't like feeling helpless but there was so much I couldn't do for her. Most people only get one chance in life for love and I am truly lucky in getting another go."

The one hour and 45 minute service ended with everyone singing Jerusalem and Bellingham's coffin was carried out of the church to the song There's No Business Like Showbusiness.

The star went out with a bang with a firework display that sparkled across the sky as she was laid to rest.

Crowds of mourners watched as a series of loud bangs crackled over Townsend Cemetery in Crewkerne in silver, red and green.

They cheered and clapped loudly as the display, which caused smoke to fill the picturesque landscape of rolling Somerset hills, ended.

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