Gwenda Wilson (1921-1977) – from ‘Janie’ to ‘the Archers’

Enlargement of Gwenda Wilson, playing Margaret the nurse in the 1946 JC Williamson production of John Patrick‘s The Hasty Heart. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. The original photograph is part of the JC Williamson Collection of Photographs.

Gwenda c1945 [1]ABC Weekly, Vol. 10 No. 21, 22 May 1948, P30. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
The five second version
When Melbourne-born Gwenda Wilson died in 1977, fans of the BBC radio series The Archers mourned the actor’s passing. For twenty years she had played Aunt Laura, a “crusty, bossy, but lonely widow,”[2]The Guardian 19 August 1977, P 14 via Newspapers.com a New Zealand interloper who had moved into the village of Ambridge, having inherited Ambridge Hall. One correspondent felt it would be difficult to find a replacement actor “who could exactly imitate (her) distinctive Antipodean whine and put such righteous indignation into the part.”[3]Birmingham City Post 23 August 1977 P4. Via British Library Newspaper Archive
In addition to her role in The Archers, she appeared occasionally on the British stage, on TV and in a handful of British films. Before she left for London in late 1948, she had enjoyed six busy years on the stage and in radio in Australia. She was aged only 55 at the time of her death.

Gwenda Olive Wilson was born in September 1921,[4]Gwenda Wilson, UK Death Certificate in Melbourne, Australia, to Albert Wilson, a furniture manufacturer, and Elsie nee Field. She grew up in the inner eastern suburb of Kew, and attended nearby Methodist Ladies College, where she developed a passion for performance. She won a scholarship to study music at the University of Melbourne, (she later said that her father had dreams of her being a soprano) but it is clear that her passion from a young age was acting. While at the University she regularly featured in amateur performances, including with the University’s Tin Alley Players. She also studied with speech and drama teacher Maie Hoban, in company with Patricia Kennedy, Coral Browne and others.[5]The Australasian (Melb), 24 Feb 1945 P16, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Gwenda Wilson on the cover of The Australasian, 1945[6]The Australasian 24 Feb, 1945. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In 1942, having saved £20, she moved to Sydney. After some radio performances she won a breakthrough role as Janie, in the new US play of the same name, which opened at the Minerva Theatre in 1943.[7]ABC Weekly, Vol. 10 No. 21, 22 May 1948, P30. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Gwenda’s role as Janie was celebrated by Jim Russell, a cartoonist for Smith’s Weekly. [8]Smith’s Weekly 5 June 1943, P19. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Janie concerned a small town girl who hosts a party for US servicemen that gets out of control while her parents are absent – perhaps the idea was a novelty for Australian audiences at the time. On stage with Gwenda were well established Australian performers like Fifi Banvard, and new faces including Margo Lee and Betty McDowall.[9]It was directed by Melbourne-born Alec Coppel, who 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 … Continue reading The play found an audience and it ran for two months – thus establishing Gwenda’s credentials, but it was generally dismissed by most as lightweight entertainment. One newspaper wrote that it was without “real character development, plot construction… (and had) the appeal…of a nice whopping chocolate soda.”[10]The Daily Telegraph, 9 May 1943, P23, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Gwenda repeated her breakthrough character Janie for radio in 1944 [11]ABC Weekly 27 May 1944, P12. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In October 1943, she took a leading role in Kiss and Tell, another play about modern youth from the US that had opened on Broadway only a few months before. It enjoyed a record 53 week run in Melbourne, and long runs in other Australian cities.[12]Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. P165 Heinemann 21 year old Gwenda gave a “finished and charming interpretation” as Corliss Archer.[13]The Argus (Melb) 13 Dec 1943 P6, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove It was while working on this play that she was caught up in the 1944 “theatrical dispute,” between JC Williamsons, the Australian theatrical monopoly, and Actor’s Equity, over conditions and the use of non-union performers. Gwenda was one of the striking performers issued with a writ to prevent them appearing in an Equity fund-raising performance. The strike was resolved after three weeks and the principle of the “closed shop” for the Australian theatre firmly established – so Equity succeeded.[14]For a contemporary account of the strike see The Age (Melb) 29 May 1944, P3. For a management view of the strike see Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. P172-175

In January 1945, Gwenda married former serviceman and Tasmanian-born actor Don Sharp.[15]Births Deaths & Marriages Victoria, Marriage certificate 1945/4791 The couple announced their plans to go to London to perform, even though the war was still on.[16]The Argus (Melb),13 Mar 1945, P7. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove In the meantime, there was no shortage of opportunity to perform in radio and on the stage, with Gwenda being heralded as “the new find.”(see Note 1)

Left: Gwenda and Madge Aubrey in Kiss and Tell c1943-45. Right: John Wood with Gwenda in The Hasty Heart c1946. J C Williamson Collection of Photos, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In mid 1947, Gwenda and Don joined a company formed to take The Hasty Heart and While the Sun Shines, to occupation forces in Japan. Don Sharp used his service connections to help establish the tour, John Wood, 2 years after his release from a Japanese POW camp, produced and took a leading role. Gwenda reprised her role as nurse Margaret. Also in the company was Wood’s English wife Phyl Buchanan. By late 1947 the Japan tour had concluded and the company returned to Australia. However, as Don Sharp explains in his 1993 interview with the London History Project, instead of returning, he made his way to England, by finding passages on various interconnecting cargo ships. Although Gwenda and Don seem to have maintained an cordial relationship in later years, this was apparently the end of the marriage.

Gwenda, as a leading young performer in Australia, had little trouble finding more work in Australia. She appeared on radio again, and in two Fifi Banvard productions at the Minerva Theatre in Sydney in 1948, Ah Wilderness and Philadelphia Story. But the truth was, as Don Sharp remarked, that the choice for post-war Australian performers was stark. They could either stay – meaning they would continue to work for JC Williamsons, or on radio, or if they were lucky in a rare Australian film. Alternatively, they could try their luck overseas – where the opportunities seemed boundless. Not surprisingly, in December 1948, Gwenda boarded the Shaw Saville ship Arawa for England, joining the great post-war exodus of Australian performers.

Gwenda (left) farewells John Wood (rear) and other Australians heading for England in September 1948. [17]ABC Weekly 18 Sept 1948, P14 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Newspaper reports of the doings of Australians in London were usually celebratory, sometimes tinged with nationalistic patter. After all, who wanted to read that someone, well known in Australia, struggled to find work in the heart of the Empire. In March 1949, Truth newspaper reported Gwenda as one of a number of “Sydney actors having a busy time in London,” while she lived with old friends John Wood and Phyl Buchanan.[18]Truth (Syd) 20 March 1949, P35. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove[19]For other articles like this see The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Aug 1950, P3, Australian Actor Praised, The Newcastle Sun, 14 Jul 1951, P4 Film Role For Young Australian Actor, The Sun (Syd) 12 Nov … Continue reading

But an unusually frank report in a 1965 newspaper finally acknowledged that for many Australian actors, finding work in London was a constant challenge. Gwenda’s friend Betty McDowall described it as “tough as hell.”[20]The Canberra Times, 24 Apr 1965, P9. The struggle from Down Under to acting up top. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove All the same, records show Gwenda found small roles in films and on stage not long after she arrived. One of her first outings was a minor role in Ha’penny Breeze (1950). In his 1993 interview, Don Sharp outlined the extraordinary effort required to make this, his very first British film, which he helped write, produce and took a leading role in. Despite the effort, and Sharp’s later reputation as a British director of note, this film met with a mixed response. Gwenda also appeared in rep with Robert Raglan, touring Britain in Summer in December and Born Yesterday. She then had a small role on stage in London as a nurse in the farce To Dorothy a Son at the Savoy Theatre,[21]Theatre World, 1951, Vol 47, issue 313, via the Internet Archive and in the film Gift Horse, where she played a WREN.[22]The Sun (Syd)18 Oct 1951, P36, Film news from Hollywood and London, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Screengrab of Joan Rice and Gwenda in Gift Horse, aka Glory at Sea (1952)

In May 1952, she married again, to Malcolm Halkeston MacDougal, a lawyer.[23]Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 9 May 1952, P1, Via British Library Newspaper Archive[24]Butterworth’s Empire Law List, 1961, P32. Butterworth’s. Via Google Books MacDougal, an Australian-born man standing well over 6 feet in height, gained some notoriety in 1953 when he was taken to court for “lightly boxing the ears” of several British Union speakers in Chelsea, apparently while in the company of Gwenda.[25]Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 3 July 1953, P1 The Shutterstock Photo Archive holds a photo of Gwenda on her wedding day, here. But it appears this marriage ended sometime in the late 1950s.[26]Eric Lambert’s 1965 book MacDougal’s Farm is apparently based on MacDougal’s experience as a wartime POW. Known in the army as “Big Mac,” MacDougal died suddenly in … Continue reading

There was coincidentally, another role in a film scripted by Don Sharp – Conflict of Wings in 1954, but it appears much of Gwenda’s modest output in the 1950s was on radio and in TV guest roles. While the reviews of her work are sparse, a few film roles are still accessible to us today – including the thoroughly unpleasant character Jean in the enjoyable and well acted B-film Dangerous Afternoon (1961).

Above – screengrabs from Dangerous Afternoon (1961) with Ruth Dunning as Letty and Gwen playing the nasty (and soon to be murdered) Jean. Screen grabs from copy in the author’s collection.

Gwenda first appeared as the character Aunt Laura on The Archers in May 1957. Non-Britons (including the present writer) are at a decided disadvantage regarding The Archers – for the simple reason most of us have not heard it. This radio drama of English rural life in the fictional village of Ambridge began in 1951, and is still running today, in 12 minute daily episodes on the BBC.[27]See the BBC’s website devoted to the Archers The series was broadcast for a while in Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries, but appears to have been dropped by most in the late 1960s.[28]William Smethurst (1988) The Archers. The true story : the history of radio’s most famous programme. P97-101. Michael O’Mara, London For those not familiar with the show and who cannot understand its popularity for 70 years, Lyn Thomas from the University of Sussex provides an explanation, here at the Conversation.com

Gwenda’s death from lung cancer in August 1977[29]UK General Register Office, Death Certificate Gwenda Olive Wilson or MacDougal was quite sudden and apparently unexpected. BBC producer Tony Shryane recalled losing a much loved colleague, mid show: “Gwenda and I had been friends for many years, even before she joined The Archers… She was a delightful artiste whose infectious gaiety made her popular with everyone and she had that indefinable Australian quality that kept her going at parties when everyone else was beginning to fade. When she died, I could not believe that her energy and enthusiasm would no longer be there to enliven our rehearsals and recordings.[30]William Smethurst (1988) The Archers. The true story : the history of radio’s most famous programme. P148-149. Michael O’Mara, London

Daily Telegraph, London, 19 Aug 1977, P13

Many might have expected Aunt Laura would now be written out of the series, but fans need not have worried. Another Australian born actor, Betty McDowall, the same one who had appeared with Gwenda in Janie back in Sydney in 1942, immediately took over the role. Aunt Laura lived on for another eight years.


Note 1 – Some recipes from Gwenda.

A lengthy article in Melbourne’s Argus newspaper in 1946 presented Gwenda as the “new theatrical find” and reported that her passions were cooking and gardening. Also listed were some of her favourite recipes which are included below. (The author has tried the Ham and Macaroni pie)


“With nightly performances, matinees, and rehearsals, the Don Sharps naturally have little time for entertaining, but they love having people in for Sunday night supper. Here are some of the dishes Gwenda serves her guests on such occasions:

HAM AND MACARONI PIE
Line a pie dish with macaroni which has been cooked till soft. Cover with minced ham (or any meat) and chopped parsley. Season to taste. Then layer of tomatoes. Moisten with a little stock or gravy. Cover with mashed potatoes to which has been added a little butter and milk. Glaze top with beaten egg and bake 15 to 20 minutes in hot oven.

RABBIT IN ASPIC
One rabbit, cut up and cooked with enough water to cover. Add few bacon rashers and small chopped onion. Season to taste. When cooked remove all bones. Measure liquid and dissolve 1 dessertspoon gelatine, 1 cup liquid. Place hard-boiled eggs and green peas around inside mould, then arrange cooked rabbit and pour over liquid, and leave to set. Turn out and garnish with parsley or chopped mint.”
[31]The Argus (Melb) 8 Jan 1946 P8 Young Actress is Hostess at Sunday Night Suppers


Nick Murphy
February 2022


Further Reading

Text

  • Eric Lambert (1965) MacDougal’s Farm. Frederick Muller Ltd, London.

Media

  • Teddy Darvas and Alan Lawson. (2 November 1993). London History Project – Film, Television, Theatre, Radio. “Interview with Don Sharp” (8 parts)

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

Newspaper & Magazine Sources

  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
  • National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past
  • Newspapers.com
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
  • Lantern, the Media History Digital Library

Primary Sources

  • Familysearch.com
  • Ancestry.com
  • Victoria, Births, Deaths and Marriages
  • New South Wales, Births, Deaths and Marriages
  • General Register Office, HM Passport Office.

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1, 7 ABC Weekly, Vol. 10 No. 21, 22 May 1948, P30. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
2 The Guardian 19 August 1977, P 14 via Newspapers.com
3 Birmingham City Post 23 August 1977 P4. Via British Library Newspaper Archive
4 Gwenda Wilson, UK Death Certificate
5 The Australasian (Melb), 24 Feb 1945 P16, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
6 The Australasian 24 Feb, 1945. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
8 Smith’s Weekly 5 June 1943, P19. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
9 It was directed by Melbourne-born Alec Coppel, who 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)
10 The Daily Telegraph, 9 May 1943, P23, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
11 ABC Weekly 27 May 1944, P12. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
12 Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. P165 Heinemann
13 The Argus (Melb) 13 Dec 1943 P6, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
14 For a contemporary account of the strike see The Age (Melb) 29 May 1944, P3. For a management view of the strike see Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. P172-175
15 Births Deaths & Marriages Victoria, Marriage certificate 1945/4791
16 The Argus (Melb),13 Mar 1945, P7. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
17 ABC Weekly 18 Sept 1948, P14 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
18 Truth (Syd) 20 March 1949, P35. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
19 For other articles like this see The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Aug 1950, P3, Australian Actor Praised, The Newcastle Sun, 14 Jul 1951, P4 Film Role For Young Australian Actor, The Sun (Syd) 12 Nov 1953, P39 ACTOR SAYS OPPORTUNITY IN ENGLAND, News (Adel)10 Nov 1954, P2 SA actor gets film contract. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
20 The Canberra Times, 24 Apr 1965, P9. The struggle from Down Under to acting up top. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
21 Theatre World, 1951, Vol 47, issue 313, via the Internet Archive
22 The Sun (Syd)18 Oct 1951, P36, Film news from Hollywood and London, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
23 Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 9 May 1952, P1, Via British Library Newspaper Archive
24 Butterworth’s Empire Law List, 1961, P32. Butterworth’s. Via Google Books
25 Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 3 July 1953, P1
26 Eric Lambert’s 1965 book MacDougal’s Farm is apparently based on MacDougal’s experience as a wartime POW. Known in the army as “Big Mac,” MacDougal died suddenly in September 1962, without recounting his experiences himself. Lambert’s book was not well received
27 See the BBC’s website devoted to the Archers
28 William Smethurst (1988) The Archers. The true story : the history of radio’s most famous programme. P97-101. Michael O’Mara, London
29 UK General Register Office, Death Certificate Gwenda Olive Wilson or MacDougal
30 William Smethurst (1988) The Archers. The true story : the history of radio’s most famous programme. P148-149. Michael O’Mara, London
31 The Argus (Melb) 8 Jan 1946 P8 Young Actress is Hostess at Sunday Night Suppers