Molly Fisher & Fred Conyngham try their luck in London

Above: Fred Conyngham with Lu Ann Meredith,(looking suspiciously like Fred and Ginger from Hollywood) in the 1936 British musical With Pleasure, Madame, (aka Ball at Savoy). Sydney Mail, 8 April 1936, P12. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version
Born in Sydney in 1908, Fred Conyngham had a successful career as a dancer and comedian in JC Williamson’s productions in Australia in the ’20s. Travelling to London in late 1928, he established himself on stage and also appeared in a series of mostly forgettable British films. Molly Fisher was born in Hobart Tasmania in 1908. She first performed on the Australian stage in the early ’20s before moving to England in 1930. Like Fred she appeared on stage and in a mix of films. The couple married in 1932. After World War II they returned to Australia to perform together in a show (that flopped). In 1950 they moved to Sydney and left acting behind for good
Fred moved into insurance.

Above – Left: Molly Fisher about the time she and Fred married in London, on a signed fan card, c1932, Author’s Collection. Right – Fred Conyngham in Film Star Who’s Who on the Screen 1939 magazine (UK). Author’s Collection

Fred establishes himself as an actor

Frederick Ronald Talbot Conyngham (pronounced “Cunningham”) was born in Sydney in June 1908, to George Michael Conyngham and Edith nee Goggins. In time George, a tobacconist, became an actor, director and stage manager of some standing with JC Williamson’s, and their Royal Comic Opera Co, and was later was involved with tours by Dion Boucicault Jr. From a young age he coached his two sons, Fred and Russell (born 1904), as singers and performers. Fred and Russell also had training from Guido Cacialli, a well regarded member of the Gonsalez Opera Company, who had been stranded in Australia by the war.

Above left: George M Conyngham in costume for the musical comedy Whoopee!, playing at Melbourne’s King’s Theatre. The Herald (Melb) 28 Sept 1929, P20.  Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Fred (sometimes called Freddy) Conyngham was first recorded as appearing on the Australian stage in May 1926, on a J C Williamson’s Australasian tour of the popular farce The Last of Mrs Chaney. As a juvenile, he had a minor role as a butler, but one that was noted positively by reviewers. He must also have pleased Williamsons, as he was busy with “the firm” for the next three years. He appeared in a leading role in the play Cradle Snatchers, then in Good News in 1928 and finally the new US musical comedy Whoopee! in 1929. In the latter three plays he was on stage with young Tasmanian actor, Molly Fisher. When their relationship began is now impossible to verify, but it seems likely they were at least very fond of one another before Fred departed for England on the Esperance Bay in late 1928. Perhaps they had an agreement that Fred would establish himself first in London, to pave the way.

Above left: Advertisment for Good News playing at St James Theatre in December 1928, and including Fred and Molly in the cast. Truth (Syd), 30 December 1928. At right: Chorus lineup from Whoopee! J C Williamson’s kept the spectacular and amusing shows running throughout Australia, in spite of the Great Depression. The Sun (Syd), 10 July 1929. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Molly on stage aged 13

Molly (Molly Irene Selina) Fisher was born in Hobart in December 1908. There was no family dynasty of performers in her family, both her father and brother Vernon were both motor engineers. But unlike Fred, who throughout his career seems to have avoided the press, Molly was quite adept at speaking to journalists to help create a public persona. Speaking in 1930 to a journalist from the Melbourne paper Table Talk of her leading role in Turned Up, she said “It is an ingenue part, and I am not fond of playing the nice girl with pretty pretty ways, but prefer something in the comedy line, or with some acting possibilities.” Aged only 21, she already felt she was well experienced – her mother had brought her to Melbourne in 1916 to learn to dance (some of the time under the tutelage of well known Melbourne dance teacher Jenny Brennan) and she had been on stage since that time. Her name had first appeared in J C Williamson’s pantomimes as early as 1921, when she was only 13 years old.

Above left: Molly Fisher (left) with Nellie Barnes hamming it up for the camera, while appearing in the pantomime, The Babes in the Wood, Table Talk (Melb) 2 Feb, 1922. Above right: Molly Fisher in a leading role in Turned Up, Table Talk (Melb) 26 Dec, 1929.  Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Molly’s departure from Australia was well publicised by newspapers – “Another Australian Girl for London” reported Sydney’s Daily Pictorial, with a mixture of pride and mock dismay. Molly had been quite open about her plans to leave for England for some time – she felt it was “the only way to see the best artists and watch their work…(and) even to tour in a provincial company means experience.” Following another leading role in the musical Follow Through, she left for England in April 1930, on the P&O steamer Balranald.

Fred Conyngham’s appearances in England

Fred’s first appearance in London was in the musical The Love Race, written by Stanley Lupino and performed at the Gaiety Theatre in June 1930. It ran for over 230 performances with good reviews – Lupino knew the sort of light entertainment audiences liked. Years later Australian actor John Wood would claim Lupino preferred to avoid casting actors with refined English Oxford accents, which explained his “employment of Australians whenever possible.” It is difficult to verify this claim, although a number of Australians did appear in The Love Race. But when British International Pictures (BIP) made a film of the play later that year, it had been reconstructed for the screen, much of the music had been dropped and many of the stage actors, including Fred, did not appear, probably due to scheduling commitments.

Above: Australians in the cast of The Love Race featured in The Home magazine, 2 January 1931. Left to right – Esme Tosh, Harry Wotton, Madge Elliot and Fred Conyngham. All were born in or had grown up in Australia, as was Cyril Ritchard, who was also in the play. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove

After a tour of South Africa in 1931, Fred appeared in a healthy run of the musical The Cat and Fiddle at London’s Palace Theatre. His stage performances kept him busy for much of the next decade and established his reputation as a capable performer – these included Wild Violets at the Drury Lane in 1932, She Shall Have Music at the Savoy in 1934 and The Flying Trapeze in 1935. It is evident from reviews of Fred’s performances that his singing, dancing and comic timing were regarded as “first class”, “clever” and that he projected “a pleasant personality” on stage. However, this reputation was largely built on consistently good performances in fairly lightweight material – shows that were an entertaining distraction. but often not much more.

In 1932 he appeared in his first film – a 63 minute musical for BIP called The Indiscretions of Eve (it was also the first film for Steffi Duna and Jessica Tandy). In his book on British musical films, Cheer Up! Adrian Wright counts about 320 musicals made in Britain in the first 15 years of sound film. Unfortunately, because of the patchiness of the genre, many are difficult to find today, including this one. However, David Quinlan has described it as “bright and amusing mini musical comedy about an earl [Fred Conyngham] who falls in love with a girl [Steffi Duna] who models in a wax factory…” Most of Fred’s 1930s films comprised musicals – notably Ball at Savoy (1936), Rose of Tralee (1937) and The Minstrel Boy (1937), plus several dramas, comedies, and a thriller, The Crouching Beast (1935).

Above: Fred Conyngham and Peggy Cochrane in Radio Parade of 1935. (1934). This scene is a highlight of the film. The film is still available from Networkonair.com

Radio Parade of 1935, one of only a few of Fred’s films currently available for purchase, was typical of many British musicals of the era. The film has a weak plot – it is essentially a series of musical acts held together by a superficial narrative about a radio station needing to update its programming. Fred had a brief appearance, playing himself, performing There’s no excusing Susan with Peggy Cochrane. Their colour scene together was a highlight at the end of the film.

In December 1938 Motion Picture Herald magazine listed Britain’s top stars – by popularity at the box office. It is a long list starting with actors still recalled today – George Formby, Gracie Fields, Jessie Matthews, Anna Neagle etc. Fred Conyngham was amongst the others listed, his popularity coming off the back of three musical films he made in 1937. But contemporary film historians Denis Gifford and Adrian Wright have also characterised Fred as “Britain’s B-picture Fred Astaire,” which seems to accurately reflect the problem many British actors faced at the time – the film material (plot, direction, photography and effects) was often mediocre.

Early in 1931 the rest of the Conyngham family arrived in London – 25 year old brother Russell, George M and his second wife Gladys and their 4 year old son. His parents stayed for two years, George M being keen to see Russell establish himself.

Molly Fisher in England

Molly Fisher’s first English appearance was in Sons of Guns in Liverpool, which started less than a month after she arrived, a placement she arranged before she left Australia. Her salary was £40 per week, (the equivalent of about £2500 today). Her first London production was a revival of the old favourite The Belle of New York, which ran at Daly’s and then the Winter Garden in mid 1931. However, a great success followed when she took a part in the new musical The White Horse Inn, which ran for a year at London’s Coliseum. In July 1932, in the midst of their busy schedules, Molly and Fred married.

Above: Molly Fisher as Mamie with Johnny Schofield (Blinky Bill) and Norman Page (Von Pumpernick) in The Belle of New York. The Tatler, April 15, 1931, P91. The copyright for this photo is held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive

Like Fred, Molly Fisher appeared in a handful of British films. These were a mixture of thrillers and comedies, with Molly generally taking the supporting role of “best friend” to the leading actress. Unfortunately, like Fred’s films, most of these are B films and difficult to source now. Two that are still available both feature Ivor Novello in the leading role, with I Lived With You (based on Novello’s own play) standing out as a fine romantic comedy.

Above left: Screen grab of Molly (right foreground) as a telephonist with Elizabeth Allen (centre) in the thriller The Lodger (aka The Phantom Fiend) 1932. Above right: Screen grab of Molly (right) with Ursula Jeans (left) in I Lived With You, 1933. This latter film is available through Renown pictures.

Working together again

On several occasions Fred performed with familiar Australian faces. Lucille Lisle had appeared with Fred in Cradle Snatchers in Melbourne. They appeared together again in the film The Minstrel Boy, described by Adrian Wright as “a tepid attempt to establish Lisle as a romantic leading lady.” Also in 1937, Australian born director Alf Goulding used both Fred and Molly for his B-film Sam Small Leaves Town, filmed at Butlin’s famous holiday camp in Skegness (another film that now seems to have entirely disappeared). In 1939, John Warwick, his wife Molly Raynor (actually New Zealand born), Lucille Lisle and Fred all appeared on tour with A Star Comes Home.

Perhaps these are merely coincidences, but Australians still like to think they “look out” for each other. Actor Esmond Knight recalled meeting a fresh faced, newly arrived Australian actor who visited him and Fred in their dressing room during the run of Wild Violets. Fred gave the young man the names of helpful managers to contact. The young man was Robert Helpmann.

While both Molly and Fred continued to perform on tour and in London in the 1930s, as the decade came to a close they made more of an effort to work together. A daughter had been born in 1934, so there was another reason for the family to spend more time together. In 1937, Fred and Molly appeared on stage together at the Shaftesbury in Crazy Days, another Stanley Lupino production. And in early 1940, they performed together in Revue Des Allies at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Records also show that in 1940 they were appearing on BBC radio as part of a variety performance.

A volunteer fireman in 1939, Fred served in the Army during the war and this was very likely as a member of the Entertainment National Services Association (ENSA), providing entertainment to the British and Allied forces. Fred’s brother Russell was also an ENSA performer and director. (See below)

Post war return to Australia

Above: Linda Parker and Fred Conyngham in a scene from When You Come Home (1947), his last British film. This is a screen grab from a short clip on Youtube, the author had been unable to source a full copy.

Following the war, the couple had returned to the English stage and probably appeared in some now lost BBC TV programs. Before leaving England, Fred also appeared in the film When You Come Home, a Frank Randle comedy. Another film difficult to find today, it reportedly used the old familiar device of a story shaped around a music hall, providing plenty of opportunity for varied performers and sketches to hold it all together.

Sometime in late 1947, Fred and Molly were offered work in Marinka, (an operetta inspired by the 1889 murder-suicide involving the Crown Prince of Austria) and planned for a season on Australia’s Tivoli circuit by producer David N Martin.

There are any number of reasons why Fred and Molly may have wanted to come home, but Marinka (even with its shift to light romance and a change of ending) was an unfortunate choice to kick off a rebooted Australian career, if that is what they hoped for. Despite the efforts that David Martin made with the production, it received only modest reviews and was not a success at the box office. Theatre Historian Frank Van Straten suggests it was “out of place” at the Tivoli, which promptly returned to traditional vaudeville fare.

Above: Molly and Fred posing for a publicity shot at the time they appeared in Melbourne in Marinka. Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 July 1948. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By 1950, Fred and Molly had decided to leave the stage behind. They moved to Sydney, and Fred went into insurance.

Regrettably, but like so many Australian actors, they were never interviewed about their years of acting and dancing. Molly died in April 1966, aged only 57. Fred’s inscription on Molly’s headstone at Sydney’s North Rocks cemetery is touching and speaks of the couple’s strong bond: “You were the one, the only one, to be linked with my restless soul…”

Fred died in 1974.

Russell Conyngham

Fred’s brother Russell did build a successful career in Britain as an actor and later a director. He appeared as a “twinkle-toed” dancer on stage in Britain, often with Iris Boyers, who he married in 1939. In September 1935 The Stage magazine announced that Russell, “the eccentric light comedian… and Iris Boyers, soubrette and leading dancer have formed a new comedy variety act”. During World War II both Russell and Iris worked for ENSA, but in December 1949 they also departed for Australia, with their children, and pursued other interests. Russell died in 1984.

Above: Russell Conyngham about 1934. Bath Weekly and Chronicle Herald, Oct 20, 1934, P19. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive

References

  • Text
    • Denis Gifford (1978) The illustrated who’s who in British Films. Batsford.
    • Esmond Knight (1943) Seeking the Bubble. National Book Association. Hutchinson.
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. Methuen, BFI – Methuen
    • John Parker (1936) Who’s Who in the Theatre. A Biographical record of the Contemporary Stage.(Eighth Edition) Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons
    • John Parker (1939) Who’s Who in the Theatre. A Biographical record of the Contemporary Stage.(Ninth Edition) Pitman Publishing
    • David Quinlan (1984) British Sound Films: The Studio Years 1928-1959. B T Batsford
    • Jeffrey Richards (Ed) (2000)The Unknown 1930s, An Alternative History of the British Cinema. I B Tauris. esp Chapter 5, Stephen Guy; “Calling All Stars: Musical films in a Musical Decade”
    • Frank Van Straten (2003 Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
    • Adrian Wright (2020) Cheer Up! British Musical Films 1929-1945. The Boydell Press.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Table Talk 2 Feb 1922
    • The World’s News 14 May 1926, P6
    • Table Talk, 4 Aug 1927, P9
    • Arrow (Syd)), Friday 23 Nov 1928, P15
    • Truth 25 Nov 1928, P11
    • Sunday Times (Syd), 6 Jan 1929, P18
    • Sunday Times (Syd) 3 Feb 1929, P14
    • Table Talk 2 Jan 1930, P20
    • Daily Pictorial (Syd) 27 Mar 1930, P23
    • The Home 2 Jan 1931, P34
    • Labor Daily (Syd) 2 Ap 1936, P10
    • Sunday Mail, 8 May 1936, P12
    • Mercury (Hob) 22 March 1938, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, Mon 16 Oct 1939, Page 6
    • The Sun (Syd) 11 Jan 1948, P2
    • The Herald (Melb) 21 May 1948, P6
    • The Argus (Melb) 29 May 1948 P5
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 10 July 1948, P13
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Tatler, 15 April 1931, P91
    • The Sketch, 16 March 1932, P476
    • Kinematograph Weekly, 5 May 1932, P40
    • The Worthing Gazette, 9 Nov 1932, P11
    • The Stage,  21 June 1934, P15
    • Bath Weekly and Chronicle Herald, Oct 20, 1934, P19
    • The Era, 2 Sept 1934
    • The Bystander, 29 May 1935, P375
    • Clitheroe Advertiser and Times, 18 Dec 1936, P6
    • The Stage – Thursday 19 October 1939, P6
    • Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 12 Jan 1940, P60
    • Kinematograph Weekly, 19 Dec 1946
  • Lantern Digital Media Project
    • Motion Picture Herald 31 Dec 1938, P13-14

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Allan Cuthbertson (1920-1988) – from Romeo to Fawlty Towers

Above: A very young Allan Cuthbertson. The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, Page 4. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. Almost all the existing high quality photos of Cuthbertson as a British actor are firmly held by commercial photo archives. The reader will thus have to forgive the grainy quality of photos used here, mostly sourced from digitised Australian newspapers.

The 5 second version
Western Australian born Allan Cuthbertson forged a hugely successful career on screen and stage in Britain – often playing a stereotypical, frosty, British military type – film historian Brian McFarlane described him as “a superb conveyor of icy distain.” However early in his career he played a variety of roles and in later life was more than capable of sending up the military stereotype he was known for (think Colonel Hall in Fawlty Towers). He is hardly a forgotten Australian but still warrants a place on this site because his Australian acting experience usually only merits a one line mention in biographies, and the context of his interest in acting is never explained. He died in London in 1988, with numerous stage, radio, TV and film performances to his credit. His brother Henry was also an actor and director of note, while another brother William, was killed while serving with the RAF in 1944.

Allan Cuthbertson told Australian theatre historian Hal Porter that one of his earliest memories was of being backstage at Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre, watching his spot-lit father on stage. There is not much doubt that in his case, the passions of his father and older brothers played a part in fostering his interest in acting and his later decision to try his luck in London. Once established there, he remained a great advocate for Australians making the move overseas. “Don’t despair if you can’t land a job as soon as you land in London. Do anything. Wash up in a hotel… but keep on trying the agents.”

Above: Screen-grab of Allan Cuthbertson, 35 years after leaving Australia, playing the Australian Ambassador in the German TV mini-series Der Schwarze Bumerang  (The Black Boomerang) (1982). It is unclear why he relented his rule on not playing Australians for this one performance.

The Cuthbertson family of Perth

Born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1920, Allan Darling Cuthbertson was the youngest of three sons of Isabel nee Darling from Adelaide and Ernest Cuthbertson, a Scottish born partner in Hodd, Cuthbertson and North, a large firm of auctioneers and real estate agents in Perth, Western Australia. Amongst his other interests, Ernest was also an enthusiastic amateur performer, and for many years a leading figure in the Western Australia Society of Concert Artists.

A talented baritone, he was well known in Perth for directing performances for the stage. The grainy photo at left was printed when he was arranging a tableau entitled The Founding of Perth, part of the city’s celebrations in 1929. He was active almost up to the time of his early death, aged only 52, in 1936.

Above: Ernest Cuthbertson, The West Australian, 9 August 1929, P26. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Ernest and Isabel’s three sons William (1914-1944), Henry (1917-1988) and Allan all attended Perth’s prestigious Hale School, Australia’s oldest private Boys’ school. William (Bill) had a spectacular academic career – he was twice Dux of his school and went on to complete a Bachelor of Science and then Masters of Science at University of Western Australia. Following in their father’s footsteps, all three boys took a keen interest in theatre while still at school and in time both Henry and Allan joined Perth’s Repertory Club Players.

Henry first appeared in radio drama in 1936, while 18 year old Allan directed his first play in 1938, and also wrote some plays. Then, in March 1938, the two oldest boys – Bill and Henry (or “Bruzz” to his friends) embarked on the SS Moreton Bay for England – Bill to complete a Phd as a Chemist, Henry to pursue his career as an actor. Allan almost certainly had dreams of joining his older brothers, but it would be another 9 years before he too travelled to London. Eric Porter notes Allan went into a Bank on leaving school.

Above: Allan and Henry Cuthbertson. Left: Allan as he appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 28, 1947. But the photo appears to have been taken some years earlier, before he grew his moustache. Right: Henry Cuthbertson in the ABC Weekly, 26 June 1954. Both photos via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Older Brothers in Britain 1938-1944

Henry Cuthbertson found work in Britain as a radio announcer for the English company Radio Normandie and apparently appeared in three films made in late 1938 as an extra, including They Drive by Night and Goodbye Mr Chips. He then joined several repertory companies touring Britain in 1939-40, and was singled out for some positive reviews in regional papers. Isobel Cuthbertson passed on reports of her son’s successes on stage to West Australian newspapers with understandable pride“Henry was quite unknown when he went to London” she reported, “and had obtained all his work on his own initiative.” But in July 1940 he decided to return to Australia, arriving home on the ship Orcades in August. Less than two years later a U-boat sank the Orcades off the coast of South Africa, an awful reminder of how dangerous passenger travel in wartime was.

After completing his PhD at Leeds University, Bill Cuthbertson worked as a research scientist. When war broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force. After the lengthy training required for navigators, he joined 101 Squadron, flying operations over Germany and occupied Europe in Lancaster bombers. On 1 July 1944 his bomber was shot down and Bill and the rest of the crew – a typical Bomber Command mix of young Britons, Canadians and Australians, were all killed. Tragically, Bill had been married only a few months. St George’s College, his University of Western Australia alma mater, have a photo of him on their website (here) and there is a very moving tribute to him (here).

Allan & Henry join the RAAF 1941-1946

Back in Australia, Henry Cuthbertson joined the Royal Australian Air Force in June 1941. Allan joined up in December 1941, the day before Japan launched its assault in the Pacific. They served in separate sections – Allan ended the war as a Flight Lieutenant, flying Catalinas for 111 Air Sea Rescue Flight, while Henry was a Sergeant in RAAF Command, serving at RAAF hospitals. Discharged as medically unfit in 1944, Henry returned to radio in Perth, becoming an announcer for 6PR, and performed in radio versions of plays, including as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.

After discharge from the RAAF, Allan also threw himself back into acting – on radio, and in theatre with the George Edwards Company in Sydney. He would later state, “Thank God for my experience in Sydney radio and with George Edwards, because it was there that I learned something about getting the most out of a script at sight or after only a preliminary reading.”

Above: Allan Cuthbertson rehearsing Murder Without Crime in 1946 with, from left Ross Buchanan, Madge Ryan and (in his arms) Thelma Grigg, and Stage Manager Delemere Usher. Both Ryan and Grigg also travelled to London to try their luck. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1946. P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Allan Cuthbertson in Britain 1947 +

In March 1947 Allan Cuthbertson sailed for Britain on the Rangitiki. “There is so much to learn in London now with the great theatrical revival” he told one Australian journalist in April 1947. “Even by seeing dozens of plays, one can learn a great deal.” Also on board was a young Gertrude Willner, whom Allan would marry in London in late July 1949. (see Note 1 below)

Above: Allan Cuthbertson, The Daily News (Perth), 13 Sept 1947, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Compared to so many other actors who arrived in London at this time, Allan was extremely fortunate with his career. Within a few months of arriving he had played with some repertory companies and then won the leading part of Romeo in a revival of Romeo and Juliet, although a reviewer for The Stage felt Allan and costar Isabel Dean were not experienced enough for the roles. But only a matter of weeks later, Allan was appearing in Noël Coward’s Point Valaine at the Embassy, in its first ever London outing. It ran for a very modest 34 performances, with, again, very modest reviews. However, by mid 1948 The Stage was able to report enthusiastically on Allan’s “vigorous interpretation” of Laertes, in Hamlet, at St James Theatre.

Three other plays particularly stand out in Allan Cuthbertson’s early career – the first being a part in very long run of The Beaux’ Stratagem at the Lyric, followed by a leading role in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, that ran for most of 1951. The Sketch reported “Allan Cuthbertson… does remarkably well in the exacting part of Octavius” displaying great “sincerity of manner.” Even newspapers at home enthusiastically reported on his increasing successes on the London stage.

Above: A reminder of the wide variety of roles Allan Cuthbertson played. With Kay Hammond in Man and Superman. The Sketch, 14 March 1951, P219. Copyright held by by The Illustrated London News Group. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive.

In 1953 Allan played an important role in Carrington VC. Written by former Royal Artillery officer Campbell Christie in collaboration with his wife Dorothy, it is the tale of a military Court martial, with Allan in the supporting role of the thoroughly unsympathetic Lt-Colonel Henniker. The play was a great success in London, and Allan was asked to reprise the role of Henniker for Anthony Asquith‘s film, made the following year.

Above left: Program cover for the play Carrington VC, which opened in London in July 1953. Author’s Collection. Above right, a scene from the film, with Allan reprising his role as Colonel Henniker, opposite Noelle Middleton playing Captain Alison Graham. Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 June 1955, P53. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Not surprisingly, this role as an authoritarian and unsympathetic military officer became his signature role. Not only did he repeat the part of Colonel Henniker again for TV and for radio, he played a variation of it in at least another two dozen film and TV appearances – like Major Baker in The Guns of Navarone (1961). It is true that later appearances of this character were sometimes in comedies – by the 1970s the military martinet had often become an object of humour (including Colonel Hall in Fawlty Towers and Major Daintry in Ripping Yarns). Allan acknowledged this typecasting himself in a 1963 interview during a return visit to Australia: “I used to enjoy playing Charley’s Aunt(a farce)… “but since ‘Carrington’ its been villains.” Tongue in cheek he added “I can’t think why!” About the same time he told Eric Porter that he had “settled down as a film character actor…a sort of symbol of the sneering Englishman.” Here, he was almost certainly thinking of his supporting role as the awful, domineering husband in Room at the Top (1959).

By 1963 he had 70 film and TV roles under his belt and in an interview with Patricia Rolfe for The Bulletin he acknowledged that although he took almost all film work offered to him, often in preference to the stage, he had always avoided playing Australian roles, apparently for fear this would limit his work. (Australian then meaning a broad-accented role). He told Rolfe he had turned down the role of the Australian character “Digger” in The Hasty Heart. Melbourne-born actor John Sherman took the part in the 1949 film version and it certainly did his UK career little good – once typecast in such a role, it was difficult to find others.

Above: Routine TV work. A screen grab of Allan Cuthbertson (playing a wicked nobleman) and Alan Wheatley (as the Sheriff of Nottingham) in a 1957 episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood. The series is now in the public domain and can be watched here at the Internet Archive.

After a long career in film and television – if not playing officers and nasty husbands he often played lords, lawyers or detectives, he did return to the stage. He notably appeared in Charley’s Aunt, at the Adelphi, in 1979 and in the mid 1980s he appeared in a revival of Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green at the Old Vic. And later in his career he also appeared as a straight-man with a number of British television comedians, including Dick Emery, Tommy Cooper and Morecombe and Wise.

And he finally relented about playing an Australian. In the 1982 German mini-series Der Schwarze Bumerang  (The Black Boomerang) he had a small part as the Australian Ambassador. However, as his character is dubbed into German, perhaps he felt it didn’t matter. His natural accent almost certainly approximated the one we hear in his films – a cultivated accent being the product of his education at one of Australia’s most prestigious schools, and years of radio and theatre work in Australia – before he even arrived in Britain, aged 27. Australian actor John Wood, with whom Allan performed in Carrington VC, spoke with a similar cultivated Australian accent.

Allan Cuthbertson’s conservative preferences in theatre were well known – he described his tastes as “Edwardian”. Contemporary avant-garde theatre he was not enthusiastic about and he once said he felt Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot had the effect of “keeping people out of the theatre”.

Allan Cuthbertson died in England on 8 February 1988. Obituaries appeared in Australia and Britain, although the irony that a quintessential stage and screen Englishman was actually an Australian was not mentioned. In private life he was a collector of art and caricatures (Rowlandson, Cruikshank and the like) and much of his collection is now held by the Cartoon Art Trust in London.


Henry Cuthbertson in Australia 1946 – 1988

Henry Cuthbertson enjoyed a very long association with the theatre in Australia. The Australian Live Performance Database lists his last performance, of many on stage, as occurring in 1979, although he also appeared in some Australian TV programs as a supporting actor as late as the early 1980s and apparently also in a film called Backstage in 1988 (unseen by this writer). However, it is through his reputation as Head of Drama for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) that he was most well known – regularly directing radio and television for the national broadcaster. He had married in 1946 and died in Melbourne in April 1988, only a few months after his brother.

At Left: Henry Cuthbertson in 1954, having just become Head of Drama for the ABC. ABC Weekly, 24 July, 1954, P8 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Note 1
In his interview with Patricia Rolfe for The Bulletin in 1963, Allan Cuthbertson explained part of Gertrude Willner’s story. Feminist, writer and philanthropist Lady Jessie Street had met Gertrude in Europe in 1938, and exercised some influence in the difficult task of getting the 27 year old refugee into Australia. She arrived in June 1939 on the Strathallen. For a time she lived with Street, and went on to study Arts at the University of Sydney (she graduated in 1944). She probably met Allan in Sydney after his RAAF service, but they are also both listed (separately) on the Rangitki’s 1947 list of passengers travelling to England, and may have met then. Allan and Gertrude had one child.

Nick Murphy

20 March 2021


References

  • Text
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • Eric Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd
    • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage 1950-1959 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Guardian 15 Feb 1988, P35
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The West Australian Fri 9 Aug 1929, P26
    • Sunday Times (WA) 1 July 1934, P1
    • The Daily News (WA) 11 April 1936 P9
    • Sunday Times (WA) 10 July 1938 P13
    • The Daily News (WA) 21 Feb 1939 P1
    • The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, P4
    • Sydney Morning Herald 12 June 1946, P7
    • Mount Barker Record (WA) Aug 5, 1946 )4
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 19 Ap 1947 P17
    • The Daily News (WA) 13 Sept 1947
    • Sydney Morning Herald 28 Oct 1947 P11
    • The Daily News (WA) 16 July 1949, P22
    • ABC Weekly 26 June 1954
    • ABC Weekly 24 July 1954
    • Australian Women’s Weekly 8 June 1955, P53
    • The Bulletin 8 June 1963, P22
    • Australian Women’s Weekly 12 June 1963, P10

  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Reading Mercury 29 April 1939 P24
    • The Stage 14 August 1947
    • The Stage 11 Sept 1947
    • The Sketch 9 June 1948
    • The Stage 24 Feb 1949
    • The Sketch 14 March 1951
    • West London Observer 7 Jan 1955, P4
    • The Stage 30 May 1985
    • The Stage 8 Feb 1988


This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

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

Betty McDowall (1924 – 1993) -London was “Tough as Hell”

Above: Betty McDowall, aged 21, on the cover of the Australian Broacasting Commission’s ABC Weekly, on December 8, 1945. Note her surname is misspelled McDowell here. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version
Betty McDowall had an extraordinarily active career on stage and radio – commencing in Australia in 1942. She moved to England in 1951, developing a performance persona that film historian Brian McFarlane has described as “quietly appealing.” Although appearing in some leading roles in film, she had more success in supporting roles of domestic life on British TV, becoming a familiar face on numerous programs into the early 1970s. Between 1977 and 1985 she had a regular role on the BBC radio series The Archers. Married three times, she died in England in 1993. Her surname was regularly misspelled McDowell.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Betty McDowall never became an enthusiastic self-promoter and little can be found to inform us of her Sydney childhood or her reflections on her own career over time. But in 1965, in one of her rare public comments, Betty McDowall gave the opinion that an actor’s life in London was “tough as hell.” This comment appeared in a Canberra Times article by Tom Lake, making a refreshing change from the usual celebratory reporting about the doings of Australians acting overseas. For once, a reporter wrote frankly about just how hard it was to break in and to maintain a career. Lake’s survey of Australian actors included Alan White, Lloyd Lamble, Dorothy Alison, Shirley Cameron and others. Dorothy Alison, who had just temporarily retired, claimed that on arrival she had been armed with “all sorts of introductions, none of which did any good.” Lake also highlighted an added problem for women – there was much less work available for them than for men; perhaps only 1 in 10 jobs were for actresses.

Betty was born Elizabeth Margarita McDowall in Sydney on 14 August, 1924, to John Lloyd McDowall, a clerk connected with the racing industry and Florence nee Warren. Her father John had been born in Chongqing, China in 1894, to John (senior), an expatriate postal commissioner for the Qing Dynasty and his Chinese wife, unnamed in official documents. But Betty’s father seems to have lived in Australia from his youth, marrying Florence in Sydney in June 1917. Betty was the third of the couple’s three daughters. (See Note 1)

Sadly, John and Florence divorced in the early 1930s. By this time John’s profession was listed as a hairdresser, although he was doing well enough in the height of the Depression. In 1932 he had inherited a brother’s estate and was able to support Betty as a boarder at Mount St Bernard’s Convent School in Pymble (a northern suburb of Sydney). She left the school aged only 15, having developed an early love for the theatre and almost certainly having received training from one of Sydney’s many private drama tutors. In time, she also turned her hand to fashion design like her older sister Ursula, and she wrote scripts for radio. A 1948 account of Betty’s early life also suggested she was an “outdoors girl,” who sailed her own VJ dinghy (a fast, light skiff developed in the early 1930s) on Sydney harbour, and who liked cycling, poetry and philosophy. Maybe, but this latter description sounds suspiciously like familiar newspaper padding, designed to conform to popular notions of the “typical Australian girl.”

Above: Betty McDowall was a regular in the pages of ABC Weekly, between 1945 and 1951 reflecting how busy the young actor was on radio. Left, on the cover on June 12, 1948, with her name again misspelled. Right, posing to advertise the radio comedy George and Margaret June 11, 1949. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Betty McDowall’s earliest performance experiences were in radio serials for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (still known to Australians today as the ABC), and on the Macquarie radio Network. One of her first was in Dr Mac, a comedy-drama based around the doings of a small town doctor. Her first appearance on stage professionally was possibly in mid-1943 at Sydney’s Minerva Theatre, in the play Janie, directed by Alec Coppel. Melbourne born Coppel already had experience as a writer in England and had come back home in 1940. He later went on to a Hollywood career – writing numerous screenplays, including Vertigo (1958). Unfortunately, we do not know how the 19 year old Betty came to Coppel’s attention, but he cast her as one of the friends of Janie, an American high school girl (played by Gwenda Wilson) who holds a disastrous party for US servicemen while her parents are away. Reviews of the comedy were generally positive – the idea of girls having a tearaway party in their parents’ absence was quite novel for war-weary Australians. In February 1944, after several more plays, Betty appeared in a leading role in Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Rope, again directed by Coppel for the Minerva Theatre.

Above: Betty featured in Truth newspaper, March 12, 1944, in a feature on women and war work. The byline reported that she baked for her husband between performances. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

On May 1, 1942, at the age of only 17, Betty married James Joseph White, a musician. She was so young she needed her mother’s permission to marry. Unfortunately, the couple’s relationship did not last beyond the end of the war. Within a few years White had become inattentive, announcing that he “didn’t want to be tied down”, and he increasingly stayed out late. In divorce court in 1946 Judge Edwards expressed his confusion about the excuse that White had stayed out late at “jam sessions”, a term the judge had never heard. Well and truly channeling archaic attitudes of nineteenth century Australia he announced “I don’t understand…what such activities would have to do with jam”. Truth newspaper joined in with frivolous reporting of the unhappy event, under the heading “Marriage was all Jammed up”.

At the same time all this was unfolding, Betty thought she had a chance of performing on Broadway in the play Flying Fox, written by visiting US serviceman Warren Cheney. Cheney’s intentions were honourable – he wanted to present a contemporary vision of Australia for US audiences, using real Australian actors, including Betty and Ron Randell. But nothing came of the scheme or the play. However, Betty did find more work in local theatre and in an endless stream of radio comedy and drama. And in early 1947, she had another breakthrough – she was cast in her first film role. Always another Dawn was a feature film made by Sydney’s McCreadie brothers, who already had some experience with making short films. It was a war drama, partly filmed on board the Australian destroyer Bataan. In addition to Betty, it starred capable actors in Guy Dolman, Queenie Ashton and Charles Tingwell. Unfortunately, despite the ability of the cast, the film did not fare well. The lighting was criticised as poor, the dialogue dull, and the plot, which included the death in combat of the key protagonist (Tingwell) was heavy handed. Betty never gave an opinion of the film herself, but interviewed in 2002, Tingwell recalled her as one Sydney’s fine young actresses.

Above: Betty performed alongside Michael Pate in the 3UZ radio serial Forrester’s Wharf shortly before leaving for England. Pate had departed for the US in November 1950. The Age, Thu 22 Mar 1951, P1, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Despite the film’s lack of success, there continued to be a stream of stage opportunities that reflected recognition of her ability. In mid 1948, The Sydney Morning Herald noted her good humoured and vivid portrayal of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice at the Minerva. When British actor Robert Morley brought his play Edward, My Son to Australia in October 1949, Betty won the role of the girl Edward marries, requiring her to be on stage just twice – but long enough to attract the positive attention of reviewers. Meanwhile radio performances continued to be her “bread and butter”. 1951 saw her perform on radio with two up and coming Australians – Michael Pate in Forrester’s Wharf and Rod Taylor in My Friend Irma.

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw many young actors leave to try their luck internationally – there was simply not enough work in Australia. Betty’s contemporaries Gwenda Wilson and Dorothy Alison had both departed for London in 1949 and their letters home sometimes appeared in newspapers – it is fair to assume those who were friends also wrote encouragingly to each other. Betty left for England in 1951 – a brave move despite her record of success at home – as she had no connections there. Her first theatre work in London was not as an actor, but as an Assistant Stage Manager for the Tennent Productions play – Indian Summer in late 1951. She played her first role on the London stage in Tennent’s The Same Sky in early 1952.

Coinciding with Betty’s arrival in Britain were dramatic shifts in cinema attendance and the growth of a new phenomenon – the rapid rise of British Television, with a dramatic increase in numbers of household sets spurred on by events such as the 1953 Coronation, and after 1955, the addition of ITV as an alternative to the BBC. As a consequence, there was greater demand for programming, and new work for actors. All the same, her first television outing in April 1953 was hardly very profound fare – it was a videoed promotional version of the play Half Seas Over, a comedy about a female US Channel swimmer that was soon to open at the Q Theatre. (Betty played the swimmer’s sister).

It may have been hellishly hard work as she was later to claim, but her career took off quickly and diverse performances across stage, TV and cinema became her trademark. By December 1956 it was reported that Betty had already appeared in 68 TV roles, and the Lancashire Evening Post’s TV reviewer could describe her as one of his “favourite Television actresses”. For Tatler magazine, at about the same time, the young Australian was a “television personality” worthy of including in a photospread. Her TV performances were in a mix of filmed plays – usually current at theatres, guest parts in serials and one off stories of the “armchair theatre” type, then so popular.

At left above, Betty McDowall’s growing popularity is reflected in the TV pages of The Stage, 12 July 1956, P12. Copyright held by Stage Media. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Betty’s first feature film role was in Ealing films The Shiralee, made in late 1956 and set in outback Australia. Featuring numerous Australians then working in England – Peter Finch, Charles Tingwell, Frank Leighton, Reg Lye, Ed Devereaux, Bill Kerr and others, it was filmed partly at the MGM studios in London, as well as on location in New South Wales. Betty had just one scene – as a kindly English-sounding nurse, taking a telegram for Macauley (Finch) the swagman (or itinerant worker). This single appearance in an indoor scene was almost certainly filmed in London. (See Note 2)

Above: Screen grab from Ealing Films The Shiralee. Betty as a kindly nurse in her one scene, with Peter Finch. The film is widely available for purchase – this copy from Network’s Ealing Studios Rarities Collection.

Soon after she took her first leading role in another film – Timelock, playing the mother of a child who accidentally gets locked in an airtight bank vault, protected by a timelock. It is a clever plot for a B film, but largely famous now for the appearance of a very young Sean Connery as one of the workmen assigned to cut into the vault. Betty’s performance playing a now familiar role – the slightly exotic, good looking, but sensible mother, was reviewed positively.

Above: Screen grabs from Timelock (1957). Left – Betty as the child’s increasingly strained mother. At right, Sean Connery as one of the workmen. The 70 minute film is set in Toronto, Canada, although filmed in England.

After a few more supporting roles in films, including Jack the Ripper, in 1960 she took another leading role in the British B film Dead Lucky, coincidentally opposite another young Australian, Vincent Ball, both of them playing London reporters investigating a gambling ring. Interviewed by film historian Brian McFarlane in the late 1990s, Ball recalled that while the 1950s was a good time to be working in British film – “if you’d done a stint in rep and had a decent agent, you could get work” – he only ever felt really secure when he had an ATV contract for an ongoing television series. He seemed to suggest insecurity came with an acting career. Betty appeared again with Vincent Ball in Echo of Diana in 1963, another 60 minute B film.

Surviving and easily accessible for today’s enthusiasts are some of Betty’s performances in 50s and 60s TV series, now on DVD, that give us some insight into her work. For example, in 1964 she appeared in an episode of The Saint called “The Loving Brothers”. Set in “Outback Australia” but clearly filmed on a cheap set and in a stark English quarry, it again featured many of the familiar Australian faces then working in London – like Ray Barrett, Reg Lye, Dick Bentley and Ed Devereaux, who ham things up ridiculously, well and truly conforming to the established postwar stereotype of Australians. In this episode she played a thoroughly unlikeable social-climbing wife of one of the very unpleasant brothers. Sydney-born Annette Andre played the episode’s passive romantic interest opposite Roger Moore.

While television and film is always a lasting legacy, it tends to colour our understanding of an actor’s career. This may also be the case with Betty McDowall, as it is in fact stage work that seems to have sustained her reputation in the 1960s. For example, she earned praise for her performance in Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1962, The Stage noting that she provided one of the funniest closing lines in the West End. Reviewers of Rule of Three, which ran at The Duchess Theatre in late 1962, also praised her performance, although some found the three short Agatha Christie plays dated and predictable. She managed all of these at the same time she had a recurring role in the TV series Outbreak of Murder. In 1968 she returned to Tennessee Williams again, performing in Sweet Bird of Youth.

Above: Betty, now aged in her late 30s, appeared in Rule of Three, at the Duchess Theatre in December 1962. Photo from a program in the author’s collection.

Above: Betty touring with a popular London comedy in 1973, with up and coming Australian actor Judith Arthy. The Wells Journal 27 July 1973. Copyright is held by Reach PLC. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Betty McDowall did not fade away. She continued on stage and in supporting roles on screen, although there was clearly less work. In 1977, following the sudden death of her old friend from Sydney, Gwenda Wilson, she took over the role of Aunt Laura, in The Archers. She played the role in this immensely popular BBC radio series until the character’s demise in 1985. In a way, it seems fitting that 40 years after her first appearances on radio, this was also how she finished her career.

She was married twice in England – to electronics engineer Leslie Cody from 1953 – 1962 and then to Michael Leader in 1967. Leader, who worked for the BBC, was also a well known genealogist.

Betty McDowall died in December 1993. There were no children from any of her marriages and her Australian sisters had predeceased her. Sadly, this writer has found no obituaries or notices concerning her passing.

Above: Betty on a fan card c 1960-65. Author’s collection.

Note 1
Betty’s father John McDowall‘s (1894-1973) birth in China is alluded to in his 1933 – 35 divorce papers, and on her sister Ursula McDowall‘s birth certificate from 1918. John senior’s (1864-1923) position as a Postal Commissioner in Nanning, and his sudden death there in October 1923, is mentioned in The North- China Herald and Supreme Court and Consular Gazette, 24 Nov 1923, p520.

John senior’s various awards for service from the Emperor were also publicly recorded in China and Britain. Betty’s aunt Juanita’s (“Nita”) great success as a student at Shanghai’s Thomas Hanbury School also gained some acknowledgement in The North – China Herald, see Feb 2, 1905, p240.

Note 2
The astute viewer of The Shiralee, wishing to confirm actors’ names, will notice that the closing credits are a mess. In the usual way, the leading actors’ names match the characters’ names – which are bold, larger and in Capital letters. Then suddenly, there is a switch and some supporting actors‘ names are in Caps while others are not – and presented as though Mark Daly was played by Betty McDowall , or Guy Doleman was played by Lou Vernon. Clearly this was put together by someone who hadn’t seen the film and didn’t know the actors. It’s unusual to see such sloppy work in a Michael Balcon film.

Above: Screen grab of closing titles from the author’s copy of The Shiralee. Available from Network’s Ealing Studios Rarities Collection

Nick Murphy
February 2021


References

  • New South Wales Births, Death and Marriages
    • Marriage Cert 15906/1942
    • Birth Cert 18251/1918
  • New South Wales State Archives
    • NRS-13495-14-298-859/1934, Divorce papers Florence Ursula McDowall – John Lloyd McDowall 05-10-1933 to 24-07-1935
  • Text
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
    • Stephen Vagg. Australasian Drama Studies, 56, April 2010. Alec Coppel Australian playwright and survivor. P 219-232
    • J P Wearing ( 2014) The London Stage 1950-1959. A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel.  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
      [Note – this source erroneously lists Betty McDowall twice – once as Betty McDowell]
    • Vanessa Whitburn (1997) The Archers : the official inside story : the changing face of radio’s longest running drama. Virgin, London.
  • Other Websites
    • OzMovies.comAlways another Dawn – Review and resources.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Dec 1934, P6
    • Daily Telegraph (Syd), 6 Oct 1940, P23
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1943, P7
    • The Sun (Syd) 9 May 1943, P4
    • Truth (Syd) 12 Mar 1944, P25
    • Truth (Syd) 17 June 1945, P27
    • ABC Weekly, 8 Dec 1945,
    • Truth (Syd) 21 April 1946, P24
    • The Sun (Syd) 14 Feb 1947, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 24 Nov 1947, P5
    • The News (Adel) 18 Dec 1947, P3
    • West Australian (Perth) 19 Dec 1947, P22
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 18 May 1948, P3
    • The ABC Weekly, 12 June 1948
    • Australian Women’s Weekly, 9 Oct 1948, P19
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1948, P3
    • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 8 Mar 1949, P4
    • ABC Weekly 11 June 1949
    • ABC Weekly 12 March 1949
    • Sunday Herald (Syd) 23 Oct 1949, P6
    • The Courier Mail (Bris) 31 May 1950, P8
    • The ABC Weekly, 12 Aug, 1950,
    • The Sunday Mail (Bris) 23 May 1954, P26
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Jan 1961, P17
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1963, P14
    • Canberra Times, 24 April 1965, P9

  • British Library Newspaper Project
    • The Stage 7 May 1953, P9
    • The Stage, 12 July 1956, P12
    • Lancashire Evening Post – Wed 1 August 1956, P5
    • The Tatler Wed 22 August 1956, P24
    • Daily Herald – Thurs 6 December 1956, P3
    • The Stage, 31 Jan 1957, P12
    • The Tatler, 27 June 1962.
    • The Stage, 12 July 1962, P16
    • The Daily Mirror, 6 Nov 1962, P9
    • The Observer, 14 Jul 1968, Sun · P 26
    • The Stage, 21 Nov, 1968, P9

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

Sketches of Pollard’s Performers

Above: University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24555. (Enlargement) Reproduced with permission. The Commonwealth of Australia was 4 years old when this photo of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company was taken in the Philippines in late 1904 or early 1905. Close examination of the original (here) suggests the children are posing with chained prisoners. The children include front row, 1st from left: Leah Leichner, 2L Teddy McNamara, 6L Freddie Heintz, 1st from Right: Harry Fraser (later Snub Pollard), 2R Johnnie Heintz, 4R Daphne Pollard. Standing in the rear at left is Oscar Heintz.

On 30 June 1901, The San Francisco Call announced the impending arrival of an exciting troupe of young Australians, Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company from Melbourne. While the paper assured readers they were all extremely talented, it explained they were “all children of the poorer classes”, one performer being “picked up on the streets,” it was claimed.

Over the period 1898-1909, Charles Pollard (1858-1942) and his sister Nellie Chester (1861-1944) took travelling troupes of children overseas, overwhelmingly girls and mostly residents of the inner suburbs of Melbourne, to perform musical comedies at colonial outposts in South East Asia and then through the cities of Canada and the USA. One tour was away for over two years. These troupes were always known as Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, although they had a continually changing mix of new and seasoned performers. The children were indentured to the Pollards in a way we would find unthinkable today – and even then, Pollard tours sometimes caused controversy, most notably in 1909-1910 when Arthur Hayden Pollard‘s (1873-1940) tour to India collapsed in scandal.

Pollard’s performers in Vancouver 1905. This photo is enlarged from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey (click to follow the link) reproduced with permission. Left to right: Ivy and Daphne Trott (Pollard), Irene Findlay, Leah Leichner, Willie Thomas all from inner Melbourne.

The Pollard’s performers were generally the children of unskilled and semiskilled workers; bakers, boot-makers, tailors, plumbers, ironmongers, carriers, cab-drivers and fruiterers. Several parents were bookmakers, the Trott girls (Ivy Trott and Daphne Pollard) were the children of a french polisher, Midas Martyn‘s father was a bookbinder. They were almost all children from families living in modest cottages built in close proximity to light industry – and they particularly hailed from Fitzroy, Collingwood and Abbotsford. Some lived in such close proximity to each other it is inconceivable they were not acquainted before they signed up.

Here are some short accounts of a few of the Pollard children.


Oscar, Freddie & Johnnie Heintz

Oscar Heintz was born in 1891, twins Freddie and Johnnie Heintz in 1896. Their father John Heintz was a baker, and he and his wife Annie nee Garland lived in a modest single storied terrace at 84 Kerr Street, just a few doors from the home of Daphne and Ivy Trott, in the heart of Fitzroy. John Heintz died in 1900 aged only in his late 30s. A few years later, his three boys joined the lengthy Pollard’s tour of Asia and North America, that departed Melbourne in July 1904 and returned home in February 1907.

Above left: The Heintz family lived at 84 Kerr St Fitzroy, the house with the red door. On New Year’s Day 1913,Freddie was chased into his home by Police, after swearing in the street. He threw a chair at them before being arrested. Photo – Author’s collection. Above right: Freddie and Johnnie Heintz on the July 1904 – Feb 1907 Pollard’s tour of North America. Photo – courtesy Robert Maynard

Remarkably, at the end of the tour in 1907, 16 year old Oscar Heintz stayed on in the US, settling in Portland, Oregon, where with the help of the YMCA, he studied, worked in a bank, married, raised a family and eventually became sales manager for Neon Manufacturing. His was the classic American immigrant made-good story. He returned to Australia to visit family in 1929.

Freddie and Johnnie Heintz travelled again with a Pollard’s tour that departed later in 1907, and also on the ill-fated Indian tour in 1909. The twins then appeared on stage in Australia for several years. Freddie, probably the more boisterous of the twins, returned alone to the United States in 1914 – performing for a while with Queenie Williams and some of the other former Pollard’s players. He changed his stage name at least twice – to Freddie Garland and later to Freddie Steele, but struggled to build an ongoing stage career of his own. He crossed the border to join the Canadian Army in 1918. He seems to have ended his days alone, working as a handyman in Freeport, New York. His twin brother Johnnie Heintz would have no more of the life of the travelling performer after 1911 and following in his father’s footsteps, became a pastry chef, based in Adelaide.

Above: Freddie visiting Oscar, as reported in The Oregonian (Portland Oregan), 25 July, 1922. Via Newspapers.com

Alice and Ethel Bennetto

Alice (1886 +) and her sister Ethel (1889+) were born at 36 Argyle Street, Fitzroy, to Arthur Martin Bennetto, a bricklayer and Sarah nee Montague They both travelled on the Pollard’s tour of North America in Sept 1901 – Oct 1902.

When US President William McKinley died in September 1901, the Pollard’s company, then travelling through Honolulu, joined a Jewish memorial service held in the assassinated President’s honour. 16 year old Alice Bennetto led a chorus of Pollard’s children singing during the service. Company treasurer Arthur Levy introduced the children’s music with the solemn words “We have come as Israelites…” suggesting that more than a few of the performers were from inner Melbourne’s large Jewish community.

In 1903 the Bennetto family had moved to 86 Kerr St Fitzroy, next door to the family of Oscar, Johnnie and Freddie Heintz. Both the Bennetto girls went on to stage careers in Australia and New Zealand, with some success. Ethel, famous for her dancing and singing, earned some notoriety in 1918 when the Melbourne Police took exception to some of the scanty “Egyptian” costumes she wore in the Tivoli theatre production Time Please. She also appeared in the (now lost) Australian comedy film Does the Jazz lead to Destruction? Soon after, while performing in New Zealand, she met and married a doctor and subsequently left the stage.

But Alice maintained her career. She was still singing for Australians thirty five years later, as a member of Stanley McKay’s Gaieties troupe.

Above: Ethel in Egyptian attire, reported by The Sun (Sydney) , 28 Jul 1918, Page 10, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Above left: The very modest terrace at 36 Argyle St Fitzroy, the house with red painted verandah iron in the centre – the home of the Bennetto family when Alice and Ethel were born in the 1890s. Photo – Author’s collection. At right: Alice Bennetto in Table Talk (Melbourne), 6 January 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Ethel Naylor

Born in Williamstown, Victoria in 1896, Ethel Naylor travelled on the July 1907- April 1909 Pollard’s tour to North America. In July 1909, she also departed on Pollard’s Indian tour, this time with her older sister Nellie. The girls were the daughters of bookmaker Joseph Naylor and Alice nee Kennedy.

Their family life had been very difficult – Joseph suffered such serious mental illness that he was hospitalised in the asylum at Kew in 1905. He died there in 1907. Of his seven children, only Ethel, Nellie and one other sibling survived childhood – an experience enough to test the sanity of anyone. His widow Alice found life hard, and she drifted between residences. The only contact Truth newspaper could find for her when the Pollard’s Indian tour returned in 1910 was Alice’s workplace address – which was the famous Lucas’ Town Hall Cafe, in Swanston Street, Melbourne, now where the Capital Theatre stands.

Above: Ethel Naylor featured in the Oroville Daily Register (California), 24 Jan 1916. Via Newspapers.com
The 3 story Town Hall Cafe (centre) and the Talma Photographers building, Swanston Street, Melbourne, from the Town Hall corner, c.1899. State Library Victoria, Gwyn James Collection, H93.466/6. (The Talma Building still stands)

Ethel did perform on stage again, and with significant success. In July 1912 Nelly Chester raised another Pollard’s troupe for touring the US. This time the players were older, and no longer described as Lilliputians, or children, so as to comply with the 1910 Emigration Act. However, many were former Pollard’s players, including Ethel. She did well with the “Pollard’s Juvenile Troupe” that travelled through the United States and Canada. Like many of the performers on this final tour, Ethel stayed on in the US. By the late 1920s she had well and truly changed direction and was working as a registered nurse at the General Hospital in Aberdeen, Washington state. She married in 1932.


Minnie, Nellie and May Topping

Henry Topping was a plumber, and with his wife Mary Ann, nee Plant, they parented seven children. The family lived in and around the northern end of Fitzroy Street, a north-south street that runs the length of the suburb of Fitzroy. They lived a few hundred metres from the Trott and Heintz families in nearby Kerr Street. Minnie (born 1885), Nellie (born 1888) and May (born 1890) Topping all appeared with Nellie Chester and Charles Pollard’s troupes. All three children travelled together on the 1901-1902 tour to North America, and May and Minnie again in 1902-3.

Minnie and May Topping, photographed in 1909. The Gadfly (Adelaide), 20 January 1909, Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Photo of the northern end of Fitzroy St, looking south, from the footpath outside the Topping’s now demolished home. Author’s collection.

The Topping sisters moved across to the other Pollard’s Liliputian (consistently spelled with two rather than 3 “L”s) Company in 1907 – this company was run by Tom Pollard and performed exclusively throughout Australia and New Zealand. They are unusual in that respect – as no other players did this. We can assume they found the extended North American travel with Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester too arduous.

Minnie Topping, who had proved to be a very popular performer, left the Australian stage in 1913, after marrying a Queensland pastoralist. May continued to perform with the Lionel Walsh – Phil Smith company until well into the 1920s. By this time, the family home (the girls lived here until they married) was at 521 Canning Street Carlton North, a building that still stands. (Left- author’s collection)

We know a little more of the Topping family life because in 1899, a long suffering Mary Ann took Henry Topping to court to force him to support the family, and the Melbourne Herald reported the case. He was a drunken and violent husband and Mary Ann and the children had left him because of this. By way of a somewhat lame explanation, Henry explained that he was not a certified plumber, and had only made 2 shillings so far that week. The court found in favour of Mary Ann and ordered Henry to support his family. Of the black eyes he had inflicted on Mary Ann, the court had nothing to say.

George (born 1881), another of the Topping children, was an Australian Rules Footballer for Carlton, and later an AFL Umpire. The girls’ youngest brother, Albert, was killed soon after arriving on the Western front in August 1916.


Nick Murphy
December 2020


Special Thanks

  • University of Washington Special Collections, for permission to use the photos of the troupe. Their collection of photos of the Pollard’s troupes while on tour in North America is invaluable.
  • To Jean Ritsema, in Michigan, for her research efforts in North America.

Fiction
In the absence of meaningful contemporary interviews with these performers, two works of fiction are highly recommended – that help give some sense of the context, motivation and everyday lives of young Australian performers.

  • Kaz Cooke (2017) Ada. Comedian, Dancer, Fighter. Viking /Penguin. A fictional account of Ada Delroy’s life.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin. A fictional work inspired by the Pollard Tour of India in 1909-1910.

General Reading

  • Gillian Arrighi & Victor Emeljanow (Eds) (2014) Entertaining Children: The Participation of Youth in the Entertainment Industry, Chapter 3, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernizing cultural policy on the child”. Theatre Journal 69, (2017) John Hopkins University Press.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin.
    [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful book is closely based on the events of Arthur Pollard’s troupe in India and is highly recommended]
  • Justine Hyde’s blog Hub and Spoke which includes an interview with Kirsty Murray about India Dark.
  • Leann Richards (2012) Theatrical Child Labour Scandal  Stage Whispers website.

Birth certificates, Ships manifests, Voting rolls, Census details etc sourced from

Regarding Oscar, Freddie and Johnnie Heintz

  • Via Newspapers.com
    Calgary Herald (Alberta, Can) 9 Oct, 1908 P7
    The Evening News (Penns) 13 Dec 1922, P12
    Oregonian (Oreg) 10 Oct, 1929
  • Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
    Herald (Vic) 3 Jan 1913, P 6

Regarding Alice and Ethel Bennetto

  • Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
    Advertiser (SA) 29 Nov 1923, P11
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film, 1900-1977. Oxford University Press/AFI
  • Newspapers.com
    The Honolulu Republican 1 Oct 1901.

Regarding May, Nellie and Minnie Topping

  • Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
    The Herald (Vic) 16 Mar 1899, P1
    The Australian Star (NSW) 3 Sept 1901, P7
    Table Talk (Vic) 16 Feb, 1905, P16
    The World’s News (NSW) 26 Oct 1907,
    Evening Telegraph (Qld) 31 Aug 1908, P4
    The Gadfly (SA) 20 Jan 1909, P8
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, A Family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, Aotearoa

Australian Accents from Cinema’s Golden Age

Above: Warner Bros photo credited to Schuyler Grail. Feb 1938, NBC radio announcer Buddy Twist interviewing Australian actress Mary Maguire. Author’s collection (Enlargement).

Above: In the lower section of the same photo, one can see Maguire’s fingers are heavily bandaged – presumably she had just caught them in a car door or similar. No matter how cultivated she might have sounded in this radio interview, one can assume a stream of Australian invective issued forth when the accident happened. Author’s collection.

It is generally accepted that the origins of the Australian accent are from southern Britain, and the conventional wisdom today is that there are three main variations to it:

Of course, accents don’t really fall into such easy categories. Those labels might be better thought of as markers on a continuum, with any one accent sitting somewhere along it. Also, unlike the variations in British and US accents – that are sometimes regional, variations in Australian accents are usually attributed to social class. Parenting and education, as well as other social factors are believed to have a strong impact on how Australians speak. (Of course, physical features such as the tongue and jaw also impacts how people speak too). 

In a very good survey of Australian accents for the ABC, John Hajeck (University of Melbourne) and Lauren Gawne (La Trobe University) note that Australians also often accommodate other accents with ease. Perhaps this explains Adelaide actor Damon Herriman‘s great success in adopting Dewey Crowe’s US accent in the TV series Justified, or Melbourne singer Kylie Minogue’s great ease in shifting from a contemporary British accent to a general Australian one.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elocution lessons, (sometimes a part of a private school education but also available from private tutors) were designed to remove all vestiges of a colonial accent, be it from Australia, South Africa or somewhere else. In a short article on actor Judith Anderson, and others, Desley Deacon of ANU has pointed out how common elocution lessons were, and how important these were in opening up a performance career. The resulting accent, found all over the British Empire and beyond, dovetailed nicely with the “transatlantic accent” preferred in US 1930s sound films.


1. Australian accents – tending to broad.

The broader Australian accent still often appears in Australian-made films, continuing as part of a well established comedy tradition that has long worked on stage. It’s also used in contemporary advertising, and much loved by contemporary politicians, alongside acceptable slang words like “mate” and “g’day”. Yet, today, that’s not how most Australians speak – indeed it would take a conscious effort to speak like that all the time.

Broad accents from the 1930s can be heard in Australian made films such as Frank Thring‘s His Loyal Highness (Aust:1932) and Ken Hall’s On Our Selection (Aust:1932).

The broad accent rarely appeared in pre-war US and British films. Even in the late 1950s, John Meredyth Lucas commented that a distinctive Australian accent made casting very difficult for the TV series Whiplash. It was unattractive, he felt and by implication might have made sales of the series difficult. In a similar vein, when the US trade paper Harrison’s Reports reviewed Smiley (Aust:1956) they felt it was unlikely to be well received in US because of the Australian accents. But when Jocelyn Howarth was being introduced to US audiences (as Constance Worth) in 1937, Photoplay magazine assured readers she was free of the “caricatured Australian accent.” The distinctive broad Australian accent still had a few outings – such as in MGM’s very self conscious The Man from Down Under (1943). It also occasionally slipped into other films – here are two examples:

  • Brian Norman (1908-1995) in Search for Beauty (US: 1934)


    WB Molloy
    Here Sydney-born Brian Norman, in his one and only film outing, forces some con-men to start morning exercises at the health farm. His broad Australian accent is unmistakable. He became a lawyer after returning from Hollywood. 
    Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. Photo – William Brian Molloy or “Brian Norman” in the Sydney Sun, 1 April 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.


  • Lotus Thompson‘s (1904-1963) one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse (US: 1936).


    Lotus3Lotus Thompson from Queensland was briefly a silent star of some standing in Australia and the US, but her career was all but over by 1930. She appeared in some uncredited extra parts in the 1930s. Her few words as an extra here – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang.
    Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Available through Warner Brothers Archive. Photo-author’s collection c.1924.


2. The accents of former Australian vaudevillians 

Although none of the following actors appear to have had elocution lessons and each had only limited formal educations, all arrived in Hollywood after very long careers on stage in Australia, the US and the UK – enough experience and time to give them an accent that might have come from anywhere.


  • Snub Pollard (1889-1962) also from Melbourne in Just My Luck (US: 1935).


    Snub Pollard Exhibitor's Trade Review Dec. 1922 - Feb. 1923
    The prolific Snub Pollard also had a long career with Pollard Lilliputian’s before moving into Hollywood films in 1915. In this clip Mr Smith (Pollard) and Homer Crow (Charles Ray) discover they have lost their money, whilst eating at a cheap diner famous for beating up any non-paying customers. With the coming of sound Snub Pollard could only find work as an extra – but worked to the end of his life. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Film is still widely available. Photo – Exhibitor’s Trade Review (Dec. 1922 – Feb. 1923) via Lantern Digital Media Project.


  • Paul Scardon (1875-1954) from Melbourne and Western Australia in Gentleman Joe Palooka (US: 1946).


    early scardon
    Scardon had an Australian stage career before moving to the US in late 1905, appearing in US films from about 1911. Here, later in life, he plays an uncredited role as a clerk whose records are being stolen by Knobby Walsh, played by Sydneysider Leon Errol (1881-1951) Copy of film in the author’s collection. The Joe Palooka films are widely available. Photo – Picture Play Weekly. April-Oct 1915. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

3. Cultivated Australian accents and the importance of elocution

Wealthy Australians living on the continent’s coastal fringe often sent their children to private schools. These schools still put resources into a young person’s rounded personal development – now less commonly through “Speech” (elocution) classes, but still through public speaking, debating and by encouraging the performance arts.


  • Nancy O’Neil (1907-1995) from Sydney in a clip from Something always Happens (UK:1934).
    Nancy on a Lux soap card 1933-4

    O’Neil had attended Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School before travelling to London to study at RADA in 1928. She appeared in film and on stage in England in the 1930s and like most of the other young Australian women in British films of the time, she sounds as English as everyone else.

    Obituaries for these women often claim they “came to England to lose their accent”. But they actually had little accent to lose.
    Audio from copy of the film in the author’s collection. The film is available through Loving the Classics. Photo – Lux Soap Famous Film Stars card, c1933-4. Author’s Collection


  • Shirley Ann Richards (1917-2006) from Sydney as an Australian nurse in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant (US: 1942), with US actor Richard Quine as an Australian doctor from Woolloomooloo (the Sydney suburb’s name is a source of great humour in the film).


    Richards
    Richards had a private school education at Ascham and The Garden School in Sydney and had the benefit of a mother who was an active member of the English Speaking Union. Later in life she also recalled the importance of the educated women who were close friends of the family. Although she is “laying it on with a trowel” in this clip, this is close to how she really spoke, even after 40 years in California. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. TCM currently have a collection of the Dr Gillespie films for sale. Photo – author’s collection.


4. Australian accents – tending more general

The decline of the cultivated Australian accent in the last 50 years is one marker of change in the way Australian English is spoken. At the same time, the general Australian accent seems to have appeared more often in the post war period. However, as the first example demonstrates, the general Australian accent was well and truly in established use before the Second World War.

  • Jocelyn Howarth (as Constance Worth) (1911-1963) from Sydney in the excruciatingly awful The Wages of Sin (US:1936) .


    Howarth on the way to Hollywood
    Here Howarth makes no attempt to disguise her accent, which sounds bizarre alongside the broad American accents of her “family members,” who are lazy and won’t get little Tommy his milk. Audio from copy in the author’s collection. This film is still available from specialist DVD outlets. Photo of Jocelyn Howarth on her way to the US, 13 April 1936. Honolulu Star, via Newspapers.com.


  • Joy Nichols (1925-1992) from Sydney in a Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr (1922-2014), for release in cinemas in 1946.

    Nichols, a butcher’s daughter from inner Sydney, began her long radio and stage career in Australia in wartime. This brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers, and visiting Americans (she was even briefly married to one). 
    Joy Nichols Turf

Nichols was a skilled singer, comedian and radio performer. Here she is again with fellow Australian Dick Bentley (1907-1995) and Briton Jimmy Edwards at the British Daily Mail radio awards in 1950 – representing the popular radio show Take It From Here. (Click to follow link to youtube – from 5:30)
Photo – Turf cigarette collectable card, c 1950. Author’s collection.


  • Patti Morgan (1928-2001) from Sydney in Booby Trap (UK: 1957). In one of her few film roles, Patti Morgan’s voice seems firmly from Sydney.  

Patti Morgan Cover of Pix 1945

Patti Morgan appeared in only a few British films, but continued her modelling and TV career with success. Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. The film is still available from Loving the Classics and Renown pictures. Photo of Patti on the cover of Pix, 6 Oct, 1945. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.


5. Some other Australians speak

Further Reading on Australian accents

Nick Murphy
December 2020

Little Dulcie Cooper & her dad go to America

Dulcie Cooper (1903-1981), Ashley Cooper (1880-1952)

Above: Dulcie Cooper, “aged eight, in the part of Eva, St. Clair’s daughter in Uncle Tom’s’ Cabin at the Empress Theater, Vancouver, December 1912″. Enlarged from a public domain photo in the collections of the City of Vancouver Archives (Link to original photo).

The 5 second version
Dulcie Cooper was born Dulcie Mary Robinson in Sydney Australia on 3 Nov 1903. Active on the North American stage for over 50 years, she first appeared in Vancouver in 1910 with her parents Ashley and Emily. She appeared in films in the early 1920s but it was the New York stage where she was best known. She appeared in a handful of Hollywood films in the early 1920s, and one sound film. She died in New York on 3 Sept 1981.
Her father Ashley Cooper was born Cecil Augustus Robinson in Sydney Australia on 16 June 1880. A draftsman with an interest in acting, he arrived with his wife Emily and daughter Dulcie in the US in 1905. He later adopted Ashley Cooper as a name. He was appearing on the US and Canadian stage by 1910 and later in some Hollywood films. Ashley Cooper relocated to New York in 1925 and he became a regular Broadway performer and stage manager. He died in New York on 3 Jan 1952.

Was Dulcie Cooper really an Australian, as was often claimed? At first glance it seems not, as there is no record of anyone matching her name or profile being born in New South Wales at the time. And later in life, Dulcie confused her story by suggesting a birth in 1907, in San Francisco. But the answer is simple – she was born in Australia under another name. All the same, describing her as “Australian” in any way seems misleading, particularly when we consider that she left Sydney forever in 1905, at the age of only 2.

Ashley Cooper NYPL2 Dulcie NYPL

Undated photos of father and daughter, probably taken in the late 1920s. Left – Ashley Cooper, born Cecil Augustus Robinson in Australia. Right – Dulcie Cooper, born Dulcie Mary Robinson. Both photos from the Billy Rose Theater Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. (Click name to link to the original photos)

Dulcie Cooper was born Dulcie Mary Robinson in Woollahra, Sydney, to Cecil Augustus Robinson and Emily nee Curr, on 3 November 1903. Cecil was the son of Australian businessman and well known map publisher Herbert Edward Cooper Robinson. We know Cecil took an interest in theatre, as he is listed as a player for Ada Hatchwell‘s Hasluck Dramatic Club in 1901. However, on Dulcie’s birth certificate Cecil listed his profession as draftsman for Sydney’s Gas Company, a “sensible” career that, perhaps, his father had encouraged him to pursue rather than the stage.

Above – part of Dulcie Robinson’s NSW birth certificate. Via NSW BDM
Columns 2 – date and place, 3 – child’s name, 4 – child’s gender, 5 – Fathers name, profession, age and place of birth, 6 – marriage details, 7 – mother’s maiden name, age and place of birth.

In 1905 the young family decided to pack up and move to North America. Precisely what the circumstances of such a dramatic move were, we no longer know. Even today such a move would require sound financial resources and a degree of determination. Cecil, now borrowing his father’s name and calling himself Herbert Robinson, travelled first, arriving in San Francisco on the SS Ventura on 20 June 1905 – his profession still recorded on the ship’s manifest as draftsman. Emily Robinson and little Dulcie arrived a few months later.

We can partly reconstruct the family’s pathway onto the North American stage from existing records.

The Oregon Daily Journal. 20 October 1908, P14. Via Newspapers.com

Sometime in 1908 or 1909, Herbert and Emily saw an advertisement like this, or perhaps this very one. Theater reviews show they were members of the George W. Lowe touring company at about this time. Now calling himself Ashley Cooper, the 1910 US census shows him with Emily and Dulcie and the dozen or so members of Lowe’s company together in the small town of Dayton, Washington, on tour. Other up and coming actors like Bert Hadley were also travelling with their families. But life performing “on the road” was probably hard for young families and in late 1910, the Cooper family settled down in Vancouver, British Columbia. Ashley and Emily joined Walter Sanford‘s stock company based at the Vancouver Empress Theater performing popular favourites like Get Rich Quick Wallingford.

While it is a guess by this writer, it seems likely the couple owed this lucky break to the influence or reputation of Australian players from the old Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company, who were appearing for Sanford at the same time – including Teddy McNamara, Jack Pollard and Willie Pollard. These Australian-born players had stayed on in Vancouver after a Pollard tour wrapped in April 1909.

In December 1910, 7 year old Dulcie Cooper appeared on stage at the Empress Theater for the first time, as the child Jeannie, in the domestic comedy-drama The Little Church around the Corner. It was a great success and over the next two years her performances were increasingly well received. In August 1911, the Vancouver Daily World enthused “… Dulcie is a born actress and… somebody must have devoted a tremendous amount of loving care and time to her training.” At the age of 10, Dulcie took the lead role in a stage version of Oliver Twist, in May 1913. The City of Vancouver Archives photo at left dates from her success at Vancouver’s Empress Theater in the part of Eva, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, six months earlier.


In mid 1913 the family left Vancouver for the US west coast again. The “Ashley Cooper Players” (comprising all three members of the family) then appeared in Los Angeles and subsequently on tour in the Western states of the US, their “playlet” or sketch – The Newsboy’s Debt, reportedly written by Emily (using the stage name Emily Curr), with Dulcie in the lead. Dulcie was “the real life of the sketch” according to The Vancouver Sun. It allowed her “ample chance to show her ability in character work and the touching scene at the final fall of the curtain finds many eyes in the house tear dimmed.” After some prominent publicity about Dulcie being “America’s youngest player,” she suddenly disappeared from all advertising – although the play continued to tour on and off until 1917.

As in Australia and on the US East coast, the age children could appear on the stage was increasingly regulated by education and civic authorities. Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company had discovered this ten years before, when they were forced to abandon plans to tour the US east coast because of the influence of New York’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Above: Typical theater fare of the time. “Moving pictures” and vaudeville acts mixed in on the same program. Santa Ana Register. 30 October 1913. Via newspapers.com

In 1921 and by now aged 18, Dulcie appeared in half a dozen films, several with popular actress Clara Kimball Young. Young was struggling financially at this time, and appears not to have enjoyed making these films. Perhaps Dulcie didn’t either, as she soon abandoned film work for the stage again. In later years she seems to have been inclined to dismiss her outings in film, she was “at the awkward age” or “never felt at home in the movies” she variously explained. There was, again, familiar misleading publicity about Dulcie being “America’s youngest performer.” She was petite, and with her cherub like face she looked younger than her years, so it was believable.

Ashley Cooper also had some brief experiences in film in the early 1920s in supporting character roles – unfortunately most of these early films appear to be lost and details are confused. The Turner Classic Movie database provides the most accurate list – showing six credits for Ashley, while the IMDB lists only three. Norman Dawn‘s Son of the Wolf (1922) is one well documented example of a film that should be credited to Ashley Cooper rather than British actor Edward Cooper.

Ashley also continued on the stage in the mid 1920s, usually in vaudeville, while Emily Curr appears to have retired.

Ashley in PArtners of the Tide 1921  Dulcie Camera mag

Above: Ashley Cooper in Partners of the Tide (1921) Moving Picture World – Jan-Feb 1921. Right 20 year old Dulcie Cooper in 1923. Camera! April 1923-1924, Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

A glance at Dulcie’s stage work in Los Angeles at this time highlights just how intense a career on the stage was. In 1924-25 she appeared in a constantly changing, back-to-back program of light comedies and farces at the Majestic Theater, usually with Edward Everett Horton. These included The First Year (October 1924), The Darlings (December 1924), Just Married (January 1925), Outward Bound (February 1925), Cuckoo Pleases (March 1925), The Alarm Clock (March 1925) and Beggar on Horseback (April 1925). In May 1925 Dulcie left the company to have a well earned rest and to visit her parents in New York. Horton, who had made Beggar on Horseback as a film while also performing it on stage, also left at this time.

dulcie-la-times-1925 Horton and Cooper 1925

Above. Left: Dulcie in Just Married at Los Angeles’ Majestic Theater in early 1925. The Los Angeles Times, 18 Jan 1925, P131. Right: Edward Horton and Dulcie in Beggar on Horseback. The Los Angeles Times, 29 April 1925, P51. Via Newspapers.com

The reviews of these comedies were generally enthusiastic. “Clean wholesome entertainment” reported The Los Angeles Times on 23 November 1924. The paper went on to praise Dulcie’s “excellent acting and charming winsomness.” Barbara Cohen-Stratyner points out that Grace Kingsley, a journalist at the Times was an enthusiastic supporter of Dulcie. Even before Hollywood’s golden years, this support could make all the difference to a young actor’s career. Eight years later, the same journalist at the Times was announcing that Dulcie was about to sign a film contract at Paramount or MGM. She did appear in one sound film that survives, The Face on the Barroom Floor (1932) but no contract was signed.

In February 1925, Dulcie married Stafford Cherry Campbell, the stage manager at the Majestic Theater. For reasons now unknown, but perhaps just following a family tradition of changing names when it suited, Dulcie used the name Mary Robinson when she married. Within a few years the couple had divorced, Dulcie claiming, amongst other things, that Campbell ridiculed her when they rehearsed together.

At about this time, Ashley and Emily Cooper moved across to the US east coast. They owed this to Ashley’s part in the musical Topsy and Eva, which starred popular vaudeville players Rosetta and Vivian Duncan. A retelling of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ashley had a supporting role when it opened in December 1923 at the Majestic Theatre and was still in this role when it finally opened at the Sam H. Harris Theatre in New York a year later. Ashley and Emily settled in New York and he went on to develop his reputation as a reliable character actor, and sometimes a Stage Manager. He appeared in a string of plays on Broadway and in US east coast cities, including the drama Tobacco Road, a story of rural poverty in Georgia, where he played Henry Peabody as well as being stage manager for at least part of its run. It was not well received at first, the play being described by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle as “a picture of squalor… too realistic to be palatable.” However, it went on to a very long run and he was involved with it for at least the six years 1933-1939. He continued to be active on stage until well into the 1940s.

Ashley Cooper finally applied for US citizenship in 1941, having lived and worked in the US for more than 35 years. On these documents his various changes of name were revealed.

Above: Dulcie Cooper at the start of her New York career, in The Little Spitfire at the Cort Theater. Daily News (New York) · 26 Dec 1926, Page 154, via Newspapers.com

Dulcie’s 1926 breakthrough role on Broadway, as Gypsy the feisty chorus girl, in the comedy The Little Spitfire, was not easily won. As Barbara Cohen-Stratyner points out, she was the fourth and final choice for the role. But she made it a success. After its run in New York, she reprised the role for a season at the Hollywood Playhouse. The Los Angeles Times welcomed her back with generous coverage. She was in New York again in 1928, to take a leading role in Courage at the Ritz, now well and truly established as a leading player. She was active on stage into the early 1960s, her roles increasingly character parts and she also appeared occasionally on television. In July 1961, The Columbus Dispatch described her performance as the fortune teller in Blythe Spirit as a “scene stealer,” although she was performing alongside film star Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gabor took Dulcie’s hand for the curtain call, an acknowledgement of Dulcie’s skill and reputation.


Above: The Los Angeles Evening Post-Record advertises The Little Spitfire, 24 May 1927, P4. Via Newspapers.com

As previously noted, some of the commentary provided by Dulcie herself in later years only served to confuse her story, although this was not an uncommon phenomenon amongst actors of the era. Was she really in the 1934 film Men in White with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy? Dulcie also suggested she had appeared as a child star with Charles Ray in the 1910s and with Tom Mix in the early 1920s. These claims are difficult to verify and given her known movements, seem unlikely.

Above: Dulcie Cooper still performing in 1957. The Wilmington Morning News,·(Wilmington, Delaware), 20 Jul 1957, P17. Via Newspapers.com.

Dulcie’s voice
Dulcie speaks with a nice trans-Atlantic accent here in The Face on the Barroom Floor (1932). The product of close association and performing with her parents? Perhaps elocution lessons? Another example of an acquired accent?

Source; Bill Sprague Collection – Internet Archive. This is a pre-Hollywood code film about the dangers of alcohol. The author thinks Dulcie is quite successful in this, her last film role.

Dulcie remarried in 1932. Her second husband was Elmer H Brown, an actor and director ten years her senior. Two sons were born of the union. She died in New York in 1981. Ashley Cooper kept working on stage for most of his life. He died in January 1952. Emily Curr died in New York in December 1944.


Nick Murphy
November 2020


Note 1
Cecil’s much younger sister Eileen Robinson (1896-1955) also acted, working in Australia, England and in the US. She was married to US writer, stage and screen actor Alan Brooks (born Irving Hayward) until his death in 1936.

Note 2
An Australian dancer and beauty contest winner named Dulcie Cooper was a contemporary of this Dulcie. The song “Hello Miss Aussie, What are you doing now?” by Alfred Jarvis is about Dulcie Cooper the Australian dancer.

Special Thanks
Again to Jean Ritsema in the USA, who again assisted finding sources in the US.


Further Reading

  • Original US archival documents sourced from
  • Text
    • Hal Porter. Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (1965) Rigby
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 23 Nov, 1901, P2
    • The Sydney Mail & NSW Advertiser. 1 March 1902, P559
    • Everyones.Vol.6 No.367 (16 March 1927) P15
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Jan 1933, P12
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 Jul 1944 P 12
  • Newspapers.com
    • Enterprise News Record (Oregon) 23 July 1910, P3
    • Vancouver Daily World, 8 Aug 1911, P10
    • The Vancouver Sun, 8 July 1913, P5
    • The Paducah Sun-Democrat (Paducah, Kentucky), 6 Sep 1915, P 8
    • The Los Angeles Times, 3 Aug, 1921. P36
    • The Los Angeles Times, 6 Nov 1924· P 25
    • The Los Angeles Times, 23 Nov 1924, P69
    • The Los Angeles Times, 28 Dec 1924, P52
    • Los Angeles Evening Post, 14 Mar 1925, P10
    • The Los Angeles Times, 29 Apr 1925, P51
    • The Los Angeles Times, 22 May 1925, P25
    • Daily News (New York) · 26 Dec 1926, P154
    • The Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1927, P56
    • The Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1927, P35
    • Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, 15 Jul 1930, P16
    • The Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1932, P7
    • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 5 Dec 1933 P 24
    • The Daily News (New York) 5 Jan 1952, P23
    • The Wilmington Morning News,·(Wilmington, Delaware), 20 Jul 1957, P17

Nancy O’Neil (1907-1995)

“Am I Irish? Well, with a name like mine I suppose I ought to be. But I’m a true-blue Australian really, for I was born in Australia and so were my parents.” (Journalist Leslie Rees – January 1934. See Note 1)


The five second version
Born in 1907 as Nancy Muriel Smith, she was another member of the great wave of enthusiastic young Australian women who arrived in London between the wars determined to pursue an acting career. She studied at RADA and built a successful career on the West End and in British films in the 1930s. She then returned to supporting roles in film later in life. Her younger sisters Barbara Smith (born 1911) and Lorraine Smith (born 1915) also pursued acting careers in the UK and Australia. Nancy died in England in 1995.

Nancy Muriel Smith had good reason to choose a different name for stage use – not only was the surname “Smith” not all that memorable for an aspiring actor, but she almost certainly wanted to establish credentials of her own. This was particularly so given who her family were. Her father was noted Sydney physician Stewart Arthur Smith (1880-1961), her uncle was Professor of Anatomy and anthropologist Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) while her third uncle, Stephen Henry Smith (1865-1943), was the Director of Education in New South Wales. They were a formidable trio – and regularly attracted public attention as part of their work – Grafton was knighted in 1934, about the time Nancy was making herself known in Britain. Nancy’s mother, Muriel nee Pitt was a wealthy wool broker’s daughter. It was Muriel particularly who was to be the forceful advocate for Nancy’s interest in the stage, and that of her two younger sisters – Barbara and Lorraine.

Born in Sydney on 25 August 1907, Nancy attended Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School from 1921-1925. She may have appeared in some amateur theatre in Sydney, but it seems her eyes were firmly on gaining overseas training and experience – and a trip to Britain and North America with her parents in 1927 probably encouraged her interest in acting. In October 1928 she returned to England with Muriel to study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Extended study at RADA was unusual for Australians in the midst of the Depression, but the family’s resources made a difference. However, Nancy’s pathway to success on the very competitive London stage was as challenging for her as it was for most young Australians – it took five years of hard work before she gained public recognition in early 1934.

Above: 15 year old Nancy Smith at Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School in 1922, sitting front row, third from the right. In her final year (1925) Nancy was captain of the “A” Tennis Team and a Probationary Prefect. Photograph from the Doreen Higgins collection, used with kind permission of SCEGGS Darlinghurst.

Nancy’s name first appeared in reviews when Somerset Maugham’s The Breadwinner toured English provinces in mid 1931, under the management of theatre impresario Barry O’Brien. It was not uncommon for young actors to understudy roles in London and then take the lead when the play went on tour. This also appears to have been Nancy’s experience – the play had opened in London in September 1930. She also understudied for Winifred Shotter in Ben Travers‘ farce, Turkey Time at the Aldwych Theatre in 1931. And then, only a few months later, the society pages of Australian newspapers announced Nancy’s engagement to Cyril Kleinwort, one of the sons of English merchant banker Sir Alexander Kleinwort. She had met Kleinwort in 1927, whilst crossing the Atlantic with her parents on their way home to Australia. However, Nancy returned to Australia in February 1932, apparently needing to recover from an unspecified illness, or perhaps to escape the engagement. Either way, the romance seems to have petered out. Kleinwort was not mentioned again.

Above: Nancy in Harrison Owen’s Dr Pygmalion with Margaret Rawlings. The Australasian, 3 Sept 1932, via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

While at home in 1932, she finally appeared professionally in a leading role on the Australian stage – in The Kingdom of God in Sydney, followed by Dr Pygmalion – where she performed with touring British actress Margaret Rawlings in Melbourne. The reviews were very positive and working with Rawlings invaluable – “spade work for the future” she once described such experiences.

In London again in early 1933, she was cast in her first film – Jack Ahoy with comedian Jack Hulbert, for Gainsborough Pictures. Hulbert approved her casting personally, according to journalist Leslie Rees. The film was popular and she was singled out for praise in her ingénue role as the Admiral’s daughter. It was a great breakthrough. Soon after, she was cast in her first lead in a West End play – Man Proposes. It ran at Wyndham’s Theatre for only two weeks in late 1933, but these successes were enough to ensure she was well and truly established. At last, reviewers were seeing beyond her appearance – her petite size (she was 5 feet or 152 cms tall), her “dimpled cheeks and glossy black hair.”

 Jack Ahoy AWW 1934 Nancy on a Lux soap card 1933-4

Left: Nancy and Jack Hulbert in Jack Ahoy (1934) The Australian Women’s Weekly, 30 June, 1934, via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Right: Nancy on a Lux Soap Famous Film Stars card, c1933-4. Author’s Collection.

Above: This grainy image shows most of the Smith family together in London’s Hyde Park. Nancy O’Neil, Muriel, Stewart and Lorraine Smith. Lorraine had recently arrived to pursue an acting career, following two films in Australia. (See below) The Daily News (WA) 30 Oct 1935. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Not everything she tried was as successful as Jack Ahoy of course. The Secret of the Loch, also made in 1934, concerned what The Bystander called “the Loch Ness problem.” (The problem being the monster – at that time the subject of some publicity). Even for the time, it must have been seen as a silly film. However, watching some of Nancy’s other films today we can see why she was a popular young star. There was a vibrancy to her performances and she was very much at ease before the camera. And she was versatile enough to appear in light comedy, musicals and thrillers. The musical comedy Brewster’s Millions, made in 1935, where Nancy played the ingénue for Jack Buchanan‘s character, was another success.

Above: Ian Hunter (left) and Nancy O’Neil (right) in Michael Powell’s entertaining “quota quickie” comedy Something Always Happens (1934) Screengrab from copy in the author’s collection.

Above – Nancy’s voice from the scene shown above. If she ever had vestiges of a colonial accent, her years in England, including two years at RADA, resulted in a voice identical to that of every other young Australian then working in Britain – and indistinguishable from everyone else. 

Above: Nancy O’Neil in the thriller Headline (1943). Although she is holding the gun she is about to get shot! Screengrab from copy in the author’s collection.

Nancy made at least 18 films in the 1930s, but for a time, the stage remained her priority. Soon after the success of Jack Ahoy she took the role of Blanche in Vintage Wine at Daly’s Theatre, for most of its May to December 1934 run. She then appeared in Someone at the Door at the Comedy Theatre, another play that enjoyed a long run and good reviews.

In early 1938 Nancy quietly married someone completely unconnected with stage and screen – Dermot Trench, a chartered accountant. The press missed the event, or were not informed. A son was born of the union in 1941 and a daughter in 1944. Nancy continued to appear in supporting roles on the stage again in the 1940s and early 1950s, and occasionally returned to film. For example, she appeared as the Town Clerk’s wife in Charles Crichton‘s highly regarded comedy about eccentric small town English life, The Titfield Thunderbolt, made in 1953.

Nancy died in London aged 88, on 5 March 1995. Denis Gifford’s 1995 obituary for Nancy in The Observer describes her British films as “cheap and cheerful,” and these may indeed be her surviving legacy, as they were for other Australians of the era – Lucille Lisle and Judy Kelly.  


Lorraine & Barbara’s careers

Lorraine  barbara-smith-1935-

Above left: John D’Arcy and Lorraine Smith in Strike Me Lucky. “Everyone’s” 19 Sept 1934, (Vol.14 No.760). Right: Barbara Smith. “The Bulletin”, 20 Nov 1935, (Vol. 56 No. 2910). Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Lorraine Smith appeared on stage in Australia and in two local films – Harry Southwell’s When the Kelly’s Rode (1934) and Ken Hall’s Strike Me Lucky (1934). And a year later, as Lorraine Grey, she appeared in just one British film, Sexton Blake and the Mademoiselle (1935). Publicity of the time suggested a much more fulsome career, but following this she apparently gave up acting. (The IMDB currently confuses Lorraine Smith’s career with several others).

Like Nancy, Barbara Smith also attended RADA, and appeared on repertory company tours in England. She found a career on radio and the stage in Australia and was active performing in Australia to the mid 1960s. This writer is unable to verify the claim she appeared in British films. She married Australian actor Lloyd Lamble in 1945, but the couple divorced soon after.


Note 1
West Australian novelist and journalist Leslie Rees enthusiastically documented the successes of Australian actresses in London in the 1930s, where he also reviewed drama for “The Era”. See also his article “Antipo-deities: How Australian Girls have captured British Stage and Screen” in “The Era”, April 4, 1934.

Note 2
US actor Nance O’Neil (1874 – 1965) apparently pronounced her first name as “Nancy,” hence there has sometimes been confusion between the two women.


Nick Murphy
November 2020


Further Reading

Thanks:

  • Prue Heath, Archivist, SCEGGS Darlinghurst.

Text:

  • Ross Pike and Andrew Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press.
  • Michael Powell (1987) A Life in Movies. Alfred A Knopf
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • Angela Woollacott, (2001). To try her fortune in London. Australian women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press

Web:

  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Evening News (NSW) 29 Nov 1927, P14
    • The Sun (NSW) 7 Oct 1928, P4
    • The Australasian 17 October 1931 P11
    • The Herald (Vic) 29 Feb 1932 P14
    • The Sun (NSW) 3 Mar 1932, P25
    • The Herald (Vic) 16 Aug 1932, P14
    • The Herald (Vic) 22 Aug 1932, P10
    • The Australasian 3 Sept 1932
    • The Truth (NSW) 17 Dec 1933 P21
    • Western Mail (WA), 18 Jan 1934 P29
    • Everyone’s 24 Jan 1934 P11
    • The Herald (Vic) 19 April 1934, P30
    • The Sun (NSW) 29 April 1934, P11
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 24 May 1934
    • News (SA) 17 July 1934, P6
    • Labor Daily (NSW) 2 Aug 1934 P 10
    • The Sun, (NSW) 28 Oct 1935, P1
    • Advertiser (SA) 30 Oct 1935, P12
    • Mirror (WA), 30 Nov 1935, P 20
    • The Bulletin Vol. 56 No. 2910 (20 Nov 1935)
    • The Sun (NSW) 1 Dec 1935., P 26
    • Australian Women’s Weekly 8 May 1937 P54
    • Daily Telegraph (NSW), 25 May 1938, page 9
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 25 Jan 1947, P3
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage 27 Aug 1931, P18
    • The Sketch 28 Feb 1932, P384
    • The Era 6 Dec 1933, P6
    • The Era 6 April 1934, P3
    • The Bystander 8 May 1934, P 256
    • The Daily Mail 28 May, 1934 P26

Lucille Lisle (1908 – 2004)

Above: 11 year old Lucille Hunter Jonas advertising Rexona soap in Australia’s national magazine, The Bulletin, 11 Sept 1919. She was already well established on the stage. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

The five second version
Lucille Lisle was born Lucille Hunter Jonas in Melbourne, Australia on 16 May 1908. She first appeared on stage in Australia at the age of about 11. From 1930-32 she performed on Broadway and in 1932 moved to Britain. She appeared in two Australian and about ten British films, but the stage remained her preference and the West End was where she experienced her greatest successes. She worked in radio in the 1940s before retiring. She died in Kent, England on 23 September 2004.

Lucille Lisle in 1938, at the height of her British stage and screen career. The Age (Melbourne) 16 July 1938. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove..

The oft repeated story that 21 year old Australian actress Lucille Lisle had to abandon ship at night and then help bail out a leaky lifeboat was actually true. It is one of those rare occasions when an entertaining story about an actor has a solid basis in fact. Lucille was one of 18 performers in Wyrley Birch‘s American Comedy Company, travelling on the 4500 ton ship Manuka en-route from Melbourne to Dunedin, New Zealand. In thick fog on the night of 16 December 1929, the ship ran into a reef near Long Point, and became a total wreck. All 250 passengers and crew were saved but their personal belongings and the cargo, (including the company’s scenery and costumes) were lost. But new scenery was rushed to New Zealand from Sydney, and in the best antipodean tradition, the people of Dunedin donated clothes. The show must go on.

She was born Lucille Hunter Jonas in Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia on 16 May, 1908, the only child of David Henry Jonas and Caroline nee Hunter. From an early age, the family lived in Sydney where her father was a company manager. Caroline, or Cissie Hunter, was an actor herself, well known from her time touring in the 1900s with the John F Sheridan company. Lucille attended Sydney’s Sacred Heart Convent, Kincoppal, although for how long seems unclear. From a very early age, she was also appearing on the stage, with the consistent encouragement and support of her mother Caroline. For at least some time in the early 1920s Lucille was also a pupil of Miss Mary MacNichol, a Sydney elocutionist and drama teacher. At the same time she was appearing in pantomimes and charity events, in company with the likes of Ena Gregory and Esma Cannon.

“Give your children Heenzo” Lucille’s mother was responsible for her appearance in this advertisment for a cold and flu preparation, and she also provided a testimonial. Sunday Times (Sydney) 9 May 1920. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1924 Lucille, now using the stage name Lucille Lisle, was lucky enough to be cast by filmmaker Beaumont Smith for a part in Hullo Marmaduke, a (now lost) “funny pommy in Australia” film, starring established English comedian Claude Dampier. She was also in a role in F. Stuart-Whyte‘s Painted Daughters, a sophisticated and successful film described by Ross Pike and Andrew Cooper as “a romantic melodrama about high society and the flapper generation” – segments of this film still exist. Aged only 16, Lucille Lisle was developing an impressive acting career.

Above: Lucille (left) as a Tivoli chorus girl. Table Talk. 5 November 1925. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Although there were no more films for her in Australia, for the next five years Lucille was never out of stage work and her public profile in Australia steadily rose. Her second lead role in J.C. Williamson’s pantomime Aladdin was followed by a supporting role in the popular new American farce Cradle Snatchers. She also earned praise for having taken on a role in the play Old English with very little notice, in October 1926. Enthusiastic Australian journalists called her “Australia’s Mary Pickford,” although the same description was regularly applied to other young women, including Mary Maguire. She was in enough demand to gain work alongside a wide variety of actors, including contemporary song and dance man Fred Conyngham and visiting US actor Noel (Nat) Madison. Ten years later she would appear in the British film The Melody Maker with Fred.

At the same time, as Theatre historian Frank Van Straten notes, the arrival of talkies in Australia in Christmas 1928 had a dramatic impact on live theatre – it would never be the same again. So Lucille’s place with the popular Wyrley Birch company, touring Australia and New Zealand (with a repertoire of new plays) in early 1929 was probably her own response to the uncertainty of working in theatre in the Great Depression. But then, in May 1930, despite the trauma of the adventure on the Manuka, Lucille and her mother departed for the US on the SS Sonoma.

Lucille Lisle in 1927, while appearing in Cradle Snatchers with Fred Conyngham and Molly Fisher. From Table Talk, 22 Sept, 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

After visiting Noel Madison in Hollywood, Lucille and Caroline headed for New York, posting updates home along the way, for the benefit of Australian newspapers. With extraordinary good fortune, she quickly gained a role in Stepdaughters of War and she was then continuously performing on the US east coast. In early 1931 she joined G.P. Huntley Junior and Jane Cowl in the comedy Art and Mrs Bottle, for a tour of the US and Canadian east coast cities. In her 18 months in New York she also took roles in A Widow in Green and A Night of Barrie. She wrote to the Sydney Sun newspaper that she loved New York, although it was expensive. And she also cautioned interested Australian girls – they should always have “lots of money, and your fare back home, paid in advance.” But money was something Lucille and her mother didn’t seem to have to worry about, because in July 1932 she packed up and moved on to London and again, quickly found work.

It was not uncommon for Australian newspapers of the 1930s to provide readers with long lists of Australian actors now working successfully in Britain and Lucille was soon prominent amongst these. The lists were not always very accurate – as they regularly included New Zealanders, or others who had really only spent a short part of their life in Australia, or in the case of Merle Oberon, none of their life at all. It made for great reading all the same, and in an era of emerging Australian national icons (think racehorse Phar Lap and cricketer Don Bradman), these success stories resonated with audiences. And there is evidence that at least a few actors – like Fred Conyngham, Judy Kelly and John Wood – felt some sense of being an Australian rather than simply a member of the greater British Empire. But much of the film work listed for this group was in underwhelming “quota films” – and this was also to be Lucille’s first acting experience in Britain.

Above; Lucille Lisle. The Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 June, 1938. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Quota films or “quota quickies” were a result of the 1927 Cinematograph Film Act – designed to protect the British film industry by forcing the big, mostly US owned distribution companies to subsidise the production of British films. Interviewed by Brian McFarlane years later, British filmmaker Freddie Francis insisted quota films were shown to the cinema cleaners in the mornings, thus easily and cynically fulfilling the legal obligations of the quota! Cheaply and quickly made, most ended up as “second” or supporting features or B films, although there is now a body of literature reappraising the era of quota films.

Lucille’s role in Fox’s After Dark, directed by Al Parker, was announced only 6 weeks after her arrival in Britain. Like so many of these films, it was adapted from a play, but at only 45 minutes in length, it did not sustain a coherent or memorable plot. It concerned a jewel theft followed by a denouement in a (very restrained) un-spooky house. Contemporary British film reviews tended to praise all local film content, but in far off Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald felt it could truthfully critique Expert’s Opinion, Lucille’s second British quota film. It was dismissed as “a quickie of very ordinary pretensions… The direction is indifferent and [the] actors…do not impress on the screen. Australian Lucille Lisle is equally uninteresting.”

There could not have been a starker contrast between the few films she appeared in and her stage work. Although she was never interviewed about her work, it is likely that Lucille realised her career would not be made in quota films. By the end of 1932 she was understudying the role of Stella Hallam in Rose Franklin‘s play Another Language, “a first rate tragi-comedy” at the Lyric Theatre. She then played the role while it toured England. By May 1933 she had a leading role in Emlyn Williams‘ satire The Late Christopher Bean, which opened at St James’s Theatre in May. This role established her as a young actor of note and ability on the London stage. The cast also included Cedric Hardwicke, Barry K Barnes and Edith Evans. The show ran for 487 performances, a record for that theatre, with Spectator magazine praising it as “a brilliant comedy”.

Above: Lucille (right) with some of the leading players of The Late Christopher Bean. The Stage 18 May 1933. Copyright The Stage Media. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive.

As one would expect, there were hits and misses on stage too. In early 1935 she appeared at the Phoenix Theatre in A Knight in Vienna, a play about a young man’s romantic adventures in Vienna, written by an Australian, Archie N. Menzies. After one performance, it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, for reasons we can only guess today. Ole George Comes to Tea saw three performances, Sexes and Sevens also only three performances (the Times newspaper described the latter as “feeble even in its own kind” ). There was an interesting variety of topical contexts in some of her plays – Juggernaut at the Aldwyth Theatre in early 1939 dealt with Jews living in contemporary Vienna. But popular comedies were clearly preferred by pre-war British audiences. Anthony and Anna ran for over 700 performances at the Whitehall Theatre and for much of it Lucille took the leading part of Anna.

Above: Lucille Lisle in 1935, at the time she was appearing in Anthony and Anna at the Whitehall Theatre. Program in the author’s collection.

In 1942, Lucille married an officer in the Royal Navy Reserve, Lieutenant Nicholas Harris, the youngest son of Sir Percy Harris, deputy leader of the British parliamentary Liberal Party. A son was born of the union in 1943. During the war years, Lucille’s performances were confined to radio drama, in adaptations of popular works like The Ghost and Mrs Muir. Her last performances were in the early 1950s and may have included some television, but this is difficult to verify as so much early TV was not recorded. She had, by this time, been performing for almost 35 years.

In later years Nicholas and Lucille lived in Kent. Nicholas Harris was an art collector with a particular interest in traditional Chinese paintings and Lucille seems to have shared these interests. She never returned to Australia – both her parents having relocated to England to be near her. She died in Kent in 2004.

Not all Australians who tried their luck in 1930s Britain stayed on. Lucille’s contemporaries, Fred Conyngham and Molly Fisher, returned to Sydney, Australia in early 1948 and pursued non-theatrical interests. Fred became a quality-control inspector.


Nick Murphy
24 October 2020


Further Reading

Web

Text

  • Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike (1982) Australia’s Lost Films. National Library of Australia.
  • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
  • Robert Murphy (Ed)(2009) The British Cinema Book. 3rd Edition. BFI/Palgrave Macmillian
  • Ross Pike and Andrew Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press.
  • Matthew Sweet (2006) Shepperton Babylon. Faber and Faber
  • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • Sunday Times (Syd) 6 Mar 1904
  • The Australian Star (Syd) 17 June 1905
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin, 6 July 1907
  • The Bulletin, 11 Sept 1919, Vol 40, Issue 2065
  • Sunday Times (Syd) 5 October 1919
  • Everyone’s 28 Feb 1923, Vol 3 No 156
  • Table Talk, 5 Nov 1925
  • Table Talk, 12 Nov 1925
  • Table Talk, 4 Feb 1926
  • Table Talk, 22 Sept 1927
  • Sydney Mail, 5 Oct 1927
  • Advocate (Melb) 11 Oct 1928
  • Sun (Syd) 26 Mar, 1929
  • Truth (Bris) 22 Sept 1929
  • Daily News (Perth) 4 Nov 1929
  • Sun (Syd) 27 Dec 1929
  • Table Talk, 1 May 1930
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 1930
  • Sun (Syd) 24 Aug, 1930
  • Sun (Syd) 12 Oct 1930
  • Sun (Syd) 28 Dec 1930
  • Smith’s Weekly 15 October 1932
  • The Herald (Melb) 27 Feb 1933
  • Examiner (Tas) 22 Sept. 1937
  • The Age (Melb), 16 Apr 1938
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 June 1938
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept 1938
  • The Daily News (Perth) 2 Nov 1938
  • Table Talk, 12 Jan, 1939
  • The Herald (Melb) 25 Mar 1942
  • The Sun (Syd) 27 June, 1942

Papers Past

  • Christchurch Cargo, 18 Dec 1929. Vol LXV, Issue 19805
  • Hawera Star, 6 Jan 1932, Vol LI
  • Nelson evening Mail, 5 Sept 1934, Vol LXVI,
  • Evening Post, 9 April 1943 Vol CXXXV, Issue 84
  • Hutt News, 28 May 1947, Vol 20, Issue 47

British Library Newspaper project

  • The Era, Wednesday 14 September 1932
  • The Stage, 18 May 1933
  • The Tatler, 31 May 1933.
  • Eastbourne Gazette, 3 Jan 1940
  • Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 2 Dec 1940
  • Eastbourne Gazette, 3 Jan 1940
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 28 Feb 1942
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 28 Feb 1942
  • The Tatler and Bystander, 1 April 1942
  • The Stage, 11 Jan 1951

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive