The very versatile Margaret Johnston (1914-2002)

Above: Margaret Johnston in a widely distributed publicity photo. Source probably Picture Show magazine c 1947. Photographer unknown. Author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born in Sydney in 1914, Margaret Johnston enjoyed a long career acting on stage and screen. She appeared in a dozen films, and numerous live and televised plays in a career lasting until 1968. She then spent another thirty years running the very successful Al Parker agency, that she took over from her husband in the 1960s. Helen Mirren recalled that Maggie “approached agenting in a very motherly way. Whether you were eating healthily was as important as what role you were playing. Making money mattered less than making a career.” She died in 2002.

Margaret Annette McCrie Johnston was the second of three daughters born in Sydney, New South Wales to James McCrie Johnston and Emily nee Lothian on 10 August, 1914. The family lived comfortably on Wolseley Rd in Mosman, in a home that enjoyed spectacular views of Sydney Harbour. Scottish born James Johnston was a senior executive of the Vacuum Oil Company in Australia – having joined the company in 1908. Emily Lothian had been born in England.

Above left – Margaret Johnston as a rising British film star and at right, making a cup of tea in her London flat. c 1947. Left; Picture Show Magazine postcard. Right; Film Star Parade Magazine. Author’s Collection.

More imaginative stories seem to surround Margaret Johnston and her career than is the case with most other expatriate Australian actors. Her place and date of birth is a constant source of confusion – but records show she was born in New South Wales on August 10, 1914, spent her childhood and adolescence in Sydney, and attended North Sydney Girl’s High School. (Not born in Coolangatta, Queensland, in 1918 as is sometimes claimed)

Local opportunities for Australian actors were limited in the 1930s – there were few films being made and some venues offering serious theatre (as opposed to Variety) had closed. In an effort to keep live theatre going, in the height of the Depression Dame Doris Fitton had established the Independent Theatre in Sydney. It was here that young Margaret Johnston had her first experience on the stage, appearing in supporting roles in Peter Pan and When Half Gods Go. She also appeared in Cherrie Acres written by Australian playwright, Dorothea Tobin, in December 1934. These small roles earned her an occasional mention in reviews, but not much more. Did she study law in Sydney at the same time, as has been claimed? It seems likely. But by the 1960s, British theatre programs were inclined to claim she was a fully qualified lawyer as well as being an accomplished actor, which seems very unlikely.

Margaret was 21 in March 1935, when she and her older sister Helen arrived in London on the Mongolia. Although one newspaper later presented the move as being “to learn her craft and get rid of her accent,” it probably had as much to do with James’s retirement from Vacuum oil, because the entire family packed up and left Australia for good around this time, moving to Harpenden, north of London. The move was not surprising, as there were no family connections in Australia to keep them, and work opportunities for Margaret and her sisters were much brighter in England.

Chester Chronicle, 24 June 1939 via British Newspaper Archive

Australian writer Hal Porter‘s overview of her work notes that before landing her first London role, she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and with Stefan Hock (1877-1947), a noted Viennese producer and director and one time associate of fellow Austrian director Max Reinhardt. Hock had arrived as a refugee in England in the mid 1930s, and regularly ran intensive drama schools and weekend programs in association with the British Drama League.

Margaret’s first role on stage was in Frank Harvey’s Saloon Bar at London’s Wyndham Theatre, opening on November 15, 1939. She played two roles in what a reviewer for The Stage described as a clever play of incidentals.“When the landlord unbolts the saloon doors of The Cap and Bells (a pub) he opens his house to a stream of humanity calculated to fire the imagination… Richard Bird … (producer) affords…(his) clever company the opportunity to draw delightfully human and varied cameos of London’s humbler sons and daughters.” It was a good start to a stage career. (When Michael Balcon made a film of the play, he used another expat Australian, Mavis Villiers in her role.)

Margaret’s first film appearance was an uncredited role in the 1941 biography of Benjamin Disraeli, called The Prime Minister, but pursuing a film career seems never to have been her priority. Brian McFarlane‘s survey of the British film industry notes that despite a string of memorable performances”, her regular returns to the stage meant that “her film career never built momentum.” It is also the case that she was selective with film roles and this she repeatedly admitted to journalists, as early as 1945 and 1946, following her success in Sidney Gilliat‘s film The Rake’s Progress with Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer. And looking back during her 1992 interview with McFarlane, she admitted again that she had always preferred the stage.

Thus it was roles on stage that built her reputation as a skilled and versatile actor. John Gielgud directed her in The Last of Summer in 1944, based on Kate O’Brien‘s novel. She reportedly made a lasting impression with her interpretation of the young Angele, who confronts the possessive mother (Fay Compton) in the play’s tumultuous final scene. She also acquitted herself well in an otherwise disappointing revival of The Barretts of Wimpole Street at the Garrick in 1948.

Describing Johnston as a “disciplined and subtle player,” Hal Porter notes that she was often cast in roles where, “beneath… (a) restrained, refined and even diffident manner, a passionate nature dangerously simmers”. This aptly applies to her third film, A Man about the House (1947), where she plays Agnes, one of a pair of sisters who inherit a villa in Italy. Falling in love with the villa and with the resident manager Salvatore (Keiron Moore), she soon starts to feel ill. We, the viewers, realise he is poisoning her to gain control of the property. Salvatore endures a thumping from the sisters very English friend, before he throws himself off a cliff in despair.

Left; Advertisement for A Man About the House. Right; Publicity photo of Margaret Johnston c 1950. Author’s collection.

Portrait of Clare, made in 1950 and directed by Lance Comfort, is a story of a woman’s three marriages told in flashback. The film received indifferent reviews and the expected boost to Margaret’s career did not occur. Years later she recalled briefly walking off the set after a dispute with Comfort. “That’s the Australian coming out in me,” she told interviewer Brian McFarlane. But John Boulting‘s The Magic Box, made with an all star cast to celebrate The Festival of Britain in 1951, demonstrated her fine acting again.

Apparently interested and confident enough to push her boundaries further, in 1954 she learned enough French to take a part in René Clément‘s Monsieur Ripois (also known as Knave of Hearts), an entertaining change from British studio fare of the time. She learnt her lines phonetically, as she couldn’t speak French. A year later she appeared in Touch and Go, an Ealing comedy which concerned an English family considering migrating to Australia. Although, in the end, they decide not to go, for publicity purposes Johnston dutifully appeared at PR events with real British families about to emigrate to Australia.

On stage she appeared to great acclaim playing the highly strung Alma Winemiller, in Tenessee WilliamsSummer and Smoke and from the mid 1950s, in seasons of Shakespeare at Stratford.

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Now don’t be alarmed… says Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins), as he explains his idea to emigrate. A scene from Touch and Go. Motion Picture Herald Oct-Dec 1955. Via Lantern Digital Media Project

Margaret Johnston as Anne, shouting in English and French at André (Gérard Philipe). Johnston claimed her English accent in Knave of Hearts was an Australian one and her French very poor due to the non-Parisian tutor she had. Source – Youtube (French version) of the film.

In 1946 Margaret married Al Parker, a Brooklyn-born director 25 years her senior. Parker had directed films in Hollywood in the twenties, including the early colour film The Black Pirate with Douglas Fairbanks. By the mid 1930s he was making crime thrillers for Fox at their British studios. Parker had formidable connections and quickly established his own agency. Fellow agent Richard Gregson suggested Parker’s approach was more casual than later agents, he was a “pre-war” type of agent. In the mid 1960s, having made a few more films, Margaret took over running the agency, as Al’s health failed. (He died in August 1974.) She was known to all her clients as Maggie Parker by this time.

Al Parker Ltd advertises its client list in Variety 15 January, 1947. This is only part of the ad, which also headlined James Mason, Parker’s leading client. It can be read in full here. Via Lantern, The Digital Media Project.

Margaret Johnston finally retired from actively running the Al Parker agency in the mid 1990s. She died on June 29, 2002, aged 88. Obituaries recalled her powerful stage presence. The Guardian wrote of her “ethereal charm” while the Telegraph Group‘s obituary wrote that she could “project emotional intensity and neurotic femininity from a seemingly wraith like personality“. James Mason‘s complimentary description of her as an agent was recalled by The Stage. Before he died in 1984 he had written that she was “a formidable agent in her own right… potential employers knew that they could not expect her to lower her guard and allow them to take advantage of her clients. An infectious serenity pervades her office.”

But the last word should go to the very modest and restrained actor herself. When Brian McFarlane asked her what she thought was the highlight of her film career, she answered “I don’t think I have one, do I?”

Actress Angela Scoular (1945-2011) was Margaret’s niece.


Nick Murphy
July 2020


Further Reading

Films

Most of Margaret Johnston’s films are available on DVD. Several are currently mounted on US social media websites, such as Youtube. These include

Text

  • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
  • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI/Methuen
  • Brian McFarlane (1999) Lance Comfort. Manchester University Press.
  • Helen Mirren (2011) In the Frame. My life in words and pictures. Simon and Schuster
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen . Rigby.
  • Jürgen Seul (2010) Old Shatterhand vor Gericht: Die 100 Prozesse des Schriftstellers Karl May.  Karl-May-Verlag [Old Shatterhand on trial: the 100 lawsuits of the writer Karl May]

The British Newspaper Archive

  • Chester Chronicle, 24 June 1939
  • The Stage, Thursday 23 November 1939
  • The Tatler and Bystander, 15 October 1947
  • Sunday Independent (Dublin) July 7, 2002
  • The Stage, July 11, 2002

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.

Lantern – The Digital Media Project

  • Variety, 15 January, 1947
  • Motion Picture Herald, Oct-Dec 1955.

National Library of Australia – Trove

  • The Sydney Morning Herald, Wed 19 Dec 1928 P20 NORTH SYDNEY GIRLS’ HIGH SCHOOL.
  • Sydney Mail, Wed 12 Dec 1934 P60 Cherrie Acres
  • Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) Wed 10 Jan 1945, P4 How Sydney Girl became a film Star.
  • The Age (Melbourne) Mon 10 Dec 1945 P5 Australian Girl’s Film Success
  • Sunday Times (WA) Sun 23 Dec 1945, P4 Hollywood offers rejected
  • Sun (Sydney) 24 Feb 1946, P14 Australian Margaret Johnston back on stage.

The Guardian (UK)

  • Eric Shorter, The Guardian 7 Aug 2002 Obituary Stage and Screen actress whose hallmark was neurotic power.

Newspapers.com

  • The Guardian 9 Jun 1944, Page 6

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