It’s hard to imagine a more dignified and stately star of British luvviedom than Dame Penelope Keith. There’s the damehood, for one thing. The “Penelope,” for another. The accent too—that hyper-polished, cut-glass trill, like Princess Margaret before all the ciggies; a voice once voted as Britain’s best loved in a BBC poll.
And then there are all of those past roles, such as the haughty Margo Leadbetter in the beloved 1970s sitcom The Good Life—a sort of Schitt’s Creek for British suburbia. In the canon of British national treasures, Keith falls somewhere between David Attenborough, passive-aggression, and inexplicably warm beer. So to see her name in the same sentence as “bullying” and “harassment” is a profound shock to the system, like watching your grandmother break-dance—disconcerting and thrilling all at once.
And yet—here we are. Two weeks ago, it was reported that the governance of a trust called the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, which helps performers who have fallen on hard times or become ill, was being investigated by the Charity Commission following a bloody rout of its high command.
The fund, which was founded in 1882 and whose royal patron is the Prince of Wales, had been chaired by Keith for 32 years—before a dramatic coup saw her and nine other figures axed from the board of trustees by a “show of hands” vote. Those sacked include an array of future quiz-show answers, such as James Bolam, 86, best known for his role in The Likely Lads, and Dame Siân Phillips, 88, of I, Claudius fame.
The recent trouble started when the board of trustees began to question general secretary Jonathan Ellicott over some unusual financial arrangements—until Ellicott lodged an official complaint of harassment and bullying against them, before jumping ship entirely at the end of March. (An investigation by an independent human-resources expert has since cleared Keith and the other trustees of any wrongdoing.)
In the canon of British national treasures, Keith falls somewhere between David Attenborough, passive-aggression, and inexplicably warm beer.
According to Keith, meanwhile, the rumbling tensions had been turbocharged by the advent of Zoom meetings—at which intolerable bores could prattle on at unprecedented length, and small annoyances were magnified by the big screen.
“With Zoom meetings, the people who talk and talk and talk will talk and talk and talk. The people you really want to hear won’t have their say,” Keith told The Times of London two weeks ago. “That was the time the divisions started in the council. It just got worse and worse. I put a lot of this down to Zoom,” she said. “I loathed it.” The drama echoes a bizarre viral moment from 2021, when a video meeting of the Handforth parish council, a miniscule legislative body in east Cheshire, exploded into House of Cards–style fury—minting an instant hero in its no-nonsense councillor Jackie Weaver, and making front-page news across the country.
The video calls also curtailed those useful in-person sidebars, where small quibbles could be raised and ironed out without kicking the full governmental machinery into gear. “If we had any concerns we could have a chat and say by the way, I think this has happened.... It’s actors getting together,” Keith continued. “One of our council members said he felt the atmosphere was like going into a green room.”
Things got so tense, Keith told The Times, that she was forced to call on the charity’s royal patron, the Prince of Wales. “I wrote to him that there was a bit of trouble at mill,” she said. A trustee had allegedly questioned Ellicott’s use of a company credit card and quizzed him over the signing of checks—prompting the general secretary to hit back that Keith had been “upsetting, intimidating, and undermining” toward him by suggesting that an independent mediator be brought in. (In his defense, Keith did once make for a robust and credible Lady Bracknell.)
Soon, the luvvie cabal had filed a “formal complaint and grievance” about the general secretary, writing the council off as “dysfunctional.” But, in the final reckoning, Ellicott had support among the ranks—mostly from younger members of the trust, according to the Daily Mail. A subset who may have been less overawed by Keith’s oeuvre. And so, after inheriting the top job from Sir Laurence Olivier himself, back in 1990, the great dame was out—“canceled.” Just another victim of the slings and arrows of outrageous videoconferencing.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the editor of Gentleman’s Journal in London