Friends, family and showbiz stars paid tearful tributes to the actress Lynda Bellingham as they said farewell to an “extraordinary force of nature”.
They reminisced with jokes, verse and near-the-knuckle anecdotes as they fondly recalled the 66-year-old, with her “honking laughter”, who died little over a fortnight ago after she made the decision to end treatment for her cancer.
Bellingham – who in recent years had become known as a presenter of ITV’s Loose Women – had asked for a lively send-off so her husband Michael Pattemore lined up a string of guests who made her funeral into a variety show-style celebration of her life.
They gathered at St Bartholomew’s Church in Crewkerne, Somerset, to mourn the actress who was loved by generations for her roles in shows such as Faith In The Future, All Creatures Great And Small and for one of her most enduring roles as the mother in a long-running series of ads for Oxo.
Her screen husband from the hit commercials, Michael Redfern, was among those attending along with Loose Women Coleen Nolan, Jane McDonald, Andrea McLean and Kate Thornton. Other notables included Julia Sawalha, Coronation Street’s Helen Worth, Robert Lindsay, Giles Brandreth and Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes.
Old friend Christopher Biggins attended wearing a vivid pink suit which he said would have cheered her and “put a smile on her face”.
Bellingham had colon cancer which later spread to her lungs and liver. She was diagnosed last July but in late September she disclosed that she had decided to end her treatment to limit the amount of suffering her family would witness.
In her last few weeks, she spoke openly about her illness and its effect on her family, giving an emotional final interview to her friends on Loose Women which was screened just days after her death.
More than 100 members of the public lined the path outside the church to pay their respects as guests carrying umbrellas trooped into the church for the service led by her friend, former Archdeacon of London Peter Delaney.
Bellingham’s widower – her third husband, whom she married on her 60th birthday - helped carry her coffin adorned with white flowers accompanied by her sons Michael, 31, and Robert, 26, as Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations played.
Mourners following in behind the coffin wept as they carried single white roses. The congregation sang the hymn Lead us heavenly Father before Loose Women star Lisa Maxwell read The Epistle to the Romans (ch 8.31-39).
Among those who spoke was her friend Gyles Brandreth, the broadcaster and former MP.
He said: “Sometimes sadness and celebration can go hand in hand. Here we are in this beautiful, amazing church in Michael’s home town saying goodbye to lovely Lynda.
“Brave, beautiful, brilliant, funny, fabulous Lynda. As we say goodbye to her in here, her book is No 1 bestseller. I think she would have liked to have gone out on a high.
“I first met her nearly 40 years ago when we were introduced by Biggins. Of course, I fell for her at once. She was so funny and so sexy – even gay men fancied her.
“Shakespeare has one of his leading ladies remind us that all things must die, passing through nature to eternity.
“Lynda was an extraordinary force of nature, intelligent, gifted, generous, funny, feisty, open, honest, kind and caring.
“I don’t think I have known anyone more alive than Lynda Bellingham. She showed us how to live and in the last year or two of her life she taught us how to die – with grace, courage, humour and acceptance.
“She rang me three weeks ago and said she was in a good place. ’I am sad for the boys and Michael but I’m all right’.
“She was all right, she was the best and she was our friend. Aren’t we the lucky ones?”
Tributes were then read by her sister Jean Bellingham and actress Maureen Lipman.
Fighting back tears, Lipman who recalled her occasionally smutty sense of humour. She told guests: “I wish I could reproduce the fun times, the joke-telling.
“Her sudden honking laughter, her craziness, her rich, throaty and slightly metallic voice, her high campery and her beautiful brown eyes.
“In this sad time we must conjure up over a Campari and soda or three as we attempt to adjust to living in a belligerent, sometimes bellicose world, which no longer holds our Belly.”
Tributes were also paid by Jane McDonald and Christopher Timothy – her on-screen husband from All Creatures Great And Small.
Denise Welch read an ode about her friend, which included the lines: “If you are looking down from wherever you are, I am sure you will be having a hoot, at the oddbods that loved you so dearly like Biggins in that bloody pink suit.”
“Your humour is what I will remember and the dirtiest laugh known to man Your jokes even I said you can’t tell, ’C’mon Denzy, you know that I can’
It concluded: “As she said, today must be joyous, full of laughter and try not to cry, and because she was ever so bossy, let’s obey her – here’s to Lynda with a ’y’.”
Nickolas Grace spoke of his 48-year friendship with Bellingham, whom he had met at drama school as a teenager. He told mourners how he held her hands as she quietly slipped away at hospital with her family at her side.
Biggins had mourners laughing with a theatrical five-minute tribute to his great friend, during which he read the poem Codicil, written by Julia Deakin.
Fighting back tears, Biggins turned to the coffin and said: “Lynda... Belly... we will cry but eventually at the end of the day we all love you, we will always love you as you were so, so special. Thank you.”
To a round of applause, Biggins was them embraced by Mr Pattemore, before actress Sue Holderness – Only Fools and Horses’ Marlene – read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.
Archdeacon Delaney led prayers and then the choir sang Away In A Manger – as a mark of Bellingham’s wish to see one last Christmas.
She went out with a bang with a stunning firework display that sparkled across the sky as she was laid to rest.
Crowds of mourners watched as a series of loud bangs crackled over Townsend Cemetery in Crewkerne in silver, red and green.
They cheered and clapped loudly as the display, which caused smoke to fill the picturesque landscape of rolling Somerset hills, ended.
Mourners had walked to the cemetery, which has a neighbouring plot for widower Michael Pattemore, following the church service.