Dorothy Alison (1925 – 1992) – Broken Hill’s award winning actor

Above: Dorothy Alison, then modelling as Perk Alison, on the cover of Pix magazine, 12 April, 1947. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. This photo was connected to a lightweight article on “fear.” Pix was the type of magazine one read while waiting at the hairdresser.

The 5 second version.
Dorothy Alison was active on the Australian stage, also appearing on radio and in several films. She joined the great post war exodus of Australian actors seeking opportunities overseas, and after two years working in an office, finally gained a role in the British film Mandy, after which she had roles steadily on TV and in film and sometimes on stage. She enjoyed something of a renaissance in the 1980s – working in Australia, appearing in a number of acclaimed TV miniseries. She is arguably one of Australia’s most successful actor exports. She was twice nominated for a BAFTA award in the 1950s, and won an Australian Logie award in 1981. She was married to actor and agent Leslie Linder from 1952-1971 and the couple had several children. In 2020, Mandy Miller, the child star of the film Mandy (1952) recalled her co-star fondly as “the lovely Dorothy Alison”.
Her younger sister Wendy Dickson was a highly regarded stage, set and costume designer in Australia. Her father William Dickson had been an important politician in New South Wales.

Dorothy Alison Dickson was born in Broken Hill, a booming mining town of 25,000 people in far western New South Wales on 4 March, 1925. She was the oldest of four sisters, all of whom would have some connection with the performing arts over time. Her father, William Dickson, a Lancashire born accountant, was to become an important figure in the Union movement and Australian Labor Party politics. He married Alice nee Cogan, a local woman, in 1922, and in time entered State Parliament. Their modest family home at 290 Oxide Street still stands today. (see Note 1)

Above: Possibly a union parade in Broken Hill about the time the Dickson family lived there. This is a public domain photo from the collections of the State Library of South Australia and has been cropped slightly. The original can be viewed here. The original title reads “Parade along Argent Street, Broken Hill, c 1920. A large crowd is gathered along each side of the road.”

The Dickson girls – Dorothy, Beth, Wendy and Marion, were all encouraged in the performing arts from a young age. Broken Hill drama teacher and director Miss Lena Atkinson included Dorothy and sister Beth in a performance called The Man in the Moon in 1934, and Dorothy and her sister Wendy in her 1936 production Let’s Pretend . Dorothy was 11 years old when she took the role of Captain Hook in Atkinson’s Peter Pan panto in June 1936. Apparently one of Ms Atkinson’s star pupils, Dorothy was often singled out for her acting. “It is remarkable to see a child put such force into a role…” reported one newspaper correspondent. After the family moved to the comfortable Sydney suburb of Vaucluse in the late 1930s and while she was still a student at Sydney Girls High School, Dorothy joined the Independent Theatre, under the dynamic direction of Doris Fitton. She appeared in Fitton’s production of Christa Winsloe‘s Children in Uniform in September 1942. (Several writers, including her obituarist at The Guardian claim that she was a successful dancer as a child. However, this writer can find no evidence to support this)

But something else important had already happened by this time. In mid 1942, pioneering Australian director Charles Chauvel used her in his propaganda short about the coal mining industry Power to Win. Chauvel turned out four of these shorts for the Ministry of Information. Elsa Chauvel recalled that the film utilised real union figures both in the planning and the filming and it is very likely that William Dickson’s union connections helped connect the filmmaker to his daughter. She was 17. (See Note 2)

Above: Power to Win, 1942, directed by Charles Chauvel. Click to watch a film clip at the NFSA Australian Screen website. Dorothy in her first film, as Ruth the coal miner’s daughter. Charles Chauvel made this for the Department of Information. (see also Note 2)

In later years Dorothy explained that she had dutifully spent much of the war as a typist, before stepping back into acting again, after it was all over. As the title photo above shows, she can be seen modelling, using the name “Perk Alison” an activity she undertook to raise her profile again in 1946. In April that year she also attracted some publicity when she and other Independent Theatre members tried to stage Lillian Hellman‘s The Children’s Hour as a charity fundraiser. Two theatres felt the play’s suggestion of same sex love would not appeal to “nice people” and it was dropped. However working with Yvonne Fifi Banvard (by then a producer) she appeared in some radio dramas and later in 1947 – a breakthrough – she was cast in Harry Watt‘s Eureka Stockade, an Ealing Studios version of the Miner’s rebellion at Ballarat in 1854. Dorothy’s role as publican Catherine Bentley was small but important in retelling the events leading to the rebellion. She subsequently dropped “Perk Alison” as a stage name and used “Dorothy Alison” – or sometimes Allison, based on her first and middle names. (It was a good idea – there was already another Dorothy Dickson acting in London).

Above: Screen grab of the opening credits of Charles Chauvel’s Sons of Matthew (1949). The titles are narrated, and open like an ornate 19th photo album. Both Dorothy Alison and her real sister Marion Dickson play Rose O’Riordan at different times of life. The DVD is part of the Charles Chauvel Collection, widely available through Umbrella Entertainment, Author’s copy.

In 1947 she was also cast in Charles Chauvel‘s pioneer story Sons of Matthew, to play Rose, one of the daughters, with real life 11 year old sister Marion Dickson playing the same character but in younger years. While the experience of making this film seems to have turned Marion off acting for good, it clearly inspired Dorothy. After more radio work, a season of Measure for Measure with John Alden‘s Shakespearean players, in early 1949 she departed for London on the SS Orion. She had booked herself into low cost accommodation at Helen Graham House, opposite the British Museum while she searched for work. Years later she recalled that the £200 she had saved up went quickly, and she found little acting work in London. Despite arriving with numerous letters of introduction, she ended up doing office work again. “For three years I had little acting, just one part in a BBC radio play, and any amount of typing.” Back in Australia, her younger sister Beth was performing with John Alden’s Shakespearean troupe.

Above: Dorothy’s younger sister Beth Dickson, while performing Shakespeare, in the Adelaide News 31 March 1952 P11. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

It may have been a long time coming and her big break just “sheer luck”– as she was to observe herself , but Dorothy was also fortunate in her first British film – Mandy. No other Australians wanting work in England found themselves debuting in a film directed by the likes of Alexander Mackendrick, one of the most creative directors of the time. Her role was a small but crucial one – a teacher who works with the congenitally deaf child Mandy. The breakthrough scene where Mandy makes her first sound is filmed in such extreme closeup that one can see the pores on Dorothy’s skin. It is all the more powerful because of the grim intensity that has built slowly through the previous 50 minutes.

Above: Screen grab of Dorothy Alison as the teacher of the deaf, in a critical scene in Mandy (1952) A restored version of the film is available from Studio Canal. The child star Mandy Miller recently gave her memories of the film and her career (here), and the Studio Canal interview includes this key scene between Dorothy and Miller.

One might think that the effusive reviews of her performance, and there were plenty – in addition to a BAFTA nomination in 1953, also led to lots of new opportunities. But as she dryly noted herself, “there wasn’t a single decent offer, just a frightening silence.” It was most disheartening. There was some joy however – in late 1952 she married British actor Leslie Linder and in late 1953, after a few roles including a perfunctory one in Turn the Key Softly, she returned to Australia for a family visit, privately uncertain whether she wanted to keep on trying. Others had noticed the problem. Sydney Sun journalist Jack Pollard complained that Dorothy was getting a rough deal. Acting work seemed much easier for “the glamour girls with ample curves and no acting talent” he wrote.

However, the challenges for actresses in 1950s England were certainly more complex than just how they looked. Sweeping changes in society saw cinema attendance dramatically decline, while at the same time there were fewer film roles for women (one Australian journalist estimated only one in ten roles were for women). In the background there was the dramatic growth of television, changing how actors worked. Like her contemporary Betty McDowall, Dorothy did her share of acting in the new medium, although only a few of her early performances survive today.

Above Left: Screen grab of Dorothy Alison in an episode of the TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood. This episode, Ambush,(c1957) was directed by Lindsay Anderson and also guest starred Donald Pleasance. At right: Dorothy Alison with fellow Australian Charles Tingwell in Life in Emergency Ward 10 (1959), a film spin off of a popular TV show.

As we review her 1950s British feature films today, we can identify another problem she seemed to face. After Mandy, and probably because of it, she was often typecast as the wholesome, selfless woman. Consider her role as the ill-fated friend of Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) of the Congo in The Nun’s Story (1959); as the kindly Mrs Barnes who helps the disturbed Mr Wilson (Richard Attenborough) in The Man Upstairs (1958); as Joan – the good friend to an female ex-con Monica (Yvonne Mitchell) in Turn the Key Softly (1953); as the dedicated doctor-wife who helps save Tod (Colin Sampson) in The Scamp (1957); as Nurse Brace in Reach for the Sky, providing a stoic female equivalent to Kenneth More‘s Douglas Bader (1956). Film historian Brian McFarlane has accurately described her as “one of the most reliable character actors in 50s British cinema” and indeed she was, but it might also be argued that many of the characters she played were variations on a theme.

Above: Dorothy Alison in her first important British stage role as Laura in C.P. Snow’s The Affair, running at the Strand Theatre from late 1961. Program in the author’s collection.

It is surprising that unlike so many of her Australian contemporaries, (Betty McDowall, Sara Gregory and others) it was a decade before she had a significant role on the English stage. In October 1961, Dorothy took a leading part in The Affair, an adaption by Ronald Miller of a C P Snow novel. Her performance as Laura Howard, the key female role in the play, was well received and the play enjoyed an 11 month run at The Strand.

In the early 1970s Dorothy’s marriage to Leslie Linder failed. Now with three children, she continued to appear on stage, and in occasional TV appearances – plus a few films, including several thrillers. She had a memorable supporting role in Lionel Jefferies’ sentimental film vision of England’s past, The Amazing Mr Blunden, in 1972. She was 47 by this time, but carried the role of the widowed mother with two teenagers and a baby well. She had also successfully turned to script writing – authoring episodes of TV programs for ITV and the BBC- Dead of Night, The Man Outside and ITV Playhouse, and possibly others that have not been recorded.

Above: Dorothy Alison in later life. Photo accompanying her obituary for The Guardian, 29 Jan 1992, P35.

In 1981 she returned to Australia. The Australian arts were enjoying a renaissance, and for the next eight years this was generally where she worked – perhaps finding meatier roles, or at least fresh opportunities for an actor now aged in her mid 50s. She appeared for five months as the “battle-axe Ward Sister” in the touring play Whose Life is it Anyway? which included another ex-pat Australian, Annette Andre. She also performed as the stoic Mrs Firth, in A Town Like Alice, a mini-series based on Neville Shute’s novel. Skilfully filmed and well performed, A Town Like Alice won an Emmy for best international drama in November 1981, and in Australia it dominated the 1982 Logie Awards. Dorothy Alison, the Australian who had left 30 years before, won best supporting actor, alongside British actor Gordon Jackson and leading actors Bryan Brown and Helen Morse.

Over the next few years, Dorothy’s work included several Australian films, some TV dramas and narrations for documentaries (including a docu-drama on New South Wales’ first female lawyer Marie Byles), and three more mini-series on Australian themes – A Fortunate Life, Melba and Tusitala. In 1988 she had a supporting role in Evil Angels (aka A Cry in the Dark), the contemporary story of the awful death of baby Azaria Chamberlain – that so divided Australian society, directed by Fred Schepisi. In early 1986 she joined another play on an Australian tour, this one being Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth, headed by Lauren Bacall and Colin Friels. Hers was a smaller part, but a reviewer in the Melbourne Age was delighted that “Australian performers” like Dorothy could match “the amplitude of Miss Bacall.”

This later period of her work may tend to colour our understanding of her career – so much of it is available to collectors today. However, it is remarkable that she apparently made such an easy transition back to working in Australian film and theatre late in life – as only a handful of Australian women did this. She had returned to England again by 1990 and died at her home in Hampstead in early 1992. She was only 66.


Wendy Dickson (b 1932), Dorothy’s youngest sister, has enjoyed a long career as a successful designer for theatre, TV and film in Britain and Australia. Her film work has included Antony and Cleopatra (1972), Break of Day (1976) with her husband Ken Hannam and two films for Fred SchepisiThe Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978) and Evil Angels (1988), with Dorothy. Her theatre work in Australia has taken her all over the country and included work as diverse as contemporary theatre, ballet and Opera. For a number of years she was associated with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Interviewed by The Age newspaper in 1967, she recalled that as a young girl, she “desperately wanted to work in the theatre,” but becoming convinced she couldn’t act, turned to design.

Above left : Wendy Dickson in The Bulletin, April 16, 1977, P42. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Note 1. Family

Aged 20 in 1913, Lancashire-born William Edward Dickson moved to Broken Hill, a mining town about 1100 kilometres west of Sydney. It would have been the sort of dramatic change that might have daunted many, but Dickson thrived and became active in the very strong union movement. He moved to Sydney in the mid 1930s although he had been a member of the Legislative Council (the State Upper House of Parliament) from the mid 1920s. At various times he served as a State Minister, and at the time of his death in 1966, was President of the Council (Speaker of the Upper House). He was given a state funeral.

Dorothy’s younger sisters were Elizabeth (“Beth”) born 1927, Wendy born 1932 and Marion born 1936.

Above left, Dickson on his first appointment to Parliament. The Sydney Morning Herald Sat 26 Dec 1925, Page 10, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Dorothy Alison’s date of birth is often incorrectly listed on the internet as April. But as both her death certificate and this US travel document from late 1962 show, she was born on 4 March 1925.


Note 2. An earlier film?
The NSFA website suggests Dorothy Dickson also appeared in Chauvel’s MOI short While There Is Still Time (1941) , however this writer believes the actress is a different person. Smiths Weekly, and The Sydney Morning Herald also reported that the lead was played by Nola Warren.

Note 3. Awards.
Most sources incorrectly claim Dorothy Alison won BAFTA awards for Mandy (1952) and Reach for the Stars (1956), cross referencing each other as a source, in the usual Internet fashion. The truth is that she was nominated both times, a great honour in itself, but did not win. She was nominated in 1953 as Most Promising Newcomer for Mandy, but lost to Claire Bloom for Limelight. In 1957 she was nominated as best British Actress for Reach for the Stars, but lost to Virginia McKenna for A Town Like Alice. All of this can be easily verified on BAFTA’s own website.


Nick Murphy
March 2021


References

  • Text
    • Elsa Chauvel (1973) My Life with Charles. Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage 1950-1959 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
    • Picture Show and Film Pictorial (Magazine) Nov 16, 1957. Author’s collection.
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage, Sept 28, 1961, P13
    • The Illustrated London News, Oct 7, 1961, P598
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 14 Nov 1934, P 3
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 21 Nov 1935, P2
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept 1942, P11
    • Herald (Melb) 29 April 1946, P9
    • Pix, 12 April 1947.
    • Age (Melb) 28 Jan 1949, P1
    • ABC Weekly 19 Feb 1949, P14
    • The Mail (Adel) 31 Mar 1952, P11
    • The Age (Melb) 4 Aug 1952, P2
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Aug 1952, P3
    • Sunday Herald (Syd) 7 Sept 1952, P16
    • The Sun (Syd) 12 March 1953, P37
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 17 Sept 1953, P13
    • Barrier Miner (Bkn Hill) 23 Nov 1953, P9
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 25 Jan, 1956, P36
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 26 June 1957, P41
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 1 Oct, 1958, P66
    • ABC Weekly, 7 Jan 1959, P7
    • The Canberra Times (ACT) Sat 24 Apr 1965, P9
    • The Canberra Times (ACT) 23 May 1966, P3
    • The Age (Melb) 27 Jun 1967, P15
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 1 May 1974
    • The Bulletin April 16, 1977
    • The Canberra Times (ACT) 19 April 1981, P8
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan 1986, P52
    • The Age (Melb) 1 Feb 1986 P 125
    • Sydney Morning Herald 20 Jan 1992
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Age (Melb) 22 Feb 1986, P149
    • The Guardian (UK) 29 Jan 1992, P29

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