Lloyd Lamble (1914-2008)-“The strutting & the fretting”*

Above and below: Lloyd Lamble in the first of many authority roles – shown here as the RAF Meteorological Officer in the British Lion film Appointment in London, or Raiders in the Sky 1953. Courtesy Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne.

The 5 second version
Lloyd Lamble (born Melbourne, Australia in 1914) is not a forgotten Australian actor. There are a number of biographies on line and in print, and several fulsome obituaries appeared when he died. Yet most make little mention of his 18 year career on the Australian stage and in radio before he moved to the UK in 1951, and there are also confusing claims about key events in his life. His British career saw him become what Brian McFarlane describes as a “sturdy, reliable character player.”[1]Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film, P376, BFI/Methuen His first film was a 1943 propaganda short. While the IMDB lists over 160 TV and film appearances – usually as an authority figure in a supporting role – it transpires that by the end of his life he was deeply dissatisfied with his career. He married three times and died at his home in Cornwall in 2008.

* The first draft of his unpublished autobiography was entitled The Strutting and the fretting – which is a quotation adapted from Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more.” 

Lamble in Melbourne

Lloyd Nelson Lamble was born in Melbourne, Australia on February 8, 1914, the youngest of four boys born to William Henry Lamble, a musician and secretary of the Musicians Union of Australia and Frances nee Potter. A promising soloist in his church choir, Lloyd won a scholarship to nearby Wesley College in Prahran, and on leaving school he found work as a “Junior Announcer” at Melbourne radio station 3DB, followed by a longer stint at 3KZ and then at 3AW, broken up by some work as a Dance Band singer.[2]He would later claim that he suffered periods of unemployment at this time which may well have heightened his political senses – see also The Daily News (Syd) 12 Feb 1940, P2 Via Trove Bob Walker, 3KZ’s biographer, described the young Lloyd Lamble as “tall, good looking, with blond hair and rich of voice.”[3]RR Walker(1984) Dial 1179, The 3KZ Story. P.22 Lloyd O’Neil While at 3AW he moved into radio acting with the Lee Murray Radio Players, and not surprisingly, then found his way to the stage.[4]Richard Lane (1994) The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama. P185-6, Melbourne University Press[5]Newspapers had noted his success on the amateur stage as early as 1933 – see The Argus (Melb) 13 May 1933 via Trove

His accent was described by one radio listener as “jammy,”[6]Walker P23 – which is archaic Australian slang for “posh”, a comment audiences regularly made of radio announcers of the era. Surviving examples of his accent illustrate a very well spoken, or “refined” Australian accent. An episode of popular Australian comedian Mo’s (Roy Rene) short nightly program from late 1936 – with straight roles played by Lloyd (as Willie) and Sadie Gale (as Mrs Mo) – can be heard here at the Australian Old Time Radio website.

Tall, good looking, with blond hair and rich of voice“. Photo by Athol Shmith of Lamble c1935 [7]Note: Damage on the print emulsion has been covered up Courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Lamble commented on Australian accents in his autobiography and his own “oxford accent.” This is interesting given he said some of his family and fellow students at school had broad accents.[8]Lloyd Lamble (1990) The Strutting & the Fretting, unpublished autobiography, P60. 1st draft, Private collection. The final title of the unpublished work was Hi Diddle Dee Dee: An Actor’s Life … Continue reading However, it is likely his accent developed with the aid of elocution or “speech” lessons at Wesley. In 1937 Lamble started his own acting and radio school, which included elocution lessons for aspiring radio artists.[9]Lamble, 1990, P93 Also see Note 1 below.

Lamble’s radio school advertising in Melbourne’s Argus in November 1938.[10]The Argus (Melb) 19 Nov 1938, P25. Via Trove

Breakthrough role

As Richard Lane has noted, 22 year old Lloyd Lamble’s breakthrough role on stage was in Emlyn Williams’ “exciting throat-gripping thriller”Night Must Fall, directed by Gregan McMahon.[11]The Argus (Melb) 17 Feb 1936 P5 Via Trove His leading role as “Baby-face Dan” was a triumph, the Age newspaper reporting that “Lamble exhibited once more a talent which should be nurtured with great care. His scene with Elaine Hamill (Olivia Grayne) in the second act was wholly brilliant…”[12]The Age (Melb) 17 Feb 1936, P12, Via Trove The play toured cities of east coast Australia and in New Zealand, to great acclaim. “It would be a difficult matter to find an actor, even in London or New York, who could handle this remarkable character as masterly as Lloyd Lamble” reported Dunedin’s Evening Star in August 1936.[13]A nice compliment from the paper, but Emlyn Williams was performing the role himself at the time on Broadway, to similar acclaim. Evening Star,(NZ) 3 Aug 1936, P6. Via National Library of New … Continue reading Before the tour of New Zealand, Lloyd became engaged to an old friend, Marjorie Barrett, a secretarial clerk from South Yarra. The couple married in Melbourne on March 18th 1937, Lloyd reputedly being required back on stage that same night.[14]Victoria BDM, marriage certificate 998/1937 18 March 1937

Another photo of Lamble in the mid 1930s, by Athol Shmith. Courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

By 1940 Lloyd Lamble was widely recognised as one of the country’s leading radio actors.[15]See for example, the breathy interview with him in Wireless Weekly, 7 Sept 1940, P9.”…Worships at the shrine of a radio actor” Via Trove From 1939 he took roles in a string of productions at Sydney’s new Minerva Theatre, for entrepreneur David N Martin.[16]The Wireless Weekly, Sept 14, 1940, Vol. 35 No. 37, P5 Via Trove Fellow performers included a long list of others who were making their name, or had already done so – the likes of John Wood, Ron Randell, Fifi Banvard, Claude Flemming, Trilby Clark, Marjorie Gordon and Muriel Steinbeck. A reviewer for The Bulletin in May 1940 wrote “Lamble is acting so well these days…that it is becoming worthwhile to go to any Minerva production just to watch his development.”[17]The Bulletin May 8, 1940, P31 Via Trove, also cited in Richard Lane (1994) P186

Left: Lamble as Denys in Quiet Wedding, Jan 1940. Right: Lamble as Lennie in Of Mice and Men, with Ron Randell, April 1940. Courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Marriages, children & communism

Several important developments occurred in the first years of the Second World War. Despite his success, Lamble’s political views had become more pronounced with his own experience of the theatre and radio scene, and in particular, he saw first hand the challenge of actors being exploited and living on a pittance.[18]See for example The West Australian, 18 Jul 1941, P3 and The West Australian, 22 Apr 1942, P3, Via Trove In his memoirs, Lamble indicates he had also faced periods of unemployment – “I’ve lived on the smell of an oil rag” he told a Sydney paper in 1940.[19]Daily News, 12 Feb 1940, P2, Via Trove Increasingly active in his union and determined to protect the rights of performers in the small industrial world of the Australian theatre, in 1942 he was elected President of Actor’s Equity, a position he held for much of the 1940s.

Another change related to his personal circumstances. On his return to Sydney he met actress Barbara Smith (a younger sister of actress Nancy O’Neil). Barbara Smith had studied at London’s RADA before returning to Australia in 1935 and was forging her own career on stage and radio at the time.[20]The Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 May 1937, P54, Via Trove The couple’s affair began while they were performing together in Dinner at Eight at the Minerva Theatre in 1939. In his autobiography, Lamble describes the resulting confrontation with Marjorie, who on hearing of the affair, had rushed up from Melbourne. “Poor darling! She was shattered and it was an awful, traumatic time.[21]Lamble 1990, P101 Their divorce was finally granted in May 1943. [22]Herald (Melb) 27 May 1943, page 3 via Trove

Lloyd Lamble and Barbara Smith in 1941. Private Collection.

In his autobiography, Lamble described the war years in Sydney as an exciting time and a glance at the holdings of the NFSA (here) and the Ausstage database (which is incomplete) shows he continued to be busy on stage and in radio.[23]The most complete list of his work is in Richard Lane P278-9 He appeared in several popular radio serials – Big Sister, Crossroads of Life and in numerous roles for the Lux and Macquarie Radio Theatres.[24]Richard Lane, P185-7 and Lamble, 1990, P141 A 1946 episode of the popular radio series The Shadow featuring Lloyd, can be heard (here) at the NFSA website. It also featured Peter Finch.

A grainy but significant photo – showing Lamble involved in war work. Standing centre left, he is about to address workers to encourage subscriptions in a New Zealand War loan, in August 1944. [25]The Press newspaper, 25 August, 1944. Via Papers Past

The official war work often attributed to Lamble comprised propaganda pieces for radio as well as newsreel narration. Fox Movietone (Australia) newsreels regularly made use of his voice – the NFSA database (click here) lists a number of episodes he voiced.[26]See also the entry for Movietone newsreel, “sinking of the hospital ship Centaur” at the Australian War Memorial Several accounts of Lamble’s fundraising for war loans also exist.[27]Tribune (Syd) 31 Aug 1944, P3 via Trove And he appeared in at least one Department of Information short propaganda film – The Grumblens in 1943, with Muriel Steinbeck – his first film.[28]Smith’s Weekly (Syd), 7 Aug 1943, P19 via Trove

In 1942, Lamble fathered a child by Barbara, although – most unusually for the time – the couple had yet to formalise their relationship through marriage – “a defiant act of revolution on both our parts.”[29]Lamble, 1994, P188 However in a further complication to his life, while on a 1944 performance tour of New Zealand (without Barbara) he met Lesley Jackson, a 29 year old actress from Wellington, and again, began an intense affair. He returned to Australia in late 1944, Barbara then being pregnant in Sydney with their second child.

Screengrab from Lamble’s first film The Grumblens (1943) Click on the image to watch this propaganda short at the Australian War Memorial site.

Lamble’s first feature film was the ill-fated Strong is the Seed (1947-9). Unfortunately, the film was about wheat farming. It was only briefly released.[30]The Australian Women’s Weekly. 8 May 1948. P26. Via Trove. See also Pike and Cooper(1980) P272

Of his two children, Lamble has little to say in his autobiography, but the end of the relationship with Barbara was another traumatic experience, he records, and it divided his friends and acquaintances,[31]Lamble 1990, P171 and in time, deeply embarrassed his own family. Reading the draft and final version of memoirs now, it is difficult to follow the 1940s period of his life sequentially, and this writer assumes it is because Lamble found the events of the decade difficult to acknowledge, even fifty years later. An important coda is that the Smith family insisted Lloyd “do the right thing” by Barbara and their two children, and marry her. The couple married in Sydney on September 20, 1945, but Lloyd left Barbara immediately after the wedding. A divorce was finalised in March 1949.[32]The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 12 Sep 1948, P16 via Trove

Notes from Lamble’s ASIO file indicate that in 1948 he was living with Lesley Jackson in an apartment in Pott’s Point, about 2 kilometres from Barbara and their two children, whom he never saw. Lloyd Lamble finally married Lesley Jackson in April 1949. Barbara and her family clearly thought he would provide ongoing financial support, but this remained a cause of constant tension and ill feeling.[33]Barbara Lamble gave up the stage, and became a secretary to support her two children

Above: Lesley Jackson about the time she became Lamble’s third wife in 1949 [34]Cover of ABC Weekly, December 17, 1949 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Leaving Australia

While the 1940s appears to have been a busy time professionally for Lamble – he had acted and directed in almost every radio and theatrical style, it is clear that by 1950, there was suddenly less work. This was largely related to accusations of his being a communist (although some colleagues also did not approve of his abandoning his family either) formalised by the 1950 Victorian Royal Commission into Communism, when he was publicly identified as a communist.

1950 Victorian Royal Commission into Communism, P83.[35]Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

As Stephen Alomes writes, in the new cold war era, accusations of communist sympathies became the means and the justification for theatre managements to marginalise politically active figures like Lamble. He was effectively, blacklisted as a result.[36]Stephen Alomes (1999) When London Calls. The expatriation of Australian creative artists to Britain.P36. Cambridge University See Note 2 below.

Above: Lloyd Lamble and visiting British actor Robert Morley in Edward, My Son in 1949. Courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

While only months before he had been on stage with visiting British actor Robert Morley (1908-1992), Lamble recalled that in 1950 he had to resort to door to door sales to make ends meet. [37]Lamble 1990, P219-221

Not surprisingly therefore, in late 1950, Lloyd and Lesley decided to leave Australia. Despite the claim that he left Australia on a false passport, the couple departed Adelaide in early January 1951 under their own names, on the Norwegian Cargo-Passenger ship, MS Torrens. There was however, a degree of secrecy – Lloyd had hoped to slip out of the country because he did not wish to be caught up in another dispute with Barbara about support payments.

A snapshot of his British career

Lloyd Lamble’s unpublished autobiography could reasonably be expected to deal in detail with his successful 35 year career in Britain after 1951. Unfortunately, it does not. Late in life he became convinced he was “a failed actor”[38]Lamble 1990 P361 and elsewhere. Even the final version in 1994 is dedicated “To all those thousands of actors who never quite made it” and much of what he wrote for posterity is framed in this way. Of his many British TV roles, he had little to say. Perhaps the issue was that having enjoyed such success in the small theatrical world of Australia and New Zealand, he suddenly found himself consigned to being a character actor in the very large theatrical world of post-war Britain. There seems little doubt that he compared himself to his Australian contemporaries like Peter Finch, and felt he had been less successful.

Lamble was lucky when he arrived. Although he and Lesley had little money, within a few weeks Al Parker (1885-1974), then the leading London agent,[39]and husband of Australian Margaret Johnston (1914-2002) was representing him – a huge advantage professionally.[40]Lamble, 1990, P250 By April Lamble was onstage in The Martin’s Nest at the Westminster Theatre. After a three week run – he felt the play was not a success – he moved on to productions at West London’s Q Theatre for a year.

Above: In his first London play – The Martin’s Nest (April-May 1951) with Yvonne Mitchell(1915-1979) at the Westminster Theatre. Courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Al Parker was also responsible for introducing Lamble to television – which was live television at the time. Lamble described his experience on The Passing Show (1951) as “agony”, due to the technical challenges. In fact, he joked that “an actor who has led a bad life will…be condemned to do live television for all eternity.”[41]Lamble 1990, P246-7 Not surprisingly, at this time he preferred film to TV – and his early film performances demonstrated his versatility. These included leading roles as “Jacko” the stage manager in Curtain Up (1952), a comedy about a rep company preparing a play, and as Inspector Freddie Frisnay in Terence Fisher’s mystery Mantrap (1953). Watched today, his beautiful speaking voice is a feature – reminding us of his extensive experience as a radio actor.

Above: Left – As Inspector Frisnay with Paul Henreid in Mantrap (1953). Right – as “Jacko” the stage manager in Curtain Up (1952). Courtesy the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Amongst his best known film roles were his cameos in the St Trinian’s films – commencing with The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), the story of a riotous girls’ school. Lamble played local Police Superintendent Sammy Kemp-Bird, with Joyce Grenfell (1910-1979) as his too wholesome girlfriend Sgt Ruby Gates. The running joke was that Kemp-Bird had once promised marriage to Sgt Gates but now didn’t wish to go through with it, and sought any excuse to avoid commitment. The cameo was repeated in two sequels in 1957 and 1960 and is a highlight of the films. Lamble recalled her fondly – in real life he thought she was exactly like the character she portrayed.[42]Lamble 1990, P270

Screengrab from Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960) with Joyce Grenfell. Author’s collection.

He was often typecast as a Police Inspector. As early as 1957, he said ” I suppose that by now directors are so used to seeing me in police roles, that I’m the first person they think of when casting.”[43]Leicester Evening Mail, 21 Dec 1957, P4, via Newspapers.com

At some point, Lamble fell out with Al Parker rather spectacularly, although the reason why is unknown. Lamble acknowledged in his autobiography that it was a foolish decision to leave Parker and that, in turn, Parker wrote a vitriolic letter claiming he had established Lamble in “all mediums, despite the fact that… [he was] a communist.”[44]Lamble, 1990 P275 So Lamble’s reputation, whether gained unfairly or not, had travelled with him to the UK.

Lamble’s connections with Australia seem to have remained strong. In 1953, he chaired a meeting of British-based Australian playwrights at Australia House,[45]The Stage,12 March 1953, P10, via British Newspaper Archive and he was still active with an association of Australian performing Artists in the late 1970s. He knew and sometimes mixed with many of the Australians who had left post-war and were now working in the UK – Dick Bentley (1907-1995), Fenella Maguire (1935-2001), Bill Kerr (1922-2014) and John Sherman (1911-1966) were all friends mentioned in his autobiography. BBC records show he appeared in radio programs with Vincent Ball, and Allan Cuthbertson in Lasseter’s Reef in 1953, and others in radio episodes of The Flying Doctor in the late 1950s. However, he complained that the national connection counted for little in the way of actual employment offers – there were only two occasions where expat Australian directors gave him work.[46]Lamble 1990, P267 This is not all that surprising, as the same phenomenon was experienced by other Australian actors in the UK and US. Australians like to believe they will help each other out without question, but perhaps internationally, the business is just too competitive for that to be a reality.

His political activities did not disappear overnight. In 1952, he felt a need to explain to British Actor’s Equity that there was no Australian Equity ban on visiting actors, rather, the field of local employment was so narrow that Australian Equity had to take “some precautions” such as refusing to work with travelling chorus performers – where Australians could be employed.[47]The Stage, 11 September 1952, P11, via British Newspaper Archive

It is notable that the stage remained his passion and his public commentary usually emphasized this. “Definitely one prefers the stage…Filming I love… But the field is wide and I will do anything that is interesting financially or artistically,” he told The Stage in 1991. Lamble had a significant body of theatre work to his credit, often in provincial theatre, that has tended to be overshadowed by his better documented screen work. Aged even in his 70s, he appeared in touring performances of Marriage Rites, On Golden Pond and A Month of Sundays – and was regularly picked out for positive reviews. Amongst his last stage performances was a run in Me and My Girl at the Adelphi Theatre.[48]The Stage, 4 July 1991, P6, via British Newspaper Archive

Above: Lamble touring in A Christmas Carol in late 1976. Program in the author’s Collection.[49]See The Stage, 18 Nov 1976, P1. Via British Newspaper Archive

With a very long list of stage and TV appearances, it was inevitable that Lamble would often be recognised in public. His autobiography provides one anecdote told against himself, when he was approached by a man who said “we’ve met…” “Oh you’ve probably seen me on the Telly” answered Lamble. “Don’t be a clot” was the man’s reply. “We worked together last week.”[50]Lamble, 1990 P244-245 The anecdote also serves to remind the reader of the mundane and often underwhelming nature of so much TV work.

There were hits and misses in his career of course. He featured – briefly – in two tiresome soft-core porn films in the 1970s, Sex through the Ages (1974) and Eskimo Nell (1975) – but claimed he was misled into appearing in these. Perhaps. But rewarding roles were also a feature of his screen work – he took supporting roles in The Invisible Man (1958), Emergency Ward 10 (1966), The Kids from 47A (1973), The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), The Boys (1962) and The Naked Civil Servant (1975).

Australians Mavis Villiers (1909-1976) and Lloyd Lamble playing American tourists in London in a cameo in No Sex Please We’re British (1973). Screengrab from copy on youtube.

Determined not to be dependent on acting for his livelihood, at various times, Lamble invested and speculated in property in England – with mixed results. He also invested in commercial video technology when it first appeared, an enterprise that had limited success.

Lloyd Lamble with his daughter in 1998. Private collection

Lloyd Lamble stayed married to Lesley Jackson for the rest of his life. He adopted two children with Lesley and finally, he met and built a relationship with his two children by Barbara. Late in life, he also met Barbara while she was travelling in Britain, in an effort to make amends.[51]Lamble, 1994, P189

Undoubtedly his own worst critic, even the final version of his autobiography needed a ghost writer or a serious edit. His remarkable 50+ year career on radio, TV, the stage and film, his political idealism, blacklisting and subsequent journey to Britain as one of the great group of post-war Australian actors, was a story worth telling.

Lloyd Lamble died in Cornwall, in March 2008.

Lloyd Lamble with Lesley Jackson, 2004. Private collection.

Note 1: Lamble on accents

In a 1942 article he wrote for ABC Weekly, Lamble seemed to suggest a warm climate was responsible for the Australian accent – which was an easy-going “lazy” accent. His comments reflected contemporary thinking about accents – the desirability of an actor or announcer developing a refined accent and the value of training or elocution.[52]ABC Weekly, 31 October 1942, P22 via Trove Interviewed by students from the University of Wellington in 1944, Lamble was noted as speaking with “a pleasing voice… his accent conforms to standard English.” Asked whether New Zealand or Australian accents were acceptable on the stage, Lamble indicated they were not. He suggested “the pronounced Australian accent was only used on the stage in… low comedy, e.g. Dad and Dave.”[53]See The Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion, Victoria College, University of Wellington, Vol 7, No 6, July 12, 1944

Lamble’s natural accent can be heard in this interview with Phil Charley in 1994.

Note 2: Lloyd Lamble the Communist?

In the 1994 edition of his memoirs, Lamble appears to acknowledge that he had been a communist, or “fellow traveller” (sympathiser) while he lived in Australia in the 1940s, but that it was through the influence of others.“As I became more deeply involved in Equity matters, I was subtly guided towards becoming a communist.”[54]Lamble, 1994, P242-243

The National Archives of Australia holds Lloyd Lamble’s 56 page ASIO file.[55]The Australian Security & Intelligence Organisation was established in 1949. It is generally regarded as the equivalent of MI5 in the UK or the FBI in the USA. ASIO’s predecessor was the … Continue reading Today the file makes for fairly unremarkable reading and one can only conclude that it says as much about Australia at the time as it does about Lamble. It was clearly his leadership of Actor’s Equity in the 1940s that first attracted official attention, and his support for causes like the Spanish Republican movement added to suspicion. Other acts, such as his letter of protest regarding the treatment of the Hollywood Ten in the USA were noted. Communist Party of Australia (CPA) meeting minutes collected by ASIO show occasional mention of him – sometimes promising to read workers poetry at Union meetings or promising to be involved in fundraising events. Yet the list of the people he associated and corresponded with [56]presumably his mail was intercepted was much more mundane – it included a wide circle of friends and acquaintances – including actors like Elsie Mackay (Montesole), Allan Cuthbertson and his brother Henry (“Bruzz”) Cuthbertson, Queenie Ashton and Carrie Moore – none of them remotely communists.

It was never illegal to be a communist in Australia. In 1950 the High Court ruled a new law to ban the Communist Party to be unconstitutional.[57]The Communist Party Dissolution Act A referendum to change Australia’s Constitution so that the party could be banned also failed. All the same, the accusation of being a communist marginalised some and stalled the careers of others. Alomes notes that Chips Rafferty, Michael Pate and Peter Finch were also listed at times as being possible Communists.[58]Alomes, P36 In a long investigative article written in 1990, David McKnight and Greg Pemberton suggested that “puritanical, anti-intellectual Australia clearly viewed Finch, Rafferty and many others as radicals because they belonged to the arts world and were strong trade unionists…” Michael Pate, who was interviewed by McKnight and Pemberton, said “In no way would we have thought to be subversive to Australia. We were radical thinkers in that we didn’t agree with all the opinions of the establishment.” [59]David McKnight and Greg Pemberton, “Seeing Reds” The Age (Melb), Good Weekend Magazine (insert) P35+ via Newspapers.com

Nick Murphy
October 2022
and May 2023

Special Thanks

  • To Libby White. For our long conversations, her suggestions and permission to read her father’s unpublished autobiography.
  • To Claudia Funder at the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne.


  • Primary Sources
    • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne.
    • National Archives of Australia
    • Ancestry.com
    • Victoria; Births, Deaths & Marriages
    • New South Wales; Births, Deaths & Marriages
    • National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Papers Past.
    • National Library of Australia, Trove.
    • British Newspaper Archive.
  • Text
    • Stephen Alomes (1999) When London Calls. The expatriation of Australian creative artists to Britain. Cambridge University Press.
    • Lloyd Lamble (1990) The Strutting and the Fretting. Unpublished first draft of autobiography. Private collection.
    • Lloyd Lamble (1994) Hi diddle dee dee, An Actor’s Life for Me. Final version of autobiography. Unpublished. Australian Performing Arts collection. Also at National Library of Australia.
    • Richard Lane (1994) The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama. Melbourne University Press.
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • David McKnight and Greg Pemberton, “Seeing Reds” The Age (Melb), Good Weekend Magazine (insert) P35+
    • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper(1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford Uni Press
    • Eric Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd
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1 Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film, P376, BFI/Methuen
2 He would later claim that he suffered periods of unemployment at this time which may well have heightened his political senses – see also The Daily News (Syd) 12 Feb 1940, P2 Via Trove
3 RR Walker(1984) Dial 1179, The 3KZ Story. P.22 Lloyd O’Neil
4 Richard Lane (1994) The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama. P185-6, Melbourne University Press
5 Newspapers had noted his success on the amateur stage as early as 1933 – see The Argus (Melb) 13 May 1933 via Trove
6 Walker P23
7 Note: Damage on the print emulsion has been covered up
8 Lloyd Lamble (1990) The Strutting & the Fretting, unpublished autobiography, P60. 1st draft, Private collection. The final title of the unpublished work was Hi Diddle Dee Dee: An Actor’s Life For Me (1994) Copies of this are held by the Australian Performing Arts Collection and National Library of Australia
9 Lamble, 1990, P93
10 The Argus (Melb) 19 Nov 1938, P25. Via Trove
11 The Argus (Melb) 17 Feb 1936 P5 Via Trove
12 The Age (Melb) 17 Feb 1936, P12, Via Trove
13 A nice compliment from the paper, but Emlyn Williams was performing the role himself at the time on Broadway, to similar acclaim. Evening Star,(NZ) 3 Aug 1936, P6. Via National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Papers Past
14 Victoria BDM, marriage certificate 998/1937 18 March 1937
15 See for example, the breathy interview with him in Wireless Weekly, 7 Sept 1940, P9.”…Worships at the shrine of a radio actor” Via Trove
16 The Wireless Weekly, Sept 14, 1940, Vol. 35 No. 37, P5 Via Trove
17 The Bulletin May 8, 1940, P31 Via Trove, also cited in Richard Lane (1994) P186
18 See for example The West Australian, 18 Jul 1941, P3 and The West Australian, 22 Apr 1942, P3, Via Trove
19 Daily News, 12 Feb 1940, P2, Via Trove
20 The Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 May 1937, P54, Via Trove
21 Lamble 1990, P101
22 Herald (Melb) 27 May 1943, page 3 via Trove
23 The most complete list of his work is in Richard Lane P278-9
24 Richard Lane, P185-7 and Lamble, 1990, P141
25 The Press newspaper, 25 August, 1944. Via Papers Past
26 See also the entry for Movietone newsreel, “sinking of the hospital ship Centaur” at the Australian War Memorial
27 Tribune (Syd) 31 Aug 1944, P3 via Trove
28 Smith’s Weekly (Syd), 7 Aug 1943, P19 via Trove
29 Lamble, 1994, P188
30 The Australian Women’s Weekly. 8 May 1948. P26. Via Trove. See also Pike and Cooper(1980) P272
31 Lamble 1990, P171
32 The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 12 Sep 1948, P16 via Trove
33 Barbara Lamble gave up the stage, and became a secretary to support her two children
34 Cover of ABC Weekly, December 17, 1949 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
35 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
36 Stephen Alomes (1999) When London Calls. The expatriation of Australian creative artists to Britain.P36. Cambridge University
37 Lamble 1990, P219-221
38 Lamble 1990 P361 and elsewhere. Even the final version in 1994 is dedicated “To all those thousands of actors who never quite made it”
39 and husband of Australian Margaret Johnston (1914-2002)
40 Lamble, 1990, P250
41 Lamble 1990, P246-7
42 Lamble 1990, P270
43 Leicester Evening Mail, 21 Dec 1957, P4, via Newspapers.com
44 Lamble, 1990 P275
45 The Stage,12 March 1953, P10, via British Newspaper Archive
46 Lamble 1990, P267
47 The Stage, 11 September 1952, P11, via British Newspaper Archive
48 The Stage, 4 July 1991, P6, via British Newspaper Archive
49 See The Stage, 18 Nov 1976, P1. Via British Newspaper Archive
50 Lamble, 1990 P244-245
51 Lamble, 1994, P189
52 ABC Weekly, 31 October 1942, P22 via Trove
53 See The Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion, Victoria College, University of Wellington, Vol 7, No 6, July 12, 1944
54 Lamble, 1994, P242-243
55 The Australian Security & Intelligence Organisation was established in 1949. It is generally regarded as the equivalent of MI5 in the UK or the FBI in the USA. ASIO’s predecessor was the Commonwealth Investigation Service
56 presumably his mail was intercepted
57 The Communist Party Dissolution Act
58 Alomes, P36
59 David McKnight and Greg Pemberton, “Seeing Reds” The Age (Melb), Good Weekend Magazine (insert) P35+ via Newspapers.com

Murray Matheson (1912-1985), the busy actor from Casterton

Above: Murray Matheson on a signed fan photo, Undated. Author’s Collection.

Murray enlargementThe 5 second version
Born near Casterton in Victoria, Australia in 1912, Sidney Murray Matheson established himself on stage in the 1930s. He moved to the UK in 1937. His first British film was a small part as an Australian in the RAF, (which he really was) in The Way to the Stars in 1945. In the early 1950s he had moved to the US where he built an extraordinarily successful career playing character roles – often eccentric authority figures – in films and on TV. On his passing, obituaries noted the extraordinary breadth of his screen work, but also acknowledged his lifelong passion for the stage, which is less well known. He died in Los Angeles in 1985. (This article only lists some of his many screen and stage performances)

Growing Up in Australia

Sidney Murray Matheson was born at “Maryville,” a sheep station (ranch) at Sandford, near Casterton, Victoria, Australia on 1 July, 1912. He had four older sisters – Mavis, Joan, Roma and Beryl, and a brother who had died in infancy. While sheep grazing in Victoria’s “Western District” was very lucrative, it was not for the faint hearted. His parents, Kenneth Murray Matheson and Ethel Sunderland nee Barrett had both been born in country Victoria and were prepared to make the effort on the land. But when Murray was twelve his mother Ethel died – as a result of an awful mix of diabetes, rheumatic fever and heart failure. When Kenneth remarried in 1926, his new wife spent half an hour on the property before leaving for the city again, flatly refusing to live on the land. The second marriage did not survive.

Above: Murray’s older sister Mavis posing on a reaper and binder at Sandford in about 1915. In the 1990s, Museums Victoria collected a large archive of photos from rural Victoria, including this one and several others from the Sandford area. Via Museums Victoria Collections

Years later, Murray said one of his earliest memories was droving (herding) sheep – riding along behind his father. “I can still see him, his back completely black, covered with flies, the scourge of Australia” (Ogden Standard 16 June 1973). For part of his schooling Murray attended Geelong Grammar, a famous Australian independent boarding school, long favoured by wealthy Western District pastoral families and modelled on the English boarding school model, that is well known for educating Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1966.

On the stage

Murray had no intention of following tradition and staying on the land, much to his father’s disappointment. By 1934 he was living in leafy East Melbourne, whilst working as a bank clerk. In later years he recounted that his inspiration for becoming an actor was seeing the musical Sally. Probably starting off as an amateur, in the early 1930s he began to be associated with the Melbourne Little Theatre, where British actress Ada Reeve gave tuition in “Musical Comedy, Drama, Monologue, Film and Broadcasting”. He always claimed to have appeared in the musical Roberta with Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott in early 1935, perhaps in the chorus of this JC Williamson production. By early 1936, he was definitely a professional, on the road performing at small country towns through rural New South Wales and Queensland with George Sorlie‘s “tent company” (that is, they put up a tent for performances at each stop). Sorlie rather grandly called this the “English Comedy Company” and advertised his tour with the slogan “always a good show at Sorlie’s,” but it was really all designed to coincide with country agricultural shows. Their repertoire included While Parent’s Sleep, Wandering Wives and Ten Minute Alibi, and amongst the performers was a young Peter Finch, who in time became a good friend. For years, Murray’s experiences on this tour became the subject of endless witty stories about performing in remote Australia. Newspapers also reported Murray was engaged to the company ingénue, Leslie Crane. In June 1936, he took a leading role in a season of the musical Billie at Melbourne’s Apollo Theatre. Almost certainly encouraged to try his luck in London by actor friends like Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott, Murray boarded the SS Orsova for England in August.

Above: A youthful Murray Matheson, looking very like his friend Cyril Ritchard, who became a friend in the mid 1930s. The Telegraph (Brisbane) 11 Jul 1936 P12 Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Not long after arriving, Murray found work with the Bournemouth Repertory Theatre company. In 1937 he was reported by a reviewer as demonstrating “adaptability and poise” in plays like If Four Walls Told and London Wall. (Bournemouth Graphic 19 Feb 1937). A year later he was performing with Edward Stirling’s English Players Company on an extended European tour, taking him to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Warsaw, whilst performing Inferno and The End of the Beginning. He was “a find,” reported The Birmingham Mail (23 Oct 1940). However, with the outbreak of war he joined up, as did so many other young Australians living in Britain. By 1941 he was in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Leslie Crane, who had followed him to England in 1938 also left her repertory theatre company and joined the Women’s Land Army. But the couple did not marry. Years later, he claimed he had been briefly married, but did not say to whom or when (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Feb 1968). He said he “did not like it.”

By 1939 Murray had been joined in London by his sister Roma, a restaurateur, and together they lived in Old Church St, Chelsea.

Above: Murray Matheson in his Royal Air Force uniform, c1941. Source; Cyril Ritchard album of theatrical performance and personal photographs, 1939-1944. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The RAF and Murray’s early films

Many sources list Murray as a RAF Intelligence Officer, a title which might suggest many things – but what exactly, is today unclear. He was acting again by late 1944, or at least for some of the time. His early films date from this time – set in the RAF and written by Terence Rattigan. The first was a small supporting role in Anthony Asquith‘s The Way to the Stars – which featured John Mills and Michael Redgrave. Unfortunately the print currently in circulation appears to have been cut down for US release (under the title Johnny in the Clouds), and his role as Lawson, an Australian officer in the RAF, has all but disappeared – which is a pity, as contemporary reviews singled it out. Not so his role as Pete, the Australian radio operator in Journey Together, a tale of bomber command, directed by John and Roy Boulting, featuring Richard Attenborough.

There were also more real-life adventures before he was demobilised. He was reportedly in Moscow on some unspecified Admiralty mission at the end of the war, during which he broke his leg skating, or skiing. But it cannot have been all that bad an injury, as within a few months he was onstage at London’s Garrick Theatre in Better Late, with Beatrice Lillie.

Above: Screen grab of supporting players Hamish McNichol as Angus and Murray Matheson as Pete (the Lancaster bomber’s radio operator) in the final scene of Journey Together. The bomber’s crew are on a raft and have just been seen by a rescue aircraft because of the efforts of their excellent navigator (Richard Attenborough). Author’s collection. Following this he had a very small part in another war drama – Peter Ustinov’s Secret Flight, a story of the development of radar.

In 1948, the British Ministry of Information made a 25 minute docu-drama about the work of Dr George M’Gonigle, Chief Medical Officer in the 1920s and 30s for the northern English town of Stockton-on-Tees. Murray Matheson was cast to play M’Gonigle – one newspaper claimed he “was chosen for his sympathetic face and because, like Dr. M’Gonigle he has limp.” (Daily Herald, 10 Nov 1948, 3). McGonigle is hardly remembered in the 21st century, but he should be. A social pioneer – his reports on poverty and malnutrition impacted British social planning for years. For Murray, this role gave him valuable and lasting exposure as a capable performer, able to carry a successful film in a leading role.

Above: Screengrab of Murray in the lead role in One Man’s Story, a docu-drama made by the British Ministry of Information in 1948. Now in the public domain, it can be viewed online.

Move to North America

Sometime in late 1948 he travelled to Canada to appear for Brian Doherty – in The Drunkard, or the Fallen Saved an old temperance play, presented as “a stylised revue” now with music and played for comic effect. Although it was not to everyone’s taste, it appears to have been a reasonable success, and the play toured much of Canada before wrapping up in Chicago in March 1949. Murray must have enjoyed it because he was back in Canada doing another revue – There Goes Yesterday later that year.

Above: John Pratt, Charmion King and Murray in There Goes Yesterday. The Province (Vancouver), 17 March 1950, P6, via Newspapers.com.

Following this, in 1950 Murray appeared on tour in the US with old friends Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliot in the 17th century comedy The Relapse, or Virtue in Danger. The play had recently been directed by Anthony Quayle at London’s Phoenix Theatre, before being brought to Broadway by Ritchard.

By the early 1950s, the US and soon California had become his home. But Murray’s connection to Australia remained surprisingly strong. Although he never returned to Australia (he said more than once that he would), Murray remained an active correspondent with his two surviving sisters and the Australian journalists he knew, more so than many other expat Australians.

A snapshot of a prolific US career

Murray’s letters home from the UK and later North America documented what must have been an exciting time in his career. His early US work was notable as a mix of “legitimate” stage, televised theatre (a common device used by TV networks in the early 1950s when they did not have enough material) and film. The film roles were at first a mix of menacing or alternatively affable authority figures – consider – the Communist brainwasher in The Bamboo Prison (1953) and Major MacAllister in King of Khyber Rifles (1953). He can also be found playing police inspectors, doctors, and even vicar roles, including a convicted reverend in Paramount’s formulaic 1952 colonial drama, Botany Bay, directed by Australian John Farrow, but mostly featuring British players.

Above: Leading players of Botany Bay (1952), James Mason, Patricia Medina and behind the frightened Koala (which briefly appears in the film) is Murray Matheson. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana) 3 Feb 1952, P23, Via Newspapers.com

Baby-boomers would recall Murray fondly as a guest in many popular TV series of the time. The very long list of appearances includes The Man from UNCLE (1965), Get Smart (1966), The Invaders (1967), McMillan and Wife (1973), McCloud (1970), Hawaii Five-0 (1973) and Battlestar Galactica (1978). On many occasions, he reappeared – in a different episode and as a different character. Not so his regular role as Felix Mulholland in Banacek (1972-4), a detective series with George Peppard as private investigator Thomas Banacek. Here Murray played an extremely well read bookseller – a fellow wit like Banacek, whose encyclopedic knowledge assists in solving cases. (The most comprehensive list of his TV appearances is in David Inman’s 2 volume survey of Performers’ TV credits, Vol 2.)

It was while working on Banacek that Murray told reporters he had appeared in all of Noel Coward’s stage productions, which, given his passion for the stage, may well be true. On his passing in 1985, it was claimed he had appeared on stage almost 500 times.

Above Left; Murray in Visit to a Small Planet, The Greenville News, 6 June 1962, P6. Centre; Murray with Jane Powell in Peter Pan, The Los Angeles Times, 19 Dec 1965, P93. Right, Murray with Pat Galloway in Lock Up Your Daughters, The Los Angeles Times, 2 Oct 1967, P47. Via Newspapers.com

It is beyond the scope of this article to document all of Murray’s many appearances on the US stage, but a glance at US newspapers shows an impressively wide variety of roles played across the country. Reviews of his stage work were consistently positive, explaining why he was in such demand. In the musical Damn Yankees in 1965 he sang and danced skilfully as the Devil, “with a dry diabolical charm.” (San Francisco Examiner 5 Aug 1965, 30). When he appeared in Peter Pan later that year and again in 1968 he was “downright humorous and sometimes awesome” in the dual roles of the children’s father and Captain Hook (Independent, Long Beach, 21 Dec 1965, 8). He carried the leading role in Sleuth at the Little Theatre in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1972 with great skill – “an excellent portrayal of the snobbish, selfish but somehow likeable author…” (The Greenville News, South Carolina, 2 Feb 1975, 30). The stage clearly remained a passion and probably his preference.

Of Murray the man, his contemporaries had universally good things to say. Canadian born actor Beatrice “Bea” Lillie was a great friend in London – they had appeared together in revues like Better Late at the Garrick Theatre in 1946. In Hollywood, he was a close friend of Agnes Moorehead, sometimes escorting her to social events – as well as appearing with her in one episode of Bewitched.

In 1978 Murray was interviewed for Trader Faulkner‘s upcoming biography of Peter Finch. Murray recalled his occasional catch-ups with old friend “Finchie”, during which they would reminisce about George Sorlie’s tent shows in outback Australia. He said they would “both become terribly common, and Peter, despite the fact he was English, would become absolutely Australian and talk in ‘Strine’.* He was often more Australian in his outlook than I ever was.”

Murray Matheson died on 25 April 1985, following a stroke. He was only 72 and had been working almost to the end. His final film was a small role in Steven Spielberg‘s The Twilight Zone (1983).

However, for this writer, a favourite was his role as the Captain of the Queen Mary in Assault on a Queen.(1967). As a teenager, this writer made a decision to always be as urbane and cordial as the dapper and tanned Murray Matheson – playing the ship’s Captain, with officer’s cap just slightly askew, in the best ex-service tradition. You can watch the relevant clip at Turner Classic Movies here.

Above: Murray Matheson at the height of his TV activity, with his tanned face and distinguished white hair. Photo taken in about 1975. The Greenville News (South Carolina) 27 Jan 1975, P26. Via Newspapers.com.

*Strine – meaning a broad Australian accent, usually also interspersed with plenty of local and incomprehensible slang.

Nick Murphy
September 2021


  • Text
    • Amalgamated Press (1942) Picture Show Annual 1942
    • Lotta Dempsey (1976) No Life for a Lady. Musson Books
    • Trader Faulkner (1979) Peter Finch, a biography. Taplinger Pub. Co.
    • David Inman (2001) Performers’ Television Credits Vol 2, G-M. McFarland
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. BFI – Methuen
    • Alex Nissan (2017) Agnes Moorehead on Radio, Stage and Television McFarland.
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Sidney Murray Matheson, Birth certificate 1912. Doc 24110/1912
    • Ethel Matheson, Death certificate, 1924. Doc 4749/1924
  • Public Records Office, Victoria.
    • Divorce Case Files, 1860-1940. VPRS 283. Kenneth Murray Matheson v Hannah Margaret Matheson, 1933/387
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW) 15 Feb 1936, P6
    • The Scone Advocate (NSW) 18 Feb 1936, P1
    • The Warwick Daily News (Qld) 11 Mar 1936, P2
    • Telegraph (Qld) 11 July 1936, P12
    • The Herald (Melb) 8 Aug 1936, P21
    • Table Talk (Melb) 8 Oct 1936, P18
    • Telegraph (Qld) 27 March 1937, P14
    • Telegraph (Qld) 12 June 1937, P14
    • The Herald (Melb) 7 May 1940, P15
    • The Home (Aust) Vol 22, No 1, 1 Jan 1941, P18
    • The Herald (Melb) 10 Mar 1949, P19
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Bournemouth Graphic 29 Jan 1937, P10
    • Bournemouth Graphic 19 Feb 1937, P12
    • The Stage 16 June 1938, P9
    • Blyth News 12 Nov 1945 P3
    • The Sketch, 15 May 1946
    • Daily Herald, 10 November 1948 P3
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Age (Melb) 8 June 1934, P10
    • The Province (Vancouver) 17 March, 1950 P6
    • The Times (Louisiana) 3 Feb 1952, P23
    • The Greenville News (South Carolina) 6 June 1962, P6
    • The San Francisco Examiner, 5 Aug 1965 P30
    • The Los Angeles Times 19 Dec 1965, P93
    • The Los Angeles Times 2 Oct 1967, P47
    • The Sydney Morning Herald (Syd) 4 Feb 1968, P40
    • The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Utah) 16 June 1973, P23
    • The Greenville Times (South Carolina) 27 Jan 1975, P26
    • The Los Angeles Times, 26 April 1985, P30

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: Allan Cuthbertson playing the Australian Ambassador in the German TV mini-series Der Schwarze Bumerang  (The Black Boomerang) (1982). [1]Screengrab from Film Parade channel on Youtube. Almost all the high quality photos of Cuthbertson are firmly held by commercial photo archives. The reader will thus have to forgive the grainy quality … Continue reading

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.”[2]Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film, P155, Methuen BFI 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.
Above: A very young Allan Cuthbertson c1941. [3]The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, Page 4. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove

Allan Cuthbertson once 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.[4]Hal Porter(1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, P244-248. Rigby 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 arrive in London. Do anything. Wash up in a hotel… but keep on trying the agents.”[5]The Australian Women’s Weekly 12 Jun 1963, P10 Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove

In the film version of Carrington VC (1954), a role that seems to have defined Cuthbertson.[6]Book and Magazine Collector (UK), December 2000, No 201. Author’s Collection

The Cuthbertson family of Perth

Born in Perth, Western Australia, on 7 April 1920 [7]Allan Darling Cuthbertson RAAF Service record, 415569, via National Archives of Australia 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 Left: Ernest Cuthbertson, c1929 [8]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.[9]Sunday Times (WA), 1 Jul 1934, P1 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Henry first appeared in radio drama in 1936, while 18 year old Allan directed his first play in 1938, and also wrote some plays. [10]Sunday Times(WA) 10 Jul 1938, P13, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove 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.[11]Porter, P245

Left: Allan as he appeared without mustache in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1947. [12]The Sydney Morning Herald , 28 Oct 1947 P11 via National Library of Australia’s Trove Right: Henry in 1954 [13]ABC Weekly, 26 June 1954 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. Isabel 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.”[14]The Daily News (WA) 21 Feb 1939, P1 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

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 [15]University of Western Australia Historical Society and there is a very moving tribute to him (here).

Allan & Henry join the RAAF 1941-1946

In The Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 April 1947, P17

Back in Australia, Henry Cuthbertson joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) 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 performing in radio versions of plays, including as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.[16]Mount Barker and Denmark Record (WA) 5 Aug 1946, P4 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

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.”[17]The Age (Vic), 8 Oct 1947, P2, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

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. [18]The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Jun 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.” [19] The Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 April, 1947, P17. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove Also on board was a young Gertrude Willner, whom Allan would marry in London in late July 1949. (see Note 1 below)

Allan Cuthbertson in 1947 [20]The Daily News (WA), 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.[21]The Stage, 14 August 1947, P1 via British Newspaper Archive 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.[22]The Stage, 15 July 1948, P5 via British Newspaper Archive

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 in 1951 [23]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: Program for the play Carrington VC, which opened in London in July 1953.[24]Author’s Collection Above right, another scene from the film, with Allan reprising his role as Colonel Henniker, opposite Noelle Middleton playing Captain Alison Graham. [25]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!” [26]The Australian Women’s Weekly, 12 Jun 1963 P10 via National Library of Australia’s Trove 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.[27]Porter, P247 Here, he was almost certainly thinking of his supporting role as the awful, domineering husband in Room at the Top (1959).

Above: Laurence Olivier and Allan Cuthbertson in the 1962 film, Term of Trial. [28]Australian Women’s Weekly, 12 June, 1963. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

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.[29]Patricia Rolfe, The Bulletin (Aust) 8 June 1963, P22, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

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. [30]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 Morecambe and Wise. Amongst his last appearances was a supporting role in Michael Palin’s semi-autobiographical East of Ipswich, a poignant story of English seaside holidays in the 1950s.

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 – even before he 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 as the Australian Ambassador in the TV series Der Schwarze Bumerang (1982) [31]Screengrab from Film Parade channel on Youtube

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”.[32]Patricia Rolfe, The Bulletin (Aust) 8 June 1963, P22, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Allan Cuthbertson died in England on 8 February 1988. Obituaries appeared in Britain, and the irony that a quintessential stage and screen Englishman was actually Australian born was usually noted. Not so in Australia, where his passing went completely unnoticed.

In private life he was a collector of antiquarian books, art and caricatures (Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank and modern artists like Ronald Searle). The collection was sold up in 2000, and some of it is now held by the Cartoon Art Trust in London.

Cuthbertson’s signature in 1941.[33]Allan Darling Cuthbertson RAAF Service record, 415569, via National Archives of Australia

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. [34]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

Updated 1 January 2023


  • Text
    • Richard Dalby “The Allan Cuthbertson Collection.” Book and Magazine Collector. P 64-73. No 201, December 2000.
    • Richard Lane (1994) The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923-1960. Melbourne University Press.
    • 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

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


1 Screengrab from Film Parade channel on Youtube. Almost all the high quality photos of Cuthbertson are firmly held by commercial photo archives. The reader will thus have to forgive the grainy quality of many of the digitized photos used here
2 Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film, P155, Methuen BFI
3 The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, Page 4. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove
4 Hal Porter(1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, P244-248. Rigby
5 The Australian Women’s Weekly 12 Jun 1963, P10 Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove
6 Book and Magazine Collector (UK), December 2000, No 201. Author’s Collection
7, 33 Allan Darling Cuthbertson RAAF Service record, 415569, via National Archives of Australia
8 The West Australian, 9 August 1929, P26. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.
9 Sunday Times (WA), 1 Jul 1934, P1 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
10 Sunday Times(WA) 10 Jul 1938, P13, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
11 Porter, P245
12 The Sydney Morning Herald , 28 Oct 1947 P11 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
13 ABC Weekly, 26 June 1954 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
14 The Daily News (WA) 21 Feb 1939, P1 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
15 University of Western Australia Historical Society
16 Mount Barker and Denmark Record (WA) 5 Aug 1946, P4 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
17 The Age (Vic), 8 Oct 1947, P2, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
18 The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Jun 1946, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
19 The Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 April, 1947, P17. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove
20 The Daily News (WA), 13 Sept 1947, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
21 The Stage, 14 August 1947, P1 via British Newspaper Archive
22 The Stage, 15 July 1948, P5 via British Newspaper Archive
23 The Sketch, 14 March 1951, P219. Copyright held by by The Illustrated London News Group. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive.
24 Author’s Collection
25 Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 June 1955, P53. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
26 The Australian Women’s Weekly, 12 Jun 1963 P10 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
27 Porter, P247
28 Australian Women’s Weekly, 12 June, 1963. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
29, 32 Patricia Rolfe, The Bulletin (Aust) 8 June 1963, P22, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
30 The series is now in the public domain and can be watched here at the Internet Archive.
31 Screengrab from Film Parade channel on Youtube
34 ABC Weekly, 24 July, 1954, P8 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

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.

Above: Dorothy Alison in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 25 Jan, 1956, P36

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 Peterson) 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: Screengrabs of Dorothy in two films from 1956. Left – As Mary Halliday the policeman’s wife, in The Long Arm (Internet Archive). Right – As Nurse Brace, giving Douglas Bader (Kenneth More) a good talking to, in Reach for the Sky (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.

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.

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. Her 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


  • 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

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

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

Above: Sara Gregory c1950-55 – 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.


  • 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

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

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


Above left: John D’Arcy and Lorraine Smith in Strike Me Lucky. “Everyone’s” 19 Sept 1934, (Vol.14 No.760). Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Right: Barbara Smith in Melbourne in 1938. Photo by Jack Cato, courtesy Libby White.

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).

Taking an interest in the stage after finishing school in 1928, Barbara Smith also attended RADA in 1933-34, and appeared on repertory company tours in England. However she left London in 1935 and returned to a career on radio and the stage in Australia – performing to the mid 1940s. 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



  • Patsy Trench, Nancy O’Neil’s daughter, for her assistance and encouragement. Her website is here.
  • Libby White, daughter of Barbara Smith and Lloyd Lamble, for her assistance and encouragement.
  • Prue Heath, Archivist, SCEGGS Darlinghurst.


  • 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


  • 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

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

Lucille Lisle (1908 – 2004)

Above; Lucille Lisle. The Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 June, 1938. Via 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.

A very young Lucille being used to advertise the services of a children’s nursery in Sydney. The Theatre Magazine, 1 October 1914, P10. Via State Library of Victoria

“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 Molly Fisher, 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



  • 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.

State Library of Victoria

  • The Theatre Magazine, 1 October 1914, P10

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

Joy Nichols (1925-1992) – from the Tivoli to the West End

Joy Nichols at the height of her success in the British radio show Take It From Here, c1950. Fan card in the Author’s collection

The Five Second version
Born in Sydney on 17 February 1925, singer, impressionist and comedian Joy Nichols became a favourite on stage and radio in wartime Australia from a very young age. She made the transition to performing in postwar Britain with apparent ease, and is most often associated with the BBC’s long running radio show, Take It From Here. She seemed destined for stardom, but her 1953 Australian return show was a disaster. She scored some later success with the London season of The Pajama Game and in supporting roles on Broadway, but her later career was fitful and she might really be a case of an actor who reached her peak too early. She died in New York on 23 June 1992. She had appeared in several Australian and British films.

Looking back on her career in 1965, Joy Nichols admitted that she was “too young” to realise what was happening when she became such a quick success in England. She told Australia’s Bulletin magazine that in 1948 she “rather took if for granted and didn’t think much of what was going to happen in the years ahead.” It was remarkably candid, as she was acknowledging a 25 year career that seemed disjointed and ultimately may not have been very rewarding.

She was born Joy Eileen Nichols in Sydney on 17 February 1925, the youngest of four children of Cecil William “Bill” Nichols, a wholesale butcher, and Freda nee Cooke. Her brother George Nichols also pursued a career on the Australian stage with some success, but two older brothers had no such interest, and following their father’s footsteps became meat inspectors in New South Wales.

George and Joy Nichols photographed while performing on the Tivoli circuit, c 1945. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Tivoli Theatre Collection. PXA 808, IE1050864.

On the basis of her early academic efforts, Joy was awarded a scholarship to Fort Street Girls High School in 1937 and while she apparently went on to excel academically, her appearances on radio and stage started at about the same time. Her name is found as a singer in various eisteddfods and as a comedian in charity concerts as early as 1935. Later accounts would claim she was encouraged in her interest in music and comedy by her mother and was performing from the age of 8. Her breakthrough seems to have been when she gained a regular place on the Macquarie radio network’s “Youth Show” in 1940. She was heralded as the program’s “outstanding radio discovery.”

15 year old Joy contributing to the war effort in 1940. Left – The Sun (Sydney) 2 June 1940. Right – Daily News (Sydney) 9 March 1940. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In a world war where newspapers and radio were the only source of news and patriotic performances were vital to maintaining morale, Joy Nichols was soon in great demand. She was an entertaining and very accomplished singer. Her young age – she was only 15 years old, did not seem to effect her popularity or qualify in any way the language of journalists who enthused about her. In September 1941, the Brisbane Truth reported on her part in a show called Ballyhoo, running at the Cremorne Theatre: “When pretty Joy Nichols gets done up in khaki and sings her ‘Victory Vee’ number, we think any recruiting sergeant would get quite a few inquiries from enthusiastic males in Cremorne’s ‘Ballyhoo’ audiences.” Perhaps she hoped her first film role in Alf Goulding‘s A Yank in Australia (1942) would be received the same way. Unfortunately the film was never given a release and while it still exists today, is impossible to find outside the vaults of Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.

Her wartime career brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers. Evidence of this includes a surviving Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr, for release in cinemas.

In early 1941, she appeared for the first time with 33 year old Dick Bentley, in an Australian Broadcasting Commission community concert. Bentley, a talented musician and comedian, had returned to Australia with several years of British radio experience under his belt. Eight years later, Joy would be teamed with him in Britain, in the very successful radio program, Take it from Here.

In 1943, Joy gained further positive publicity when she sang Jack O’Hagen‘s new song about a wartime romance between a US serviceman and an Australian girl – When a boy from Alabama meets a Girl from Gundagai.

In the midst of many stage and radio performances, she also promptly did just that herself – in late 1944 after a whirlwind courtship, she married Lieutenant Harry Dickel, a US serviceman then in Australia, who had some connection to the theatre. Like a number of such wartime romances, the relationship did not last.

In early 1946, Cinesound director Ken G Hall cast Joy in a supporting roll as Kay Sutton, an American girl, in Smithy (aka Pacific Adventure), his bio-pic about aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith. As the sound clips on this page suggest, a vaguely North American accent was something Joy had already been working on. One of her specialities was impressions of movie stars, and she was, she said, a great admirer of Bing Crosby. The film completed, Joy and brother George joined the great wave of Australian actors determined to try their luck overseas after the war. They arrived in England on the ship Dominion Monarch on 30 October, 1946.

George and Joy soon appeared successfully as a double act on tour together in the UK, but George found the going tough. By April 1949 he was back home in Australia. “The BBC’s audition list is very long” he said, by way of advice to aspiring Australian actors. For Joy, there seem to have been nothing but more work on offer. Bob Hope reportedly chose her for a lightning tour of US bases in Europe in 1947, while back in England there were roles in pantomimes, and touring shows like Follow The Girls.

Above: Joy Nichols in the stage revue Take it from Here, based on the radio program, at the Winter Gardens Pavilion, Blackpool 1950. Photos from a George Black Ltd brochure, author’s collection.

Theatre Historian Eric Midwinter has provided the most succinct account of the origins of the BBC radio show Take It from Here. It emerged in 1948 – partly born of previous radio programs and combining Joy and Dick Bentley (now back in Britain) with popular British comedian Jimmy Edwards, and with Wallas Eaton in a supporting role. Producer Charles Maxwell brought in writers Frank Muir and Denis Norden – and a success was born. As surviving broadcasts show, the 30 minute program had a three part format, musical numbers (sung very well by Joy and Dick and reasonably well by Jimmy) separating the three main comedy sketches, that were often built around current events. The program was remarkable in that while topical for British listeners, it was equally popular when broadcast in countries like Australia. This was in part thanks to Muir and Norden’s writing, which went on to influence a new generation of British comedy.

Joy can be heard in the following clip with Dick Bentley, playing the very silly Miss Arundel, whose deep giggle and references to boyfriend Gilbert were a regular feature. After Joy left the show in mid 1953 she was replaced by June Whitfield. Whitfield played “Eth” in The Glums, an ongoing sketch in the show by late 1953 (the character often mistaken for one of Joy’s).

Joy as Miss Arundel, giggling and telling Detective Dick Bentley about her boyfriend Gilbert. Via the Internet Archive. Joy also gives this trademark throaty giggle here in a 1950 Radio awards ceremony – at 6.15 (click to follow link)
The cast of Take it from Here appeared in a live review at the London Adelphi in 1950-51. The show ran for 570 performances. Program in the author’s collection

Frank Muir’s entertaining autobiography, A Kentish Lad, recalls an anecdote from Take It From Here, that gives some insight into her sense of humour and the wicked Australian banter that went on behind the scenes. He describes Joy chatting before one show with Jimmy Edwards, Dick Bentley and Wallas Eaton, and turning to a recent gynecological exam she had endured, describing the event to the others in such “candid detail,” that bachelor Wallas Eaton began to “turn green.” Dick Bentley then threw in “you poor thing. And my (dog’s) got diarrhoea …”

In 1949, Joy married US actor-singer Wally Peterson, one of the principals of the London cast of Oklahoma! and later South Pacific. At the same time, her professional life remained very busy, it included a live theatre spin-off of Take It From Here, appearances at Royal Command Variety Performances and a Max Bygraves revue, all the while appearing on radio. But, in the midst of all this success, she, Wally and their 16 month old daughter packed up and left England for Australia. She was engaged to appear in her own show on the Tivoli circuit in September 1953, but the trip seems primarily to have been to see her family. The story that Wally wanted to leave England because he could not get work is wrong – like Joy he was a well established broadcaster, actor and singer and was regularly in demand – he was also a popular recording artist for the Decca and Parlophone labels.

Photos of Joy relaxing and in rehearsal in Australia appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 October 1953. But by the time these were published she had already withdrawn from the show. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, although the anticipation created by Joy’s return to Sydney was great and the initial reviews were positive, the 1953 Tivoli show entitled Take It From Me turned out to be a disaster. She managed a few performances, but then suffered a nervous breakdown. Her mother Freda wanted to reassure audiences, and told the Sydney Sun that Joy was just “overwhelmed by the wonderful reception” Australians had given her. In language so typical of the era, she added; “Joy is a very highly strung girl and a good sleep will soon fix her up.” But it didn’t. She spent two weeks in hospital, and rested for another three months before departing by air for the US, in December 1953, to spend time with Wally’s family in Boston.

One of Joy’s greatest successes came in London again, in 1955, when she took a role in The Pajama Game. Comparing it to the often modest British musicals, The Guardian newspaper described the play as the latest “clumping great Broadway musical”. Most reviewers welcomed Joy’s return to the West End, and The Stage reported she played the part of Babe Williams with “humanity and real charm.” It hit a spot with London audiences, running for 580 performances. She also appeared in a few films at this time – most notably a cameo role, singing, in Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957). After she and Wally had finally settled in New York in the late 1950s, she also appeared in a few roles on Broadway, most notably in the musical Fiorello!

Joy in Not So Dusty (1956) – a British B film about two dustmen (garbage collectors) featuring Bill Owen and Leslie Dwyer. This screen grab from a clip on Youtube.

In 1965 she returned to Australia again, to show off her 3 year old twins to the family and perform in the musical, Instant Marriage at the Tivoli. This time, there was much less publicity – although Joy did her best to stir up interest. “I want to make people laugh like I do” she said. But variety theatre like the Tivoli had struggled to maintain audiences against the challenge of television, and this play, “about a girl trying to find a marriage bureau and mistakenly getting involved with a strip joint,” was hardly sophisticated fare, even with the imported addition of Wallas Eaton in the cast. The show flopped. Theatre historian Frank Van Straten describes it as “a frantic, unfunny farce without a single singable song.”

It is rare for an actor to pose with their entire family for the press. But on 21 July 1965, during Joy’s final visit to Australia, The Australian Women’s Weekly ran this photo of the entire Nichols family together. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Joy continued to appear in occasional supporting roles on the New York stage, but fate and circumstance seemed against her. In 1969 it was announced she would appear in an expensive new London musical, Two Cities. But she didn’t – only a few weeks before opening night she walked out on rehearsals, reportedly after disagreements with leading actor Edward Woodward. She was replaced by Nicolette Roeg.

Above: Joy advertised as appearing in the musical Two Cities. But soon after this advertisement appeared in The Observer on 2 Feb 1969, she was replaced by Nicolette Roeg. Via Newspapers.com.

Joy’s marriage to Wally came to an end in 1977, and she subsequently moved back to England again. She took out a large advertisement in The Stage in March 1979 to announce that she was back and looking for work. But sadly, there wasn’t very much work for her. She was in her mid-50s, and had well and truly lost her currency. She finally turned to fairly mundane retail work, being spotted working in a Mothercare store in Oxford St. This sort of riches to rags story, as always, attracted some media attention – but Joy simply said she needed the money.

Joy succumbed to cancer, aged only 66 in 1992. In a lifetime of moving around, she had moved back to New York at the end. Her obituaries reminded readers of the great pleasure Joy had brought listeners in post-war Britain, then a time of austerity and recovery.

Only a year after Joy’s 1965 visit, Jimmy Edwards came to Australia to feature in the Tivoli circuit’s final shows in Sydney and Melbourne. His shows brought large-scale variety theatre to a close in Australia.

Wallas Eaton, who had turned green when hearing Joy’s gynecological story, moved to Australia in 1975, where he continued acting. He died in Sydney in 1995. Dick Bentley died in England the same year.

Joy at the height of her fame on a British “Turf” cigarette box. c1950 Author’s collection.

Nick Murphy
September 2020

Further Reading




  • Eric Midwinter (undated) Take It From Here. Britishmusichallsociety.com
  • Frank Muir (1997) A Kentish Lad. The Autobiography of Frank Muir. Bantam Press.
  • Frank Van Straten (2003 ) Tivoli. Thomas C. Lothian
  • J.P Wearing (2014) The London Stage, 1950-1959, A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

British Newspaper Archive

  • The Stage, 10 July 1947
  • The Stage, 4 Dec 1947
  • The Scotsman, 24 Dec 1947
  • The Daily Mirror, 30 Dec 1947
  • Manchester evening News 16 March 1948
  • The Stage, October 20, 1955
  • Illustrated London News, 29 October 1955
  • Daily Herald, 1 June 1962
  • The Stage, 19 August 1965
  • The Stage, 29 March 1979
  • The Stage, 15 October 1992

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 22 June 1940
  • Mudgee Guardian & North Western Representative, 15 July 1940
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 July 1940
  • The Argus (Melb), 25 Oct 1943
  • The Age (Melb), 2 Sept 1949
  • The Age (Melb), 29 July 1953
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Sept 1953
  • Sun (Syd), 11 Sept 1953
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd), 17 Sept, 1953
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Oct 1953
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Sept, 1960
  • The Bulletin, 17 July 1965, Vol 87, No 4455
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 July 1965
  • The Bulletin, 14 Aug 1965, Vol 87 No 4459


  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Aug 1954
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Nov 1965
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 1969
  • The Observer, 2 Feb 1969
  • The Age (Melb), 2 July 1992
  • The Guardian, 3 July 1992

The Independent

  • June Averill, Joy Nichols Obituary 7 July 1992


  • Wally Peterson Obituary, April 3, 2011

The Times

  • Joy Nichols Obituary 29 June 1992
This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Anona Winn (1904-1994) Who did it all without trying.

Anona Winn on an Ardath cigarette card c 1932. The postcard in the background shows the Sydney Post Office in Pitt Street, about the time she was born. Author’s collection.

The five second version
Born in Sydney, New South Wales, on 5 January 1904, Anona Winn moved to the UK in 1926 after establishing herself on the stage in Australia. In her long British career she appeared on stage, wrote and recorded popular songs, and enjoyed a very successful career on British radio, until aged well into her 70s. Scottish comedian Renée Houston once said Anona “does it all without trying.” Clever, creative, popular with her colleagues and loyal to her many supporters, she was awarded an MBE for charity work in 1954. She died in Bournemouth in February 1994.

What was it like to be a young woman fronting up for an audition in the 1920s, grappling with parental expectations and the pressure to perform? We know Anona Winn’s view, because she left a short humorous account in April 1925, about a year before she departed Australia for England. While it is a fictional account, it is safe to assume the short story “The Voice Trial” is at least partly based on her own experiences as an emerging singer. “Jennie develops a few high notes, and the family a still higher opinion of Jennie’s vocal abilities. Jennie shall go on the stage! She shall become one of the galaxy of gleaming stars whose manner of living has been so severely censured by father every Sunday after dinner…” Of course, Jennie does not succeed at her audition. (See Note 1 regarding her short stories)

Born in 1904 in Sydney, New South Wales, Anona was the only child of Lillian Barron nee Woodgate. Lillian endured an unhappy marriage to book keeper Andrew Balfour Barron, that ended in divorce in San Francisco in late 1907. Anona took Wilkins as a surname after her mother remarried in 1909. (See Note 2 below)

Despite claims the name Anona is a native American one, it actually has Latin origins – it was the name of a Roman divinity. As an adult, we know Anona was short and slight. She stood 155 centimetres (5 foot, 1 inch). She had fair hair and brown eyes – we know all this thanks to the very thorough details collected by US customs when she went to New York in 1939.

19 years old but looking even younger, Anona Wilkins posing with a baby from St Margaret’s Maternity Hospital, for The Sun (Sydney) 17 August 1923, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

The Wilkins family had located themselves in Young Street, Cremorne on Sydney’s north shore by 1915, and Anona attended nearby Redlands School, then under the inspired Principalship of Mrs G.A. Roseby. It appears Anona thrived in this creative school environment and quickly made a name for herself as a capable academic student, a gifted pianist and singer. She joined the school’s debating team, won academic prizes and gave solo singing performances. Years later it was claimed she could sight-read music from the age of about 8, which in the light of events, may well have been true.

Anona Wilkins (Winn) at Redlands. She is seated far left in the white dress, with her hands in her lap, kneeling between the first and second rows. Redlands Senior School, 1916, Cecily Tyson Collection. Reproduced with permission by Redlands School Archive

Having also won a number of public music competitions through her teenage years, on leaving school she was accepted into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1920. Her teachers included Madam Goosens-Viceroy and Nathalie Rosenwax, with her developing ability demonstrated at Sydney concerts in late 1921. We can also see evidence she was in Melbourne and performing there in 1922. Did she sing for Nellie Melba, as is claimed? It is quite possible, and Melba was famous for encouraging talented young singers. But not every singer was attracted to a classical career or won over by the encouragement. Nellie McNamara (or Nellie Mond in 1910-12) explained to Everyone’s magazine that she also had been taken to meet Madame Melba, who had advised her to “get rid of that accent” and in doing so “nearly scared me out of my wits.” By early 1923, Anona Wilkins also seems to have decided against a purely classical singing career, although the training was of immense value. In February 1923 she was in the chorus of the new Jerome Kern musical Sally and by July 1923, a featured player in visiting US performer Lee White‘s new show Back Again, at Sydney’s Theatre Royal.

Anona Wilkins in The Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1923. She had just placed second in a “stage and society” contest and had a role in Sally. Via State Library of Victoria.

Touring Western Australia in 1925, Anona now chose Wynne as a new surname. She also appeared on Western Australian radio 6WF, then in its infancy. And after three years of performances in musicals, reviews and pantomimes around Australia with the likes of George Storey and Ada Reeve, she finally decided it was time to try her luck overseas. There were friends who had already done this and undoubtedly plenty of encouraging words from experienced performers like Clay Smith and Lee White. “London needs the fresh youth and talent which Australia can give,” said Smith before departing with Anona’s contemporary Billy Lockwood.

On her way to London in 1926, Anona stopped off in India, with a touring company performing some well known musical comedies, including Maid of the Mountains and Rose-Marie. The details of this tour are scant, but Australian papers reported her performances as a “personal triumph.” By December 1926 she was in England, appearing as “a charming Iris” in the musical comedy A Greek Slave, touring the United Kingdom for twelve weeks with José Collins. She then toured the UK with a Daly’s Theatre company production of The Blue Mazurka.

Anona Winn with José  Collins in A Greek Slave. Nottingham Evening Post 12 Feb 1927. Copyright of this image is held by Reach Plc, via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Despite stories that she struggled to be noticed at first in London’s competitive theatre scene (it was claimed she threw her book of press cuttings into the Thames in frustration), Anona was later to confirm that being able to sight-read music and sing well was a great advantage in auditions. Her first credited part in a London show was as “Looloo Martin” in the US musical Hit the Deck at the Hippodrome in late 1927, after another player took ill. Her career never looked back.

As with much of Anona’s life, the precise timing of her achievements have become a little hazy over time and in some cases, details have changed in the telling. However, it is clear that in addition to continuing to appear on stage, Anona also appeared on British radio from about 1928 – her first performance being in a program called Fancy Meeting You! She was heard as a regular radio performer from early 1930, presenting You Ought to Go on the Wireless for the BBC followed by a string of other radio shows. The Bungalow Club of 1938 was Anona’s own concept – a mock riverside club, with cabaret turns, comedy and Anona as hostess. At the same time, as well as recording popular works (at one stage with her own dance band –Anona Winn and her Winners), she also wrote original songs – her records being well received in the UK and Australia. Her repertoire was broad; Theatre Historian Peter Pinne notes that in the early 1930s Anona performed works by composer and fellow Australian Dudley Glass, inspired by several children’s books, for the BBC Children’s Hour. In 1935 “The Guardian” commented that she never seemed content with just one style of broadcast. There was always some attractive variety, frequently a novelty- perhaps an impression of a “popular type” or someone else. At the same time, “her pleasantly informed microphone manner (was) a distinct asset in…light…entertainment”.

Anona Winn on the cover of the Radio Times Television Supplement (UK), April 16, 1937, via http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc.

In 1933, in the early days of experimental TV broadcasting, she was in at least one TV show called Looking In, that apparently still survives. And six months after the BBC began regular TV broadcasting in 1936 she was there again, performing in another revue. In 1934 she had her first and only part in a feature film – a supporting role in British Lion’s On the Air. “Variety” magazine found little to say about it, other than describing it as essentially a revue of “acts of well known and popular artists… surrounded by a modicum of story,” a not uncommon plot device in sound films of this time.

Anona Winn 1938 anona-1940-

Above – Left: Anona continued to appear on stage well into the 1940s. Left; The Radio Pictorial 23 September 1938, via Lantern Digital Media Project. Right: on stage with fellow Australian Florrie Forde in Portsmouth. Portsmouth Evening Herald 24 Feb 1940 via British Library Newspaper Archive, Johnston Press PLC.

In January 1947 the BBC announced their new quiz Twenty Questions, based on an old parlour game with a radio format purchased from the US. It was a runaway success and Anona was on the panel for most of its 29 year run, demonstrating an uncanny ability to regularly guess the show’s “mystery object.” In 1965 she hosted another radio program of her own devising, entitled Petticoat Lane. A chat show featuring a panel of well-known women discussing issues raised by listeners, it was also very successful and despite appealing to an older and declining radio demographic, lasted until the late 1970s.

Her creative contributions beyond stage and radio were many, and unfortunately not all seem to be accurately recorded. In the mid 1930s she worked on a film script with Australian Marjorie Jacobson Strelitz, and it is also claimed she “voiced” actors who couldn’t sing for film, and to have composed for film. In an obituary, Peter Cotes noted that in later life she also had an interest in the dress-design firm Bernice and Partners. And she counted the likes of pioneer British producer-director Wendy Toye amongst her friends.

Above: Anona – fan photo c 1950. Author’s collection.

The early 1950s were an exciting time to be an Australian actor in London, and there were plenty working there to benefit from being part of the greater British Commonwealth – close enough to the home country to be part of it, but also confident and at enough of a remove to be able to stand back and gently send it all up, from time to time. Australians could celebrate this period (a final coming of age perhaps) not just through the shared confidence brought about by victory in the recent war, but also with the excitement of the 1956 Olympics, and the many benefits brought on by a booming economy at home. A seasoned performer like Anona shared in the enthusiasm and was often invited to speak publicly of her perspective of Britain, as an Australian. “Be proud of Britain,” she urged one audience. But like many, she worried about some of the changes she saw in 1960s Britain – the increasingly poor use of language, and dramatic changes in fashion – “what with our kinky boots and tights, and such short, short, skirts…”

She returned to Australia at least once, in March 1957, where she appeared on Australia’s fledgling ABC TV, in a quiz show called Find the Link, did other things that went unreported, then flew home to Britain on QANTAS, a true child of the Commonwealth.

Anona married Fred Lamport, a theatrical agent, at the Marylebone Registry office in July 1933. Sadly, the marriage was very short-lived. Both Fred and Anona were suffering pneumonia in early 1935. Anona recovered, but Fred did not – he died on 1 February 1935. She never remarried. Anona’s mother Lillian had joined her in London in the late 1920s, and lived with her and acted as her secretary and dresser for many years. Having lived much of her adult London life in a mock-Tudor apartment in Maida Vale, in the late 1980s she moved to Bournemouth where she died in 1994.

Her British obituaries were heartfelt, a voice that had been with Britain for so long, had gone.

Note 1 – Her Writing.
Between late 1924 and mid 1925 Anona Wilkins wrote a few very witty short stories for Australian newspapers, including the Sydney Evening News. These can be read online at Trove. Only two deal directly with the stage – The Voice Trial and 25 Years After. They are worth reading as a testimony to her sophisticated skills as a writer. These seem to have given rise to the idea she was a journalist, but there is no doubt she stayed on stage at the same time.

Note 2 – The enigma of her Birth.
English-born Lillian May Woodgate had married Scottish-born bookkeeper Andrew Balfour Barron in Sydney on 5 April 1902. Soon after this, Andrew Barron travelled to the United States to become head book keeper for Buckingham and Hecht, a large San Francisco shoe-manufacturer. In August 1907 he was charged with embezzling and his affair with a typist was uncovered during court proceedings. By this time Lillian was also in the US and she stood by him until his infidelity was revealed. The San Francisco Call of 22 August 1907 noted that she was accompanied in court by “2 year old daughter Anona.” Barron was sentenced to three years in San Quentin Prison and Lillian sued for divorce, returning to Australia soon after.

Anona’s original Australian birth certificate for January 1904 does not list any father, nor refer to Lillian and Andrew’s marriage. Did Lillian return to Australia to have the child? Did she have Anona by someone else? In 1919, Anona’s step-father William Wilkins made a declaration listing himself as Anona’s foster-father. The document also incorrectly suggested Lillian May Woodgate/Barron/Wilkins was Anona’s foster-mother. The ambiguities of these documents hint at turmoil and great personal unhappiness across two continents, and help explain why Anona was characteristically vague about her birth.

Fortunately, Lily and William’s marriage (1909) appears to have been a happy one, until his sudden death in October 1924.

Relevant Birth, Deaths and Marriages NSW – certificates

  • Lillian Woodgate and Andrew Barron, NSW Marriage Certificate, 5 April 1902, #2732/1902
  • Anona Barron, NSW birth certificate, 5 January 1904, #153/1904
  • Lillian Barron and William Wilkins Marriage Certificate, 21 April 1909 #3392/1909
  • Registered declaration regarding Anona Wilkins birth, 5 May 1919, #1687/1919

Nick Murphy
September 2020



Special thanks to Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Redlands school for her assistance.


Film clips

Radio clips

Music clips
There are a number of Winn’s songs to be found on social media. Here are a few:


  • Simon Elmes (2009) And Now on Radio 4: A Celebration of the World’s Best Radio …Arrow Books.
  • John Hetherington (1967) Melba. F.W.Cheshire
  • David Hendy (2008) Life on Air. A History of Radio 4. Oxford University Press
  • Barbara MacKenzie & Findlay MacKenzie (1967) Singers of Australia, From Melba to Sutherland. Lansdowne Press
  • Seán Street (2009) The A to Z of British Radio. The Scarecrow Press
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel . Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

The Independent (UK) Obituaries

  • June Averill, Anona Winn Obituary, The Independent, 18 Feb 1994
  • Peter Cotes, Anona Winn Obituary, The Independent, 14 March 1994

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

Lantern – Digital Media Project

  • Variety, Tues 13 Feb 1934

State Library of Victoria

  • The Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1923.

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Mail (SA) 4 August, 1923.
  • The Sun (Sydney) Sat 1 Sept, 1923
  • The Daily News (WA) 18 Sep 1925
  • Everyones. Vol. 5 No.330, 30 June 1926
  • The Bulletin.Vol. 57 No. 2920, 29 Jan 1936
  • The Wireless Weekly, 29 May 1938
  • ABC Weekly Vol. 2 No. 42, 19 October 1940
  • ABC Weekly, 6 April, 1957


  • The San Francisco Call, 22 Aug 1907.
  • The San Francisco Examiner, 7 Nov 1907
  • The Guardian, (UK) 8 June 1935.
  • Sydney Morning Herald, (Syd) 28 July 1938.
  • The Guardian, (UK) 8 Feb 1994.

British Library Newspaper Archive

  • The Stage, 25 Nov 1926
  • Nottingham Evening Post, 12 Feb 1927
  • The Stage, 31 March 1927
  • Daily Herald (London), 2 Feb 1935
  • Sheffield Independent, 22 April 1938
  • North Wales Weekly, 28 Jan 1960
  • Liverpool Echo 1 Nov 1962
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph 17 Mar 1966
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph 18 Mar 1966
  • The Stage, 24 Feb 1994


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

The very versatile Margaret Johnston (1914-2002)

Above: Margaret Johnston in a widely distributed publicity photo. Source probably Picture Show magazine c 1947. Photographer unknown. Author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born in Sydney in 1914, Margaret Johnston enjoyed a long career acting on stage and screen. She appeared in a dozen films, and numerous live and televised plays in a career lasting until 1968. She then spent another thirty years running the very successful Al Parker agency, that she took over from her husband in the 1960s. Helen Mirren recalled that Maggie “approached agenting in a very motherly way. Whether you were eating healthily was as important as what role you were playing. Making money mattered less than making a career.” She died in 2002.

Margaret Annette McCrie Johnston was the second of three daughters born in Sydney, New South Wales to James McCrie Johnston and Emily nee Lothian on 10 August, 1914. The family lived comfortably on Wolseley Rd in Mosman, in a home that enjoyed spectacular views of Sydney Harbour. Scottish born James Johnston was a senior executive of the Vacuum Oil Company in Australia – having joined the company in 1908. Emily Lothian had been born in England.

Above left – Margaret Johnston as a rising British film star and at right, making a cup of tea in her London flat. c 1947. Left; Picture Show Magazine postcard. Right; Film Star Parade Magazine. Author’s Collection.

More imaginative stories seem to surround Margaret Johnston and her career than is the case with most other expatriate Australian actors. Her place and date of birth is a constant source of confusion – but records show she was born in New South Wales on August 10, 1914, spent her childhood and adolescence in Sydney, and attended North Sydney Girl’s High School. (Not born in Coolangatta, Queensland, in 1918 as is sometimes claimed)

Local opportunities for Australian actors were limited in the 1930s – there were few films being made and some venues offering serious theatre (as opposed to Variety) had closed. In an effort to keep live theatre going, in the height of the Depression Dame Doris Fitton had established the Independent Theatre in Sydney. It was here that young Margaret Johnston had her first experience on the stage, appearing in supporting roles in Peter Pan and When Half Gods Go. She also appeared in Cherrie Acres written by Australian playwright, Dorothea Tobin, in December 1934. These small roles earned her an occasional mention in reviews, but not much more. Did she study law in Sydney at the same time, as has been claimed? It seems likely. But by the 1960s, British theatre programs were inclined to claim she was a fully qualified lawyer as well as being an accomplished actor, which seems very unlikely.

Margaret was 21 in March 1935, when she and her older sister Helen arrived in London on the Mongolia. Although one newspaper later presented the move as being “to learn her craft and get rid of her accent,” it probably had as much to do with James’s retirement from Vacuum oil, because the entire family packed up and left Australia for good around this time, moving to Harpenden, north of London. The move was not surprising, as there were no family connections in Australia to keep them, and work opportunities for Margaret and her sisters were much brighter in England.

Chester Chronicle, 24 June 1939 via British Newspaper Archive

Australian writer Hal Porter‘s overview of her work notes that before landing her first London role, she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and with Stefan Hock (1877-1947), a noted Viennese producer and director and one time associate of fellow Austrian director Max Reinhardt. Hock had arrived as a refugee in England in the mid 1930s, and regularly ran intensive drama schools and weekend programs in association with the British Drama League.

Margaret’s first role on stage was in Frank Harvey’s Saloon Bar at London’s Wyndham Theatre, opening on November 15, 1939. She played two roles in what a reviewer for The Stage described as a clever play of incidentals.“When the landlord unbolts the saloon doors of The Cap and Bells (a pub) he opens his house to a stream of humanity calculated to fire the imagination… Richard Bird … (producer) affords…(his) clever company the opportunity to draw delightfully human and varied cameos of London’s humbler sons and daughters.” It was a good start to a stage career. (When Michael Balcon made a film of the play, he used another expat Australian, Mavis Villiers in her role.)

Margaret’s first film appearance was an uncredited role in the 1941 biography of Benjamin Disraeli, called The Prime Minister, but pursuing a film career seems never to have been her priority. Brian McFarlane‘s survey of the British film industry notes that despite a string of memorable performances”, her regular returns to the stage meant that “her film career never built momentum.” It is also the case that she was selective with film roles and this she repeatedly admitted to journalists, as early as 1945 and 1946, following her success in Sidney Gilliat‘s film The Rake’s Progress with Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer. And looking back during her 1992 interview with McFarlane, she admitted again that she had always preferred the stage.

Thus it was roles on stage that built her reputation as a skilled and versatile actor. John Gielgud directed her in The Last of Summer in 1944, based on Kate O’Brien‘s novel. She reportedly made a lasting impression with her interpretation of the young Angele, who confronts the possessive mother (Fay Compton) in the play’s tumultuous final scene. She also acquitted herself well in an otherwise disappointing revival of The Barretts of Wimpole Street at the Garrick in 1948.

Describing Johnston as a “disciplined and subtle player,” Hal Porter notes that she was often cast in roles where, “beneath… (a) restrained, refined and even diffident manner, a passionate nature dangerously simmers”. This aptly applies to her third film, A Man about the House (1947), where she plays Agnes, one of a pair of sisters who inherit a villa in Italy. Falling in love with the villa and with the resident manager Salvatore (Keiron Moore), she soon starts to feel ill. We, the viewers, realise he is poisoning her to gain control of the property. Salvatore endures a thumping from the sisters very English friend, before he throws himself off a cliff in despair.

Left; Advertisement for A Man About the House. Right; Publicity photo of Margaret Johnston c 1950. Author’s collection.

Portrait of Clare, made in 1950 and directed by Lance Comfort, is a story of a woman’s three marriages told in flashback. The film received indifferent reviews and the expected boost to Margaret’s career did not occur. Years later she recalled briefly walking off the set after a dispute with Comfort. “That’s the Australian coming out in me,” she told interviewer Brian McFarlane. But John Boulting‘s The Magic Box, made with an all star cast to celebrate The Festival of Britain in 1951, demonstrated her fine acting again.

Apparently interested and confident enough to push her boundaries further, in 1954 she learned enough French to take a part in René Clément‘s Monsieur Ripois (also known as Knave of Hearts), an entertaining change from British studio fare of the time. She learnt her lines phonetically, as she couldn’t speak French. A year later she appeared in Touch and Go, an Ealing comedy which concerned an English family considering migrating to Australia. Although, in the end, they decide not to go, for publicity purposes Johnston dutifully appeared at PR events with real British families about to emigrate to Australia.

On stage she appeared to great acclaim playing the highly strung Alma Winemiller, in Tenessee WilliamsSummer and Smoke and from the mid 1950s, in seasons of Shakespeare at Stratford.

Now don’t be alarmed… says Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins), as he explains his idea to emigrate. A scene from Touch and Go. Motion Picture Herald Oct-Dec 1955. Via Lantern Digital Media Project

Margaret Johnston as Anne, shouting in English and French at André (Gérard Philipe). Johnston claimed her English accent in Knave of Hearts was an Australian one and her French very poor due to the non-Parisian tutor she had. Source – Youtube (French version) of the film.

In 1946 Margaret married Al Parker, a Brooklyn-born director 25 years her senior. Parker had directed films in Hollywood in the twenties, including the early colour film The Black Pirate with Douglas Fairbanks. By the mid 1930s he was making crime thrillers for Fox at their British studios. Parker had formidable connections and quickly established his own agency. Fellow agent Richard Gregson suggested Parker’s approach was more casual than later agents, he was a “pre-war” type of agent. In the mid 1960s, having made a few more films, Margaret took over running the agency, as Al’s health failed. (He died in August 1974.) She was known to all her clients as Maggie Parker by this time.

Al Parker Ltd advertises its client list in Variety 15 January, 1947. This is only part of the ad, which also headlined James Mason, Parker’s leading client. It can be read in full here. Via Lantern, The Digital Media Project.

Margaret Johnston finally retired from actively running the Al Parker agency in the mid 1990s. She died on June 29, 2002, aged 88. Obituaries recalled her powerful stage presence. The Guardian wrote of her “ethereal charm” while the Telegraph Group‘s obituary wrote that she could “project emotional intensity and neurotic femininity from a seemingly wraith like personality“. James Mason‘s complimentary description of her as an agent was recalled by The Stage. Before he died in 1984 he had written that she was “a formidable agent in her own right… potential employers knew that they could not expect her to lower her guard and allow them to take advantage of her clients. An infectious serenity pervades her office.”

But the last word should go to the very modest and restrained actor herself. When Brian McFarlane asked her what she thought was the highlight of her film career, she answered “I don’t think I have one, do I?”

Actress Angela Scoular (1945-2011) was Margaret’s niece.

Nick Murphy
July 2020

Further Reading


Most of Margaret Johnston’s films are available on DVD. Several are currently mounted on US social media websites, such as Youtube. These include


  • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
  • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI/Methuen
  • Brian McFarlane (1999) Lance Comfort. Manchester University Press.
  • Helen Mirren (2011) In the Frame. My life in words and pictures. Simon and Schuster
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen . Rigby.
  • Jürgen Seul (2010) Old Shatterhand vor Gericht: Die 100 Prozesse des Schriftstellers Karl May.  Karl-May-Verlag [Old Shatterhand on trial: the 100 lawsuits of the writer Karl May]

The British Newspaper Archive

  • Chester Chronicle, 24 June 1939
  • The Stage, Thursday 23 November 1939
  • The Tatler and Bystander, 15 October 1947
  • Sunday Independent (Dublin) July 7, 2002
  • The Stage, July 11, 2002

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

Lantern – The Digital Media Project

  • Variety, 15 January, 1947
  • Motion Picture Herald, Oct-Dec 1955.

National Library of Australia – Trove

  • The Sydney Morning Herald, Wed 19 Dec 1928 P20 NORTH SYDNEY GIRLS’ HIGH SCHOOL.
  • Sydney Mail, Wed 12 Dec 1934 P60 Cherrie Acres
  • Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) Wed 10 Jan 1945, P4 How Sydney Girl became a film Star.
  • The Age (Melbourne) Mon 10 Dec 1945 P5 Australian Girl’s Film Success
  • Sunday Times (WA) Sun 23 Dec 1945, P4 Hollywood offers rejected
  • Sun (Sydney) 24 Feb 1946, P14 Australian Margaret Johnston back on stage.

The Guardian (UK)

  • Eric Shorter, The Guardian 7 Aug 2002 Obituary Stage and Screen actress whose hallmark was neurotic power.


  • The Guardian 9 Jun 1944, Page 6