AS someone who describes herself as “a gardener who acts”, Penelope Keith's latest role as the recently-bereaved wife of a village vicar in comedy Entertaining Angels couldn't be more perfect.

The play’s lavish set (designed by Paul Farnsworth) is amazingly realistic, with real grass and even a stream on stage.

“The set is quite wonderful,” said Penelope in her trademark plummy tones.

“It looks absolutely beautiful. We have real grass on the stage which has to be watered daily.

"You have to wear quite waterproof shoes on stage, otherwise you end up with wet feet every night.

"I think the grass is grown specially and it's changed about every two to three weeks when we move on. It's a fascinating process.”

Ever the gardener, Penelope turned to her own back garden to make the set look even more realistic.

"When we first did the play at Chichester we wanted a part of the grass to look slightly wild so I went around my garden digging up dandelions and we planted them. They looked wonderful and they even went on growing."

In the touring production of Entertaining Angels Penelope plays Grace, a recently bereaved vicar’s wife who suddenly finds herself bereft, not only of husband, but also of home and lifestyle.

"It's a marvellous part and she's an extraordinary woman," said Penelope, when asked what first attracted her to the role.

"After I first did it I had a lot of correspondence from people who had been recently widowed, and indeed from vicars' wives.

"It's a difficult predicament to be in, as there aren't many situations women are in that when their husbands die not only do they lose their partners, they lose their house, their position and everything else as well."

Grace's feelings of loneliness, despair and anger are examined in the play.

“How dare he leave me?” says Grace in the play.

But there are plenty of comedy moments too.

"I find it difficult to put plays into either definition of comedy or drama," said Penelope. "It is funny, certainly, but there are bits that make you think as well. Comedies are never all funny — it doesn't work like that."

Born in Sutton, Surrey, the daughter of a major, Penelope got into acting after being taken to frequent West End matinees by her mother.

She was rejected from the Central School of Speech and Drama on the grounds that, at 5ft 10, she was too tall, but was accepted at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.

Penelope started her career working in rep across the UK. At the age of 23 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. She became a household name in 1975 when the BBC sitcom The Good Life began, but Penelope's first love has always been the theatre.

"People think I moved into theatre later in my career but in fact I never moved away," she said.

"I worked out the other day that I've not been away from the stage for longer than 18 months. Most actors of my generation were trained in theatre mostly. That's where we felt our main roots were."

But she doesn't rule out a return to our screens.

"I would return to TV if there was a script that I liked enough to tempt me," she said. "But there's an awful lot of reality TV on now and I don't think I want to present Big Brother, thank you."

In 1978 Penelope married former Burnley policeman Rodney Timson.

They met while he was on duty at Chichester Theatre where Penelope was performing.

The pair bought a cottage in Wycoller in the '80s but ran into a planning battle when they wanted to create a six-bedroomed guest house in the village.

Despite saying they planned to retire in Lancashire, they sold the cottage in the late '90s.

But Penelope — and Rodney — are pleased to be back in the North West for the production, if only for a short visit.

"We'll be jolly pleased to come to Salford," said Penelope.

"My husband will love being back on home turf and of course he's still got his Lancashire accent — you never lose it, do you?"

l See Penelope Keith in Entertaining Angels, The Lowry, Salford Quays, from September 28 to October 3. Call box office on 0870 787 5780 or go to the website below.