Her acting skills spanned a whole spectrum of roles, from comedy and drama to films and great theatrical performances.
Tragically, Karen died in a blaze at her home in Ilford, East London, on 22nd February. Following the news of her passing, at the age of 85, family and friends have paid tribute to the star, who became a household name in the 1970s, as frumpish housewife Olive, in the sitcom On The Buses.
The remarkable actress had fought her way back to health at the age of 79, after suffering a broken back in a serious fall in 2016, when she had to lie down for eight weeks to recover.
A regular character in the BBC soap EastEnders at the time, Karen was determined to film scenes for the funeral of the character Peggy Mitchell, played by her lifelong friend, Barbara Windsor. She was well enough to complete the filming in March 2016, with the aid of a walking frame.
Windsor had helped set Karen on the road to stardom in the 1960s and the two remained close friends until Windsor’s death in 2020 at the age of 83.
When Anna Karen met Barbara Windsor, both women were young actresses making a name for themselves, mainly in comedy roles. After meeting on the set of the legendary comedy film, Carry On Camping, released in May 1969, Windsor pushed Karen to audition for a role in the BBC sitcom, Wild Wild Women.
This eventually led to Karen being chosen for the role of downtrodden Olive in the ITV sitcom, On The Buses. Shooting to fame as the wife of the aloof and miserable Arthur Rudge, Karen starred in all 74 episodes of the series, from 1969 to 1973. She made the role her own – complete with lank hair, dowdy clothes, thick face cream and a penchant for whining.
Karen wore thick padding, an unflattering wig and an unstylish pair of large black spectacles to play Olive, jokingly describing herself as the “ugliest woman on television” at the time. Her acting career may never have developed in the same way without meeting Windsor, who was the bigger star in the 60s.
Karen’s early career
Born in 1936 in Durban, South Africa, Karen was interested in acting from an early age and joined the South African National Theatre when she was only 15. Touring with the company for the next two years, she starred in many theatrical productions.
At 17, she moved to London and successfully auditioned for the London School of Dramatic Art. She worked part-time as a kitchen porter and pot-washer at a local restaurant to pay her rent and drama school fees. She then took a job as a dancer at London’s Panama Club and was also a part-time model, as it was better money.
Karen won her first small film role in Nudist Memories in 1961, when she was 25. This was followed by roles in the British comedy, The Sandwich Man, in 1966 and in Ken Loach’s kitchen sink drama, Poor Cow, in 1967, in which she played a neighbour of the main character.
Carry On Camping
It was Karen’s role as a saucy schoolgirl in Carry On Camping that saw her hit the big time. Windsor, aged 32, had already starred in earlier Carry On films, including Carry On Spying in 1964 and Carry On Doctor in 1967.
In an era when political correctness wasn’t as much of a concern; Windsor had won fans with her Carry On film persona as a fluffy blonde. She was playing teenage schoolgirl Babs in Carry On Camping.
Windsor and Karen, then 33, hit it off from the outset. At the start of the film, the two women had to stage a mock fight with each other. Then, as the action progressed, Karen was in one of the most memorable scenes in film history.
During the schoolgirls’ enthusiastic outdoor aerobics session, Babs’ bikini top flies off and is caught by horrified school head Dr Soaper, played by Kenneth Williams. Karen can be seen wearing a purple leotard, giggling behind Windsor.
On The Buses
After filming, Windsor encouraged Karen to go for bigger roles. Karen successfully won the part of Maude in Wild Wild Women, a BBC sitcom that was broadcast in 1968 and 1969. Written by legendary comedy writing team Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, it was set in a milliner’s shop in 1902. Windsor starred as shop girl Millie.
The plot featured a group of feisty female shop workers and their conflict with manager Mr Harcourt and his apprentice, Albert. After Wild Wild Women’s run ended, the writers asked Karen to play a starring role in their new sitcom, On The Buses.
Starring Reg Varney as workshy bus driver Stan Butler, the sitcom revolved around his comic exploits both at work and home. Olive was his drab sister, continually rebuffed by her husband. She lived a dull life helping their mother with housework.
After playing Olive in seven series, Karen also starred in two spinoff films, Mutiny on the Buses in 1972 and Holiday on the Buses in 1973.
After the successful sitcom’s five-year run ended, Karen returned to her first love, the theatre, starring in several touring productions. She returned to television in comedy shows such as And Mother Makes Five, The Kenneth Williams Show and The Dick Emery Show.
In 1977 and 1978, she resurrected her role of Olive in a new sitcom by Wolfe and Chesney, The Rag Trade, about a group of female clothes factory workers. It was another big hit and Karen appeared in all 22 episodes.
Throughout her career, she remained good friends with Windsor and they always stayed in touch off-set. They were reunited onscreen in 1996, when Karen won a role in EastEnders as Peggy Mitchell’s sister, Aunt Sal. Karen appeared in the soap until January 2017.
Karen was married to comedian and actor Terry Duggan from 1967 until his death in 2008. She had no children of her own, but brought up her stepdaughter, Gloria.
Karen’s health declined in later life and her last appearance in public was to attend her great friend Barbara Windsor’s funeral in January 2021. The two were described as having been the best of friends.
Barbara Windsor’s widower, Scott Mitchell, said he was “desperately sad and shocked” to hear that Karen had died. He described how his late wife and Karen were “lifelong friends”. He revealed Karen had kept in touch with him since his wife’s death, helping him during the tough times.
The heart-warming story of how the two stars were friends and colleagues for almost five decades shows how a successful meeting can change your life.