ATV Icon: Debbie Linden

Debbie was best known for her telly appearances on Are You Being Served?, The Benny Hill Show and 3-2-1.

This year Debbie Linden would have been 60. However, she departed aged just 36 in 1997. While she may not have been a Joan Collins or a Judi Dench, she was a frequent part of popular culture in the latter part of the 20th century.

“For a while, she was one of the biggest names in the glamour girl scene, but it all fell apart as quickly as it arrived.” – David Flint, in an article for The Reprobate, Jan 2021

Neil Linden, with daughter Debbie Linden. 1980s.

Debbie, from page three, to fast television fame, featured in everything from sketch shows, sitcoms, dramas and even as a game show hostess. We celebrate Debbie, as a tribute to all those women who found themselves part of ‘innocent titterlation’ in an age when increasingly feminists were frowning upon their roles on stage and screen. But as Debbie said in a 1983 radio interview she felt ‘empowered‘ and it was ‘her choice‘ to entertain how she felt fit. ‘If other women want to be seen in woolly jumpers and tweed skirts, that’s fine, but that isn’t me‘.

These days of course its fine for men to be sexualised on TV (Just watch Loose Women), but the days of Dick Emery and Benny Hill have long gone for women. Again, in 1983, Debbie noted ‘but if you watch Benny Hill, the men always lose out to the women. The men are sad and desperate, the women put them in their place!

“If we were to believe the claims of the moralisers, the prudes and the censorial, then the life of the Page 3 Girl – that fine tradition of innocent erotica that was finally hounded out of British newspapers a few years back – was always one of exploitation, misery and regret, the models seduced by shifty agents as teenagers, convinced to shed their clothes for the leering delectation of builders and Brexit voters, only for their brief flirtation with fame – or should that be infamy? – to come crashing down years later.

“Shame, homelessness, addiction, insanity and despair awaited. The truth, of course, was quite the opposite. Some Page 3 Girls went on to fame and… well, perhaps not fortune, but certainly decent careers as actors, pop stars, TV presenters and so on.” – David Flint, The Reprobate, Jan 2021

Debbie Linden in The Dick Emery Comedy Hour. Thames TV, 1979.

Debbie Linden is a name that has faded from the circle of the women who went from page three to ITV, obviously due to her untimely death. But there was a time she was as famous and as popular as others such as Samantha Fox and the recently departed Candy Davis (Beatrice Clare Dunkel).

Debbie was born in Glasgow on February 22nd 1961, into a family that was already steeped in local showbusiness. Her father Neil was a popular act on the Scottish cabaret circuit, he had also appeared on television playing his accordion on Thames Television children’s drama Ace of Wands in the three-part story The Meddlers in 1972.

In her early teens, encouraged by her mother Rosemary, Debbie was sent to stage school and had ambitions of becoming an actress and dancer, with a natural talent in both tap dance and ballroom. However, her attractive looks were to take her in a different direction and would also be the start of a secret downward spiral.

In 1978, aged seventeen, she made her television debut in the hugely popular sketch series The Benny Hill Show (Thames Television for ITV). This was followed by a role in the controversial film Home Before Midnight (Odeon Films) that dealt with the issue of underage sex. There were also serious roles in LWT’s action drama The Professionals, BBC One crime saga Bergerac and a couple of appearances in ITV’s cop show The Bill. She was also a regular in the Tennent’s Lager commercials in the 1980s as Charmaine.

Debbie Linden in Are You Being Served? BBC 1981.

She played a schoolgirl in the 1980 film The Wildcats of St Trinians, which led to her first wave of press coverage. It was also through these years that she was uncovering in The Sun and The Daily Star on their page three features. However, there were already concerns in the family that something wasn’t right. Mother Rosemary noted years later that since the age of 13 she had been taking slimming tablets in order to keep her figure, this addiction would lead to battles with drink and drugs.

However, her private demons were, at this point, not affecting her career. There were dabbles into music – including with her father. The album Gie it Lardy is billed as being performed by Neil Linden and Cabarfeidh featuring Debbie Linden and Neil Linden Jrn. Debbie also features on The Chris White Experience albums and The Kenny Everett Naughty Joke Box LP. In 1983 she noted she’d been working on a solo album, but this appears to never have been released.

“The story of Debbie Linden, therefore, is not the story of a Page 3 Girl gone bad. It’s a cautionary tale of celebrity, ambition and too much, too young. It’s the story of a young woman who loved the bright lights of fame and succumbed all too quickly to the temptations that go along with it.” – David Flint, The Reprobate, Jan 2021

Barry Humphries (as Les Patterson) and Debbie Linden on The Dame Edna Experience. LWT, 1987.

And her appearances on television were increasing first landing a the role of Old Mr Grace’s secretary in BBC One sitcom Are You Being Served? with a run also on The Kenny Everett Television Show (BBC One), The Dame Edna Experience and as a hostess on Yorkshire Television’s game show 3-2-1 with Ted Rogers. There was also a return to the big screen with saucy Bloodbath at the House of Death also starring Kenny Everett (Wildwood Films).

From the early to mid-1980s Debbie had become a minor celebrity appearing as herself on Thames TV’s game show Give Us A Clue and guests spots on programmes such as The Jim Davidson Show. Her private issues saw her appear less and less on television there were small parts in the sitcom Just Good Friends (BBC One) and panned movie Eat The Rich, however after her appearance on The Dame Edna Experience in December 1987 she faded from the spotlight with an attempt at rebooting her career in 1991, however it failed to regain momentum, making just two appearances in different character roles in The Bill in 1991 and 1994.

In her private life, she had a spell as the partner of Lemmy, but drugs and drink were taking their toll. To be fair, however, at that time, her career had lasted longer than many page three girls and many names that were entirely forgotten and never quite made the transition to mainstream television. Those last years saw her make appearances on programmes such as The Time, The Place and Kilroy talking about her slimming pills and drug addiction leading to anorexia. Speaking on Kilroy in 1993 she revealed at one point her weight had fallen to six stone.

“After this, it was a rapid decline. There was a fraud case that saw her given a suspended prison sentence, and the drugs became harder and more all-consuming. In 1993, doctors told her that she had a month to live if she didn’t kick her addictions. They were wrong, but not by much in the grand scheme of things.” – David Flint, The Reprobate, Jan 2021

Debbie Linden (in the white nurse outfit) with Benny Hill on The Benny Hill Show, Thames TV. 1978.

The latter years were dotted with scandal, there was a fraud case leading to her being issued a suspended prison sentence, she became homeless ending up living on benefits in a B&B. This all culminated in two suicide attempts. At the time of her demise, her mother Rosemary had been attempting to get her daughter treatment, but sadly it would be too late. On October 5th 1997, she overdosed on heroin. Her life-support was switched off 24-hours later.

Her father, Neil Stephenson Linden, died just over a year before his daughter aged 57 in 1996. Both Debbie and Neil are buried at Kingston Cemetery, Greater London. There wasn’t so much in the way of tributes to Debbie, her pal Kenny Everett had died two years prior from AIDS, and the cast of Are You Being Served? were more melancholy rather than being able to offer a tribute.

“I remember going home one day and saying to my sons that I was so upset because I thought the pretty little girl was on drugs. Then I burst into tears. She used to have a faraway look on her face some of the time and we all suspected something.” – Molly Sugden, speaking to the Daily Mail in 1997

“I suspected that she was ill while she was in the show. She was often poorly and very peaky when we were filming.” – John Inman

Debbie is pretty much these days only remembered for Are You Being Served?  thanks to its regular repeats on UKTV’s Gold and Drama channels, although she’s recently arrived on Netflix, along with cuddly Kenny Everett, in Bloodbath at the House of Death which has been added to their film library. It may not be much of a populist legacy, but for a girl from Glasgow who just wanted to dance, it’s not such a bad one.

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