The Royle Family star Liz Smith, who only got her first break in her 50s, passed away on Christmas Eve

The Royle Family actress Liz Smith has died aged 95, a spokeswoman for her family has said.

The actress, who played the ailing Nana in the hit comedy show, died on Christmas Eve.

A statement from the spokeswoman on Monday night said: “The BAFTA award-winning actress Liz Smith has died, on Christmas Eve, at the age of 95, her family has announced.”

Her death comes in the same year as her co-star Caroline Aherne, who died from lung cancer.

She won best actress at the British Comedy Awards at the age of 85 for her role as Nana in The Royle Family, and played eccentric baker Letitia Cropley in The Vicar Of Dibley.

Royle Family actor Ralf Little tweeted after the sad news broke.

 

The episode of the much-loved sitcom in which Nana dies – called The Queen of Sheba – was repeated on the BBC during Christmas week and fans got emotional watching the programme.

Her heartbreaking final performance as Royle Family matriarch Nana was the most emotionally draining of her career, the veteran performer said.

The show was screened days before she died, offering fans a fresh chance to watch the award-winning actress at the peak of her powers.

The Queen Of Sheba episode was first broadcast in October 2006 and was never intended as a Christmas special, although it was the first time the cast had performed together for six years.Liz SmithLiz Smith (Michael Crabtree PA Archive/PA Images)

 

It was rerun on December 22 this year, two days before the actress’s death – a fitting, but inadvertent final tribute.

Her poignant portrayal of Nana’s last hours touched the millions who watched – the laughter sparked by The Royle Family’s subtle skewering of everyday life giving way to tears of sadness as her mortality was realised.

The rerun had been unofficially billed as an opportunity to pay tribute to another of the show’s stars, Caroline Aherne, who died of lung cancer at 52 on July 2.

Speaking in 2006, Smith described her delight at being given an opportunity to reprise the much-loved character, at the age of 86.

The Royle Family
The Royle Family (BBC/PA Images)

 

She said: “The rumours started that it was going to come back, and then it was in the newspaper so you felt someone must have said something and it must be happening.”

She praised Aherne for writing an episode which touched on the sanctity of family life.

She said: “She (Nana) is in the centre of the household … it’s carrying on doing their own thing and she’s part of it. It’s about elderly relatives and not dismissing them and love within the family.

“It’s written about love within the family.”

But she also described the emotional toll which came with playing the role for the last time.

She said: “I don’t think anything has disturbed me (as much) to play until this one. I was so upset because I think really the base of it was that I was going to be left out of any future Royle Familys.”

In 2009, the Prince of Wales presented Smith with an MBE and told her that the sofa-bound TV characters in the show were ‘nothing like my family, thank God’.

Liz only got her first professional roles in her 50s when Mike Leigh was looking for a middle-aged woman capable of improvisation for his debut feature Bleak Moments. Her career took off after she played the lead role in his first television film Hard Labour and she once said: “I owe everything to Mike.”

(Matt Squires/BBC/PA)
The Royle Family cast (Matt Squires/BBC/PA)