Principal Girl. The brilliant career of Sara Gregory (1919 – 2014)

Above: Sara Gregory c1950-55 – unmarked collector’s card. Author’s Collection

The Five Second Version
Sara Gregory was a very popular stage performer in Britain in the 1940s and early 50s. Born in Australia in 1919, she studied at London’s RADA and returned to tour Australia performing Gilbert and Sullivan in 1940-42. Back in England she appeared in numerous musicals and pantomimes, usually as the Principal Girl. One of her standout successes was Zip Goes A Million, a George Formby musical based on Brewster’s Millions. She retired in the mid 1950s, aged only in her 30s. She appeared in some televised versions of her stage plays, but appears to have been too busy to work in film. Her husband was actor and theatrical agent Richard Stone.

Olivia Sara Leveson Gregory, the youngest of four daughters of Hugh Campbell Gregory and Katharine nee Leveson, was born in Sydney in 1919. Her English born parents had married in London in 1903 before moving to Kobe, Japan, where Hugh became a merchant handling products for export to the West. After living in Kobe’s foreign settlement for several years (during which time their two oldest daughters were born), the family relocated to Sydney where Hugh became a partner in Reid & Gregory, importers, describing themselves to the public as “Eastern Merchants” and handling a range of products – slippers, glass, ceramicware and silks. In the early 1920s, the family moved to Adelaide where Hugh Gregory established another importing business.

In common with some of the other young Australian women who made names for themselves as actors in Britain in the 1930s and 40s, Sara’s experiences in a school that fostered a passion for the arts seems to have been crucial. She attended Walford House School in Adelaide between 1930 and 1936, where she clearly excelled at her studies, the school’s magazine regularly listing her scholarly success and numerous dramatic and musical performances. By her final year she had become a Prefect and House Captain. It seems likely that while still at Walford she had determined to pursue further studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, as she departed for England only a few months after finishing school. Miss Mabel Baker, the school’s long-serving Headmistress, must have been very proud watching Sara’s career unfold.

Above: Sara Gregory, standing at left, as a Walford House Captain in 1936. Walford House Magazine. Used with kind permission of Walford Anglican School for Girls Archive.

From a young age Sara also pursued creative interests outside school. In 1931 she was reported as dancing with Lorraine Angus – an extraordinary Adelaide child prodigy not much older than herself, who gave her own lessons and ran her own concerts, explaining that she did it herself because “grown-ups often get in the way“. In mid 1935 Sara took the lead role in a production of Children in Uniform, a play by German Christa Winsloe. It was a serious and confronting drama about a student’s love for her teacher – which ends in suicide, all set against a background of a strict Prussian girls’ school. It was presented by Adelaide’s Worker’s Education Association (WEA) Little Theatre, and directed by Adelaide resident and former Australian film star Agnes Dobson.

Above: Children in Uniform by the WEA Little Theatre. Left: The Advertiser (Adelaide) 31 July 1935, Right: Performers in the play (Sara is front row, second from the left) News,(Adelaide) 31 July 1935, both via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Children in Uniform was an unusual choice of play for an Australian semi-professional troupe at the time, with its all female cast and suggestions of same sex-love. The Adelaide Mail offered its congratulations to Sara for her performance, and to the WEA for its “delicate handling of a doubtful theme.”

In March 1937 Sara and her older sister Pat departed for England on the Moreton Bay. In London there was a large extended family – from both her mother’s and father’s sides – ready to look after her interests while she studied at RADA. On arrival, the girls headed to Berkeley Gardens in Kensington, to the home of their unmarried maternal aunt Pauline. 24 year old Pat was planning to teach in Britain.

Sara excelled at RADA and by March 1939 she had completed her diploma. The Stage newspaper reported her among the performers at the Academy’s annual performance at the Apollo Theatre and noted that she was the event’s bronze prize winner – a great achievement for a 20 year old girl from Australia. She had already made her first appearance on stage in a pantomime a few months earlier during the winter break – in the leading role of Cinderella, playing through English regional centres.

Above: Sara Gregory in Robert Donat’s The Glass Slipper, a later retelling of the Cinderella story, at St James Theatre in December 1945. She was later to claim this was her favourite part. Cyril Andrews (1947) The Theatre, The Cinema and Ourselves. Clarence House Press. via Lantern Digital Archive.

In the summer of 1939, while performing in a cabaret at Saltburn-by-the-Sea, a coastal town in Yorkshire, Sara met fellow actor Richard Stone, whom she would eventually marry. Stone’s unusually candid autobiography, published shortly before his death in 2000, notes that Sara’s “formidable” uncle Lance Leveson (a senior manager at Vickers Armstrong) seriously disliked him, which may explain what happened next. In late 1939, Sara (apparently with Lance’s active encouragement) auditioned for and won a role in a company being formed to tour Gilbert and Sullivan operettas throughout Australia for J.C Williamson’s. Yet this could only be a part of the story. Sara’s mother Katharine had joined her in England in 1938 and must also have encouraged the audition and the return to Australia. She travelled with Sara on the Orontes in January 1940. Australian papers announced the impending return of the successful young actress, who, they reported, had always wanted to play Gilbert and Sullivan, ever since she saw Evelyn Gardiner on stage in Australia. Gardiner herself was in the company, with Viola Tait (then Viola Hogg-Wilson), Max Oldaker, Richard Watson, Vincent McMurray and others.

War had already been declared when the Orontes set sail, and the voyage was an anxious one. Viola Tait recalled rehearsing with Sara amongst passengers often “hanging around in agitated groups, speculating on the U-boat menace.” They arrived safely in Australia in February 1940.

Above, Left: Sara Gregory on her return to Australia, at the start of the long G&S tour, The Herald (Melb) 1 Feb 1940. Right: On arrival in Adelaide. The Mail (Adel) 24 May 1941, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Viola Tait, who became a close friend, described Sara thus in her autobiography – “her hair festooned her pretty features… and her retroussé (turned up) nose almost vanished when she smiled and showed her perfect white teeth. She was an ideal soubrette for Gilbert and Sullivan.” For the next two years, the company toured every major city in Australia and New Zealand, Sara performing the soubrette roles together with Phyllis Curnow. The company opened in Sydney with The Gondoliers in March 1940. Reviews of her work on the tour were consistently enthusiastic – Melbourne’s The Age remarked that while her voice “was small”, it was “tuneful” and she displayed “a roguish comic sense.” Brisbane’s Telegraph was impressed by her “everlasting vivaciousness.” Her return to Adelaide in May 1941 received great publicity and her former Headmistress was able to confirm what an outstanding student she had been. It was while in Adelaide and shortly after her 22nd birthday that she announced her engagement to Richard Stone (although he was still in England and now in the Army). In his memoirs, Stone recalled that she had accepted his proposal before she left England.

With a fortuitous offer of work in the UK, Sara was able to leave Australia in early 1942, once she found a passenger-cargo ship that would carry her. (The offer of work was vital, as without it she could not travel in wartime). Sailing via the Pacific, the Panama Canal and east coast USA, the SS Sarpedon finally got Sara to England again in late April 1942 – the last leg from Nova Scotia to Liverpool being in an escorted convoy. Within a few days of arrival in England she married Richard Stone, who then promptly returned to the Army for another two years.

Above: Sara Gregory, c November 1947. Program cover photo for the musical Good Night Vienna, playing at the New Opera House, Blackpool. Author’s Collection.

Her first appearance on the London stage occurred only a few weeks later, as a member of the revue Light and Shade at the Ambassadors Theatre. In December 1942 she appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Westminster Theatre, The Stage picking the 23 year old out for comment as “a charming Titania,” who sang beautifully. Although Sara was busy performing in London and on tour throughout the war, Viola Tait has noted that it was her 1944 role as Goody, the Principal Girl in the pantomime Goody Two Shoes, that broke records at the Coliseum Theatre and ran for 175 performances. Sara’s mezzo-soprano voice and short stature seems to have ensured she consistently played wholesome Principal Girl roles in pantomimes – including in Robert Donat‘s The Glass Slipper (1945), Dick Whittington (1949) and Cinderella (1951).

Principal Boy roles in pantomimes are also traditionally played by young women – but almost always in a short tunic and usually showing off as much leg as possible. (See one of Sara’s co-stars, Hy Hazell below right, for example).

Above: Left – Program cover for Zip Goes a Million, c 1952, starring Sara Gregory, and by this time, Reg Dixon (who had replaced George Formby). Right – Unrelated to the show but in the same program, Hy Hazell was announced as Principal Boy in an upcoming Jack and Jill panto from the same producer, Emile Littler. Program in the author’s collection.

Sara’s best remembered role came in 1951, when she won a leading part as as Sally Whittle in Zip Goes a Million, a musical version of the 1902 novel Brewster’s Millions, playing opposite the very popular British singer George Formby (as Percy Piggott).

Zip Goes a Million was a significant commitment and remains a testimony to her capacity – as Sara had three young children by this time, and her husband Richard Stone was working hard to establish his own business as an agent. The show ran for 540 performances between October 1951 and February 1953 and despite indifferent reviews on opening, grew to be an enormous success. George Formby was apparently an easy co-star to work with, but his wife Beryl was recalled by both Stone and Sara as difficult and jealous, often watching performances from the wings, checking for any imagined impropriety between Sara and Formby. Formby withdrew in April 1952 because of ill health and Reg Dixon took over the role. When the show went on tour, Sara dropped out, to spend more time with her young family.

She did not immediately retire, as some accounts have suggested – it seems more like a leisurely exit. She appeared in a long run of The Two Bouquets in 1953, and a short run of East Lynne in 1954. At least several of these later plays were filmed for television, a practice common in the early days of British television – serving to foster interest in a current theatre production while also providing cheap and quick TV programming. Despite her popularity, she did not appear in any British films, although in his memoirs, Richard Stone notes one instance where Sara was offered a film role which she had to decline because of stage commitments. She also returned to the stage at least once in later life. In 1975 she played the fairy godmother in a Cinderella panto in Canada.

Stone’s memoirs also record that he and Sara Gregory returned to Australia several times in the 1970s and 80s. Her last visit was to celebrate the launch of the book Dames, Principal Boys…and All That, by her long time friend Viola Tait, in April 2001.

Although she and Stone retired to the Isle of Wight, later in life she spent some of her time in California to be nearer her children. She died there in April 2014.


An Australian performer?

In early 1948, Australian comedian and resident in London, Dick Bentley interviewed Sara and actor Bill Kerr for radio. Although the recording couldn’t be sourced for this article, it is safe to assume Bentley was asking them about their experiences as Australian actors working in England. Sara’s experience closely mirrors that of other Australian women who made England home at about the same time – Lucille Lisle, Judy Kelly, Nancy O’Neil and others. It might suit our purposes today to believe she identified as an Australian. But the answer is probably very simple – it didn’t really matter that much at the time, certainly not as much as today – in an era of heightened national consciousness. Australians then seem to have thought of themselves as variations of the British race.

This 1940 photo from the collections of the National Library of Australia shows Sara at “Cook’s Cottage” (the family home of Captain James Cook) in Melbourne. The cottage had been moved to Australia from England only 6 years before to celebrate the City of Melbourne’s centenary of British settlement. 80 years on it is still there, now as much a reminder of how Australians once felt about England, as it is a monument to James Cook.

Above: Sara Gregory (at right). Photo also shows (Left and Centre) singers Helen Fullard and John Fullard with Sara while visiting Cook’s Cottage, Melbourne, 1940. National Library of Australia, Lady Viola Tait collection.

Nick Murphy
January 2021


Special Thanks
To Eleanor Adams, Archivist, Walford Anglican School for Girls, for access to the Walford House Magazine.

References

  • Text
    • Cyril Bruyn Andrews (1947) The Theatre, The Cinema and Ourselves. Clarence House Press
    • Gale Research Co (1978) Who was who in the Theatre 1912-1976 Vol 2, D-H. Gale Research Company, Detroit.
    • Charles Osborne (1988) Max Oldaker, Last of the Matinee Idols. Michael O’Mara Books
    • Richard Stone (2001) You should have been in Last Night. Book Guild Publishing.
    • Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. The Taits and J C Williamson, a Theatre History. Heinemann.
    • Viola Tait (2001) Dames, Principal Boys– and All That: A History of Pantomime in Australia. MacMillian.
    • Viola Tait, Elisabeth Kumm (Ed) (2018) I Have a Song to Sing – Some Memories of Gilbert and Sullivan and JC Williamson Ltd. Theatre Heritage Australia/Tait Memorial Trust.
    • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage 1950-1959 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Original US archival documents sourced from
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The News (Adel) Sat 17 Oct 1931, P1
    • The Advertiser (Adel) 31 July 1935
    • The News (Adel) 31 July 1935
    • The News (Adel) Tue 15 Dec 1936, P3
    • The Herald (Melb) 1 Feb 1940
    • The Advertiser (Adel) 20 Feb 1940, P16
    • Sydney Morning Herald 27 Feb 1940, P5
    • The Mail (Adel) Sat 24 May 1941, P12
    • The News (Adel) Tue 3 Jun 1941, P6
    • The Advertiser (Adel) Wed 9 Jan 1946, P3
    • ABC Weekly Vol. 10 No. 15 (10 April 1948)
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage – Thursday 9 Mar 1939, P11
    • The Stage – Thursday 3 Jan 1946, P9
    • The Sketch – Jan 23, 1946, P38
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Ottawa Journal 11 Jan 1975, P35

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