The 100-year-old actress died peacefully in her sleep. She was for over twenty years one of Britain’s most famous farm owners as Annie Sugden in Emmerdale.
Actress Sheila Mercier has passed away just shy of her 101st birthday it has been announced.
The performer died peacefully in her sleep according to former Yorkshire Television co-star Frederick Pyne, who played Matt Skilbeck in Emmerdale Farm from its launch in 1972 until 1989.
Speaking on social media he said, “Sad to tell all you Emmerdale fans that Sheila Mercier, Annie Sugden, died peacefully in her sleep… She would have been 101 years old on New Years Day. She was a great character and wonderful to work with.”
Sad to tell all you Emmerdale fans that Sheila Mercier, Annie Sugden, died peacefully in her sleep – co-star Frederick Pyne
Emmerdale began life in the ITV afternoon schedules as Emmerdale Farm, the story of everyday folk in a Yorkshire village, centred around the Sugden family of the local main farm. Despite its low key beginnings, the programme has created some of soap’s most fondly remembered characters with original matriarch Annie being right up there. Annie was with Emmerdale Farm from its very first episode and was featured as a main character until the early 1990s, thereafter a number of guest stints followed before she finally bade farewell in 1996 with one last appearance for the death of on-screen son Jack Sugden in 2009 in tribute to the actor who played him.
Sheila Mercier was born Sheila Betty Rix in Hull, East Yorkshire, on January 1st 1919. She is the older sister of one-time Whitehall farceur and actor, Lord Brian Rix. Brian, the president of the Mencap charity for many years, helped introduce the first down syndrome actress to UK soap in Crossroads, gaining much praise from viewers and coverage on News at Ten. He passed away aged 92 in 2016.
Before both were involved with soap opera Sheila trained as an actress at the Stratford-upon-Avon College of Drama under Randle Ayrton. She was spotted by actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit who promptly placed her in his touring Shakespeare Company in 1939. World War II, however, was looming and it wasn’t long before Sheila offered her services to support the cause. She worked for the RAF Fighter Command, rising to the rank of adjutant.
“RIP Sheila Mercier, the beating heart of Emmerdale, never forgotten, so many wonderful memories, love and condolences to all her family… Amazing woman and a true inspiration to me in my early days of Emmerdale” – Clare King who plays Kim Tate
Once the battles were won Mercier returned to acting in repertory theatre and made her television debut on the BBC in 1946 as Mrs Moss in Exercise Bowler. In the same year she began working with her brother, who was working as an actor-manager. While in repertory she met her husband, actor Peter Mercier. They were married for 42 years until his death in 1993.
The couple had one child, Nigel David – who followed in their showbiz footsteps by becoming a videotape editor at BBC News and later London Weekend Television. Nigel passed away last year. In 1994 Mercier’s autobiography, Annie’s Song: My Life & Emmerdale, she disclosed that she had been raped by an officer early in the war, had become pregnant and given her baby daughter up for adoption. She added that thirty years after the adoption her daughter made contact, although was never named.
As part of the Whitehall Theatre Company, she acted in productions such as Chase Me Comrade! and Uproar In The House. Later more television roles followed including parts in her brother’s series Dial Rix in 1962, and a decade later, Six Of Rix. There were also film roles with The Night We Dropped A Clanger and The Night We Got The Bird. It wasn’t until 1972, however, she would reach her biggest audience with the new Yorkshire Television soap, Emmerdale Farm.
“Funny, clever, formidable if you were soppy.. twinkly and kind, a true pro and her own person. R.I.P Sheila” – Tony Pitts who played Archie Brooks
“Rest in Peace Sheila! I met her many times over the years. Sheila was the centre of Emmerdale for so many years. When I think of growing up watching the show, Sheila always springs to mind. A brilliant, underrated and subtle actor who we owe a debt of gratitude. Thank you Sheila.” – Dominic Brunt who plays Paddy Kirk
Cast as the pivotal serial figure Mercier as Annie Sugden would become a key player in many of the serial’s most memorable storylines. From battling to save her rundown farm from closure to dealing with the love-life troubles of her family, Annie was always on hand to listen and at times issue home truths. Long before Peggy Mitchell was banging on about the importance of ‘family’ in EastEnders, Annie was often reminding the Sugden clan that families should rally round in times of trouble and stick together.
When in 1985 Emmerdale Farm celebrated its 1000th episode Sheila was the surprise star of This Is Your Life in that week and more recently when the show marked its 5000th episode she returned to the original Emmerdale Farm exterior for a special documentary. In January this year ITV3 began repeating classic episodes of the dales saga, with editions starting in 1989 when Annie was still the matriarch of the family.
Annie’s original run came to an end when the character proposed to mainstay Woolpack landlord Amos Brearly in 1996, they departed for retirement in Spain, however – aged 90 – Sheila reprised her role as Annie a decade ago to return to the village to say goodbye to on-screen son Jack Sugden. The actor Clive Hornby had passed away some months earlier in 2008 aged 63, after a private battle with cancer. In November 2018 Andrew Burt, who originally portrayed Jack in the serial, passed away from cancer aged 73.
“A unique and special person and Emmerdale’s original matriarch, RIP Sheila Mercier. I will never forget the day you disapproved of me for wearing ripped jeans to work. You were right too.” – Cy Chadwick who played Nick Bates
“A fond and sad farewell to Shiela Mercier. I met her a couple of times in my early Emmerdale career and it was like meeting the queen, such was her demeanour. A true Emmerdale legend. RIP.” – James Hooton who plays Sam Dingle
In a statement released by ITV Yorkshire, the Emmerdale production team paid tribute to Sheila:
“We’re very sad to hear about the passing of Sheila Mercier. It’s always sad to hear of the death of an actor who played a significant part in Emmerdale’s success. Even more so when that actor was in the very first episode and around whose family the show was built
‘Annie Sugden’ embodied all the virtues of Yorkshire …. she was hard-working, resilient, determined, down to earth and didn’t suffer fools gladly. Sheila had many of those qualities too putting the needs of the programme above her own and always delivering a great performance come rain or shine. She will be greatly missed.”
The team at ITV’s British Soap Awards also paid tribute to the Yorkshire Television stalwart.
“RIP Sheila Mercier. Emmerdale’s original leading lady and the very definition of a matriarch. Our thoughts are with her friends, family and the Emmerdale team tonight.”
Updated: 14/12/2019 with additional quotes, more archive imagery and ITV Yorkshire statement.
Sheila Mercier, 1919 – 2019