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