Gwenda Wilkin, who has died aged 86, was billed in the 1950s as “Britain’s leading lady accordioniste”; while still in her teens she established herself as a virtuoso performer and toured widely in Europe, Africa and the Far East to entertain British troops.
Confounding those who looked down on the “squeeze-box”, her performances of music specially written for the accordion – such as Pietro Deiro’s Concerto in D, at the Royal Festival Hall in 1951 – were breathtaking. And yet she seemed just as comfortable fooling around in a double act with her dog Danny, whom she taught to bark in time to one of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies.
She often performed on Workers’ Playtime, the BBC radio variety series broadcast from factory canteens, and spent a decade providing music for Wilfred Pickles’s phenomenally popular quiz show, Have a Go.
Her radio work was her bread and butter, she recalled, while “all the other jobs were the jam”: these included tours of the Moss and Stoll Empires, cabaret, Sunday concerts, and seaside variety shows.
Gwenda Wilkin always cut a glamorous figure, making her colourful clothes herself, and did not let standards slip on her tours abroad, even if high heels turned out not to be always appropriate for the makeshift stages she had to play on.
She was 16 when she began to travel abroad performing for the troops, having probably lied about her real age. There were rarely more than two female artists on the bill: among those she toured with were Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields, who both looked after her, and taught her how to hold her drink – or how to get away with not drinking.
She often found herself in danger. She was in Egypt at the time of the Suez Crisis, in Cyprus during the Emergency – when the car she was travelling in was shot up – and found an audience of soldiers in Malaysia too busy looking out for snipers to concentrate on her performance.
She contracted dysentery in Cyprus and, because it was thought she would not survive the journey to the hospital in Larnaca, she was taken in desperation to an old healing woman in the nearby Troodos Mountains, who restored her to health with boiled tree bark.
Even in her youth, Gwenda Wilkin was a formidable character who defied convention. She wore heavy make-up, dyed her hair pink, and befriended black performers such as the variety duo Harriott and Evans.
She learned to drive so that she could travel more easily abroad and, when told that it was dangerous for a young woman to drive great distances on her own, she secured a gun licence and bought herself a weapon.
Gwenda Wilkin was born in London on May 20 1933, the only child of Frederick Wilkin, a farrier, and his wife Lillian (née Leith). She first showed musical promise on the violin, but found that it made her neck and wrist ache. The accordion proved to be a more natural fit. Her first show was in a local bus depot in 1946, and in 1948 she won the All England Accordion Championship.
She was educated in Walthamstow. When she was 15 she was interviewed on the television magazine programme Picture Page, her parents having defied her headmistress’s injunction that she should not be allowed a day off school for such frivolity; branded a subversive influence, she was expelled.
She went to work for the great Italian accordion-maker Bruno Allodi, who built an instrument specially for her. Her time in his factory served her well some years later on a tour of Tripoli when her accordion was left out in the sun by careless baggage handlers, and fell apart: hollering at the airport staff to fetch beeswax, she was able to strip it down and rebuild it.
In 1948 she came sixth in the World Accordion Championship, held in Belgium, and the following year she came third, in Milan. The same year she played on the inaugural radio run of Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks.
She served an arduous apprenticeship in front of tough audiences at working men’s clubs and football clubs. In 1950 she spent a summer season in an orchestra in Felixstowe, but did not enjoy it: “I was not a team player”.
By the time she married and had children in the 1960s, she was hugely successful. Her baby daughter would sleep in the accordion box backstage while she was performing.
Her fans included Princess Margaret and Princess Alice, and she performed at the Queen’s garden parties at Buckingham Palace. But the heavy instrument was taking its toll and she was eventually told to give it up or end up in a wheelchair. She was devastated, and had her husband secrete her accordion in a hidden compartment in the spare bedroom that she could not reach.
She did not repine, however, and, in pursuit of a new career, decided to study animal husbandry; she was several decades older than the other students, to whom she played agony aunt.
She went on to work in various veterinary establishments in London, until she was 72. She also gained a private pilot’s licence in her sixties.
Gwenda Wilkin married, in 1961, Anthony Mulvaney; he died in 1985, and their son and daughter survive her.
Gwenda Wilkin, born May 20 1933, died May 6 2020