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

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

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

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

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

The Cuthbertson family of Perth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older Brothers in Britain 1938-1944

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

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

Allan & Henry join the RAAF 1941-1946

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

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

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

Allan Cuthbertson in Britain 1947 +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Henry Cuthbertson in Australia 1946 – 1988

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

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

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

Nick Murphy

20 March 2021


References

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Note 1. Family

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

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

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

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


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

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


Nick Murphy
March 2021


References

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

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

Above: Sara Gregory c1950-55 – unmarked collector’s card. Author’s Collection

The Five Second Version
Sara Gregory was a very popular stage performer in Britain in the 1940s and early 50s. Born in Australia in 1919, she studied at London’s RADA and returned to tour Australia performing Gilbert and Sullivan in 1940-42. Back in England she appeared in numerous musicals and pantomimes, usually as the Principal Girl. One of her standout successes was Zip Goes A Million, a George Formby musical based on Brewster’s Millions. She retired in the mid 1950s, aged only in her 30s. She appeared in some televised versions of her stage plays, but appears to have been too busy to work in film. Her husband was actor and theatrical agent Richard Stone.

Olivia Sara Leveson Gregory, the youngest of four daughters of Hugh Campbell Gregory and Katharine nee Leveson, was born in Sydney in 1919. Her English born parents had married in London in 1903 before moving to Kobe, Japan, where Hugh became a merchant handling products for export to the West. After living in Kobe’s foreign settlement for several years (during which time their two oldest daughters were born), the family relocated to Sydney where Hugh became a partner in Reid & Gregory, importers, describing themselves to the public as “Eastern Merchants” and handling a range of products – slippers, glass, ceramicware and silks. In the early 1920s, the family moved to Adelaide where Hugh Gregory established another importing business.

In common with some of the other young Australian women who made names for themselves as actors in Britain in the 1930s and 40s, Sara’s experiences in a school that fostered a passion for the arts seems to have been crucial. She attended Walford House School in Adelaide between 1930 and 1936, where she clearly excelled at her studies, the school’s magazine regularly listing her scholarly success and numerous dramatic and musical performances. By her final year she had become a Prefect and House Captain. It seems likely that while still at Walford she had determined to pursue further studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, as she departed for England only a few months after finishing school. Miss Mabel Baker, the school’s long-serving Headmistress, must have been very proud watching Sara’s career unfold.

Above: Sara Gregory, standing at left, as a Walford House Captain in 1936. Walford House Magazine. Used with kind permission of Walford Anglican School for Girls Archive.

From a young age Sara also pursued creative interests outside school. In 1931 she was reported as dancing with Lorraine Angus – an extraordinary Adelaide child prodigy not much older than herself, who gave her own lessons and ran her own concerts, explaining that she did it herself because “grown-ups often get in the way“. In mid 1935 Sara took the lead role in a production of Children in Uniform, a play by German Christa Winsloe. It was a serious and confronting drama about a student’s love for her teacher – which ends in suicide, all set against a background of a strict Prussian girls’ school. It was presented by Adelaide’s Worker’s Education Association (WEA) Little Theatre, and directed by Adelaide resident and former Australian film star Agnes Dobson.

Above: Children in Uniform by the WEA Little Theatre. Left: The Advertiser (Adelaide) 31 July 1935, Right: Performers in the play (Sara is front row, second from the left) News,(Adelaide) 31 July 1935, both via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Children in Uniform was an unusual choice of play for an Australian semi-professional troupe at the time, with its all female cast and suggestions of same sex-love. The Adelaide Mail offered its congratulations to Sara for her performance, and to the WEA for its “delicate handling of a doubtful theme.”

In March 1937 Sara and her older sister Pat departed for England on the Moreton Bay. In London there was a large extended family – from both her mother’s and father’s sides – ready to look after her interests while she studied at RADA. On arrival, the girls headed to Berkeley Gardens in Kensington, to the home of their unmarried maternal aunt Pauline. 24 year old Pat was planning to teach in Britain.

Sara excelled at RADA and by March 1939 she had completed her diploma. The Stage newspaper reported her among the performers at the Academy’s annual performance at the Apollo Theatre and noted that she was the event’s bronze prize winner – a great achievement for a 20 year old girl from Australia. She had already made her first appearance on stage in a pantomime a few months earlier during the winter break – in the leading role of Cinderella, playing through English regional centres.

Above: Sara Gregory in Robert Donat’s The Glass Slipper, a later retelling of the Cinderella story, at St James Theatre in December 1945. She was later to claim this was her favourite part. Cyril Andrews (1947) The Theatre, The Cinema and Ourselves. Clarence House Press. via Lantern Digital Archive.

In the summer of 1939, while performing in a cabaret at Saltburn-by-the-Sea, a coastal town in Yorkshire, Sara met fellow actor Richard Stone, whom she would eventually marry. Stone’s unusually candid autobiography, published shortly before his death in 2000, notes that Sara’s “formidable” uncle Lance Leveson (a senior manager at Vickers Armstrong) seriously disliked him, which may explain what happened next. In late 1939, Sara (apparently with Lance’s active encouragement) auditioned for and won a role in a company being formed to tour Gilbert and Sullivan operettas throughout Australia for J.C Williamson’s. Yet this could only be a part of the story. Sara’s mother Katharine had joined her in England in 1938 and must also have encouraged the audition and the return to Australia. She travelled with Sara on the Orontes in January 1940. Australian papers announced the impending return of the successful young actress, who, they reported, had always wanted to play Gilbert and Sullivan, ever since she saw Evelyn Gardiner on stage in Australia. Gardiner herself was in the company, with Viola Tait (then Viola Hogg-Wilson), Max Oldaker, Richard Watson, Vincent McMurray and others.

War had already been declared when the Orontes set sail, and the voyage was an anxious one. Viola Tait recalled rehearsing with Sara amongst passengers often “hanging around in agitated groups, speculating on the U-boat menace.” They arrived safely in Australia in February 1940.

Above, Left: Sara Gregory on her return to Australia, at the start of the long G&S tour, The Herald (Melb) 1 Feb 1940. Right: On arrival in Adelaide. The Mail (Adel) 24 May 1941, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Viola Tait, who became a close friend, described Sara thus in her autobiography – “her hair festooned her pretty features… and her retroussé (turned up) nose almost vanished when she smiled and showed her perfect white teeth. She was an ideal soubrette for Gilbert and Sullivan.” For the next two years, the company toured every major city in Australia and New Zealand, Sara performing the soubrette roles together with Phyllis Curnow. The company opened in Sydney with The Gondoliers in March 1940. Reviews of her work on the tour were consistently enthusiastic – Melbourne’s The Age remarked that while her voice “was small”, it was “tuneful” and she displayed “a roguish comic sense.” Brisbane’s Telegraph was impressed by her “everlasting vivaciousness.” Her return to Adelaide in May 1941 received great publicity and her former Headmistress was able to confirm what an outstanding student she had been. It was while in Adelaide and shortly after her 22nd birthday that she announced her engagement to Richard Stone (although he was still in England and now in the Army). In his memoirs, Stone recalled that she had accepted his proposal before she left England.

With a fortuitous offer of work in the UK, Sara was able to leave Australia in early 1942, once she found a passenger-cargo ship that would carry her. (The offer of work was vital, as without it she could not travel in wartime). Sailing via the Pacific, the Panama Canal and east coast USA, the SS Sarpedon finally got Sara to England again in late April 1942 – the last leg from Nova Scotia to Liverpool being in an escorted convoy. Within a few days of arrival in England she married Richard Stone, who then promptly returned to the Army for another two years.

Above: Sara Gregory, c November 1947. Program cover photo for the musical Good Night Vienna, playing at the New Opera House, Blackpool. Author’s Collection.

Her first appearance on the London stage occurred only a few weeks later, as a member of the revue Light and Shade at the Ambassadors Theatre. In December 1942 she appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Westminster Theatre, The Stage picking the 23 year old out for comment as “a charming Titania,” who sang beautifully. Although Sara was busy performing in London and on tour throughout the war, Viola Tait has noted that it was her 1944 role as Goody, the Principal Girl in the pantomime Goody Two Shoes, that broke records at the Coliseum Theatre and ran for 175 performances. Sara’s mezzo-soprano voice and short stature seems to have ensured she consistently played wholesome Principal Girl roles in pantomimes – including in Robert Donat‘s The Glass Slipper (1945), Dick Whittington (1949) and Cinderella (1951).

Principal Boy roles in pantomimes are also traditionally played by young women – but almost always in a short tunic and usually showing off as much leg as possible. (See one of Sara’s co-stars, Hy Hazell below right, for example).

Above: Left – Program cover for Zip Goes a Million, c 1952, starring Sara Gregory, and by this time, Reg Dixon (who had replaced George Formby). Right – Unrelated to the show but in the same program, Hy Hazell was announced as Principal Boy in an upcoming Jack and Jill panto from the same producer, Emile Littler. Program in the author’s collection.

Sara’s best remembered role came in 1951, when she won a leading part as as Sally Whittle in Zip Goes a Million, a musical version of the 1902 novel Brewster’s Millions, playing opposite the very popular British singer George Formby (as Percy Piggott).

Zip Goes a Million was a significant commitment and remains a testimony to her capacity – as Sara had three young children by this time, and her husband Richard Stone was working hard to establish his own business as an agent. The show ran for 540 performances between October 1951 and February 1953 and despite indifferent reviews on opening, grew to be an enormous success. George Formby was apparently an easy co-star to work with, but his wife Beryl was recalled by both Stone and Sara as difficult and jealous, often watching performances from the wings, checking for any imagined impropriety between Sara and Formby. Formby withdrew in April 1952 because of ill health and Reg Dixon took over the role. When the show went on tour, Sara dropped out, to spend more time with her young family.

She did not immediately retire, as some accounts have suggested – it seems more like a leisurely exit. She appeared in a long run of The Two Bouquets in 1953, and a short run of East Lynne in 1954. At least several of these later plays were filmed for television, a practice common in the early days of British television – serving to foster interest in a current theatre production while also providing cheap and quick TV programming. Despite her popularity, she did not appear in any British films, although in his memoirs, Richard Stone notes one instance where Sara was offered a film role which she had to decline because of stage commitments. She also returned to the stage at least once in later life. In 1975 she played the fairy godmother in a Cinderella panto in Canada.

Stone’s memoirs also record that he and Sara Gregory returned to Australia several times in the 1970s and 80s. Her last visit was to celebrate the launch of the book Dames, Principal Boys…and All That, by her long time friend Viola Tait, in April 2001.

Although she and Stone retired to the Isle of Wight, later in life she spent some of her time in California to be nearer her children. She died there in April 2014.


An Australian performer?

In early 1948, Australian comedian and resident in London, Dick Bentley interviewed Sara and actor Bill Kerr for radio. Although the recording couldn’t be sourced for this article, it is safe to assume Bentley was asking them about their experiences as Australian actors working in England. Sara’s experience closely mirrors that of other Australian women who made England home at about the same time – Lucille Lisle, Judy Kelly, Nancy O’Neil and others. It might suit our purposes today to believe she identified as an Australian. But the answer is probably very simple – it didn’t really matter that much at the time, certainly not as much as today – in an era of heightened national consciousness. Australians then seem to have thought of themselves as variations of the British race.

This 1940 photo from the collections of the National Library of Australia shows Sara at “Cook’s Cottage” (the family home of Captain James Cook) in Melbourne. The cottage had been moved to Australia from England only 6 years before to celebrate the City of Melbourne’s centenary of British settlement. 80 years on it is still there, now as much a reminder of how Australians once felt about England, as it is a monument to James Cook.

Above: Sara Gregory (at right). Photo also shows (Left and Centre) singers Helen Fullard and John Fullard with Sara while visiting Cook’s Cottage, Melbourne, 1940. National Library of Australia, Lady Viola Tait collection.

Nick Murphy
January 2021


Special Thanks
To Eleanor Adams, Archivist, Walford Anglican School for Girls, for access to the Walford House Magazine.

References

  • Text
    • Cyril Bruyn Andrews (1947) The Theatre, The Cinema and Ourselves. Clarence House Press
    • Gale Research Co (1978) Who was who in the Theatre 1912-1976 Vol 2, D-H. Gale Research Company, Detroit.
    • Charles Osborne (1988) Max Oldaker, Last of the Matinee Idols. Michael O’Mara Books
    • Richard Stone (2001) You should have been in Last Night. Book Guild Publishing.
    • Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. The Taits and J C Williamson, a Theatre History. Heinemann.
    • Viola Tait (2001) Dames, Principal Boys– and All That: A History of Pantomime in Australia. MacMillian.
    • Viola Tait, Elisabeth Kumm (Ed) (2018) I Have a Song to Sing – Some Memories of Gilbert and Sullivan and JC Williamson Ltd. Theatre Heritage Australia/Tait Memorial Trust.
    • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage 1950-1959 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Original US archival documents sourced from
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The News (Adel) Sat 17 Oct 1931, P1
    • The Advertiser (Adel) 31 July 1935
    • The News (Adel) 31 July 1935
    • The News (Adel) Tue 15 Dec 1936, P3
    • The Herald (Melb) 1 Feb 1940
    • The Advertiser (Adel) 20 Feb 1940, P16
    • Sydney Morning Herald 27 Feb 1940, P5
    • The Mail (Adel) Sat 24 May 1941, P12
    • The News (Adel) Tue 3 Jun 1941, P6
    • The Advertiser (Adel) Wed 9 Jan 1946, P3
    • ABC Weekly Vol. 10 No. 15 (10 April 1948)
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage – Thursday 9 Mar 1939, P11
    • The Stage – Thursday 3 Jan 1946, P9
    • The Sketch – Jan 23, 1946, P38
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Ottawa Journal 11 Jan 1975, P35

Nancy O’Neil (1907-1995)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lorraine & Barbara’s careers

Lorraine  barbara-smith-1935-

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

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

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


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

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


Nick Murphy
November 2020


Further Reading

Thanks:

  • Prue Heath, Archivist, SCEGGS Darlinghurst.

Text:

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

Web:

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

Lucille Lisle (1908 – 2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nick Murphy
24 October 2020


Further Reading

Web

Text

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

National Library of Australia’s Trove

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

Papers Past

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

British Library Newspaper project

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

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

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

Audio

Film

Text

  • 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

Newspapers.com

  • 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

Variety

  • Wally Peterson Obituary, April 3, 2011

The Times

  • Joy Nichols Obituary 29 June 1992

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 the Roman goddess of the Harvest. 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.

Popular enough to be advertising. The Sun (Sydney), 27 May 1923 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

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: 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


References

Thanks

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

Websites

Film clips

Radio clips

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

Text

  • 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

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

Newspapers.com

  • 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

 

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

Films

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

Text

  • 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.

Newspapers.com

  • The Guardian 9 Jun 1944, Page 6

Wanda Radford (1896-1982) – The Australian “Wunderkind”

Above: Wanda Radford, photographed for a German postcard in about 1910. Courtesy of Jean Ritsema.

The 5 second version
She was born Blanche Wanda Radford on 22 June 1896 in Adelaide, South Australia. She died 16 September 1982 in Sydney, New South Wales. On stage from a very young age, first in Australia, then Germany and Britain, Wanda attracted considerable publicity. In 1915 she appeared in a few British films as Blanche Bryan and then another in 1918 under her own name. She returned to Australia after WWI and took up art and costume design.

For a short time in the early Twentieth Century, “Little Wanda Radford” from Adelaide was heralded as the Australian “Wunderkind” (wonder child),  an outstanding child prodigy. She was an entertaining elocutionist, reciter, singer and dancer, if we are to believe British, German and Australian newspapers of the time – and so, so young.

Blanche Wanda Radford was born in South Australia in 1896 to Randolph Radford and his London-born wife of “Polish-German” origin, Minna Henrietta nee Kuwatsch. She was an only child, an older brother having died in infancy the year before. Wanda first appeared on stage in early 1903, in a concert organised by a Sydney Temperance Lodge. In August she was appearing for Harry Musgrove singing In the Pale Moonlight at Centenary Hall. At the ripe old age of 7 she was one of Musgrove’s artists and debutantes appearing who “were free to accept engagements for the stage, concert platforms, or at homes.” In December 1903 she was on stage in Sydney for J.C. Williamson’s, performing in the pantomime Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. We know Minna managed and accompanied her, as she is repeatedly mentioned in accounts over the next few years.


Happy New Year C 1905-6    Flohm on Wanda 20 April 1907 SMH

Left: Prosit Neujahr! Happy New Year! A Georg Gerlach postcard c 1905. Courtesy Jean Ritsema.
Right: Bertram Flohm advertising himself and profiling his work with Wanda – Sydney Morning Herald 20 April 1907. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1904-5, Wanda trained under Bertram Flohm, a young elocutionist who had won the first ever Ballarat Royal South Street Championship for speech and drama in 1898. Flohm had quickly established himself in Sydney as a “Lecturer on Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Theological Institutions; Teacher of Elocution for Stage, Pulpit, Platform and Bar.” Clearly Wanda became one of his star pupils. By March 1905, Flohm was hosting a farewell concert for Wanda – she was about to leave with her mother to pursue a career in Europe. Indeed, she spent some months there and performed in Berlin and Vienna.

In late 1905, Oscar Klein, a jounalist for Berlin’s Bühne und Brettl wrote the following of “little Radford. She sings English, but how! … The 8-year-old girl, brunette with black fiery eyes, performs like a mature woman. Graceful in every movement, even refined in her facial expressions. I am not usually a fan of the Wunderkinder, but Angelika [another performer] and Radford, the smallest soubrettes on the world’s stages, fascinated me and delighted the audience to the highest degree.” 

Wanda also appeared at the new Apollo Theatre in Vienna in late 1905. But one could be forgiven for thinking Wanda performed on her own, as Australian newspaper reports suggested. In fact, she was part of a variety called the Liliput Circus, and was one of a number of juvenile performers appearing at the Apollo.


The Fatherland Nov 16 1905  Wanda 1906

Left: Ben Tieber’s Apollo Theatre, advertising in Das Vaterland (The Fatherland). 16 November 1905. Via Austrian National Library ANNO Newspapers.
Right: Wanda Radford in a very early postcard, c 1906. Society of Swedish Literature in Finland,
National Library of Finland, Via Europeana Collections

A correspondent from the Chicago Tribune who saw her perform in early 1906 wrote “I had an opportunity to hear the bright black-eyed little woman recite …from Romeo and Juliet, in a manner full of dramatic warmth, understanding and intelligent conception…” In May 1906 she travelled with her mother to London, and she spoke publicly of those she had met in Germany who encouraged her – including socialite Madam Kirsinger of Berlin and later, Australian soprano Nellie Melba. Late in 1906 she appeared for Beerbolm Tree in the title role of a stage version of Oliver Twist, in what British newspapers described as “a wonderfully natural and pleasing style”, “her clever acting and clear enunciation” evoking the “warmest admiration.”

Minna Radford, clearly an early believer in the concept that “all publicity is good publicity,” passed all these compliments on to the Australian press. The story that Wanda was to give Princess Victoria Louise (the Kaiser’s daughter) acting lessons, that first surfaced in Australia on 16 March 1907, and then a few days later in the London Sketch, also appears to owe itself to Minna’s efforts to write home with all the good news. It was endlessly repeated in Australia, Britain and even the US, a country which Wanda would not visit for another 20 years. (see Note 1, below)

Reporting of Wanda’s experiences shifted continually over the next few years, suggesting a degree of tension over work, study and what she could really manage as an adolescent. Her “temporary retirement” from the stage was announced several times – in May 1907 and again in March 1909. But then, she was always soon back on stage again, reciting and singing, in Germany and England and from 1910, reportedly studying at the Paris Conservatoire. Bad luck might have really dogged her career – in July 1911 Minna wrote to Australia of Wanda performing for W.S. Gilbert and his high opinion of her talent. But sadly, Gilbert had suffered a fatal heart attack in May and his active support of her career was not to be.

In 1910, a dramatic new series of photos of Wanda appeared. Gone was the little girl with carefully “ragged” (curled) hair. The photos of adolescent Wanda, looking dreamy and wearing not much more than cheesecloth, had widespread circulation. And Wanda was now being described “as unquestionably the most beautiful girl in Australasia.” (Alone amongst papers, London Tatler later corrected the misinformation about her age. She was only 14 when the photos below were taken). She was reportedly studying in Paris in 1911-12, but a breakdown in her health was announced in February 1913, and another temporary retirement from the stage occurred.


GGCo825   GGCo824    Wanda Radford in 1910

Above: Some of the photos of Wanda that appeared in 1910.  Left and Centre; Georg Gerlach postcards via Jean Ritsema. Right: This Gerlach photo appeared in many newspapers in Britain and the US. This copy is from The Goodwin Weekly, Salt lake, Utah, 31 December 1910. Via newspapers.com.

Perhaps the most unequivocal exposure of the conflicting forces in Wanda’s life appeared in 1914. In February and March, Minna wrote to South Australian friends, requesting they start a fund to support Wanda. Minna’s letter explained “I thought you might get up a little fund for Wanda. She is a South Australian and surely there are some rich people there who will not let such a talent as Wanda has, be lost for the want of funds. . . .  A lady gave me £10 to buy a new artificial foot*, but I had to spend it on Wanda: I could not see her want.” (*Minna apparently had some type of disability). The call for subscriptions appeared in Adelaide’s Register newspaper in May and June, countersigned by old family friend Mrs Caroline Dove, the wife of very well-known Anglican Archdeacon George Dove. Mrs Dove had also raised a public subscription for Wanda several years before.

Soon after, Wanda’s father Randolph, now managing the popular inner city Adam’s Tattersall’s Hotel in Pitt Street, Sydney, wrote to the paper to express “surprise and regret” that the subscription had been raised and asking it to be cancelled. “Sufficient funds” were being sent to Minna and Wanda he explained.

Sons of Satan
Above: What has happened here? Unfortunately we don’t know. Wanda playing Winifred West (left) in a scene from Sons of Satan, made in 1915. Moving Picture World Jan-March 1916. Via Lantern

In 1915, a year after the outbreak of war,  18 year old Wanda, living in England again, turned to the cinema. The London Film Company was a newly established British production company, and Wanda appeared in three of their 1915 films, using the stage name Blanche Bryan. The films were Sons of Satan,  the four-part “slum drama” The Man in the Attic and The King’s Outcast. Unfortunately, none of these films are easily found today. However, we know the “detective thriller” Sons of Satan was well received, with Wanda in the leading role as Winifred West. In the film, Winifred and her boyfriend Lord Desford manage to thwart an evil gang of villains. Wanda appeared in a final British film in 1918, using her own name.

Wanda Radford in 1926 The Home

Above: Wanda Radford in 1926. The Home. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

But Wanda’s interests changed again – she did not pursue a career on stage or in film. In 1920, she was credited with designing some of the costumes for Gladys Unger and  K. K. Ardaschir’s musical Sunshine of the World, which played for a month at The Empire Theatre. She had become a skilled artist and dress designer, as became clear on her return to Australia in mid 1923. She soon found work as an artist and illustrator – much of her work appearing in The Home magazine, and was active in Sydney’s Society of  Artists.

wanda art for The Home 1 Jan 1927     Cover the Home Vol 6 No1 1925

Above:  Wanda’s art. Left A Wanda Radford illustration from The Home, Vol 8, No 1, 1927. The caption is “Pathetic instance of lady who has applied patent lip-shaped stamp in ignorance ( or deliberately regardless) of the author’s kindly warning”.
Right – Cover of The Home  Vol 6 No 1, 1925. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Wanda was reputedly also one a small group of “clever women” who Sydney’s Sun newspaper reported were drawing high salaries – in her case as a designer for David Jones department store.

Clearly talented in theatre and as a designer-artist, Wanda Radford left precious little of her own commentary on her life for historians, and her motivation for leaving the stage is still shrouded in mystery. But when she travelled back to the UK via the US in 1928 she made observations that leave us some clues. She said she loved the United States for its “youthfulness, where youth is given every opportunity for self-expression, as contrasted with the laggardness of European countries.” In this comment to the Boston Globe,  she was perhaps explaining why she chose to end her European stage career.

After her mother’s death in London in the mid-1930s, she returned to Sydney, where she died in 1982. She had no children and this writer has been unable to find a husband or partner. She described herself in official documents as a journalist or artist almost to the end of her life and lived comfortably in an apartment overlooking Sydney Harbour. That she was not interviewed by Australian journalists anytime in the last forty years of her life is regrettable.

Nick Murphy
February 2020


Note 1:
Regarding Wanda’s lessons for the Kaiser’s daughter in early 1907. The author has not yet found a German source that confirms this. However, any trip Wanda took from Britain to Germany to do this at the time it was reported (March 1907) must have been quite short. She was performing again in London on 1 May 1907.

Note 2:
Regarding Wanda’s escape from Germany in 1914. In September 1915, the Sydney Sun devoted space to a long account of Wanda’s escape from Germany on the outbreak of war. Unfortunately, it is also difficult to verify this, as the account does not appear in print anywhere else.

Note 3:
An actor by the name of Blanche Bryan was performing on stage in the US in the 1910s. She is unrelated to Wanda.

Special thanks to

Jean Ritsema in Jackson Michigan, who kindly prompted me to research this worthy and forgotten Australian. She also kindly translated some German documents. Thank you again Jean.

Pearl Nunn is a PhD candidate who has previously done some research on Wanda. I have never communicated with her but found her light digital footsteps through the web very helpful – thanks Pearl.

Further Reading

Text:

  • Joy Damousi (2010) Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia, 1840-1940. Cambridge University Press.
  • Margaret Maynard (2001) Out of Line: Australian Women and Style. University of NSW Press
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Newspapers.com

  • Chicago Tribune 29 April 1906
  • Boston Globe 4 June 1928
  • The Goodwin Weekly 31 December 1910

The British Newspaper Archive

  • The Era – Saturday 15 December 1906
  • The Graphic – March – June 1929 for samples of her illustrations produced in the UK

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Evening News (SA) 11 Dec 1906
  • The Evening Journal (SA) 16 July 1906 (Note: This is a reasonably accurate account of her life to July 1906)
  • Sydney Morning Herald 20 April 1907
  • The Register (SA) 8 July 1911
  • The Sun (NSW) 26 Sept 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald 15 May 1920
  • The Sun (NSW) 20 March 1927.

The British National Portrait Gallery hold one photo of Wanda, taken by W. Walter Barnett in the early 1910s. See it here

The Dictionary of Sydney holds a photo of Wanda at the 1926 Sydney Artists Ball, (although she is mis-identified. She is almost certainly standing on the left, not the right) See it here

Europeana Collections

  • Berliner Börsenzeitung – 2 February 1908 (Berlin Stock Market Newspaper)

Austrian National Library – ANNO Austrian Newspapers online

  • Das Vaterland 16. November 1905
  • Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung: Ausgaben 1905

Lantern Media History Digital Library

  • Moving Picture World Jan-March 1916.

Hathi Trust Digital Library

The short, brilliant career of Janet Johnson (1914-1983)

Janet Johnson as she appeared on a cigarette card, London c 1938. She stood about 1.62 metres (5’4″) tall and had dark brown hair and grey eyes. (We owe this otherwise lost personal information to the very thorough US immigration records kept in the 1930s and 40s) Author’s collection.

Janet Johnson had a brief career in film and on stage in Australia and Britain. For a very short time, she made a name for herself as another of the talented and attractive Australian exports of the 1930s. Her career choices remain intriguing however – particularly the fact that she consciously declined a career in Hollywood and not long after, left acting behind altogether.

Janet Ramsay Johnson was born in Adelaide, South Australia in November 1914, to Arthur George Johnson and Jean Lea (Jeannie) nee Ramsay. She had an older sister – Margaret. Arthur was a manager with Pyrox, an Australian manufacturer of spark plugs and car radios. In the early 1920s the family had settled in the comfortable Melbourne suburb of Toorak and the girls attended St. Catherine’s school in nearby Heyington Place, almost next door to their home. It is notable that a number of her contemporaries at St Catherine’s also appeared on stage and in films, including Gwen Munro and her sister Mignon and Kathleen Rhys-Jones (known professionally as Margot Rhys).

Like many of those featured on this site, Janet Johnson’s family enjoyed a very comfortable middle class experience that seems to have enabled them to sail through the Great Depression. But it would be wrong to simply ascribe her success to a privileged background. She was a talented actor and her reputation completely deserved. However it is clear that socio-economic advantage made pursuit of an acting career much easier in the 1930s.

Left:  Janet Johnson (standing fourth from the left) and other society girls performing the “Sea Nymph Soiree,” a fund raiser for a hospital in 1933. Table Talk, 23 November 1933 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: Johnson featured in her coming out dress, in a page devoted to “society folk in attractive garb” Table Talk, 24 March 1932. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Johnson’s three years of stage experience in Australia was important in her development as an actor, as it exposed her to “serious” theatre, or what might be called theatre of “social conscience,” as opposed to the escapism of musicals and light comedies. She first appeared on the Australian stage under the direction of Gregan McMahon in a supporting role in Galsworthy’s The Pigeon in September 1932. McMahon notably mentored a number of young actors, including Coral Browne, Jocelyn Howarth, Thelma Scott, Elaine Hamill and Lloyd Lamble. The CBE awarded a few years before his death in 1941 was a very late recognition of years of effort.

Johnson also performed under McMahon’s direction in Children in Uniform, an English adaption of Christa Winsloe‘s boarding school drama Mädchen in Uniform, with Coral Browne in a leading role. It is difficult to know to what extent the play’s original lesbian theme survived translation and performance in Australia, as reviews made much of the depiction of the cruelty of a strict “Prussian” education.

From late 1934, Johnson appeared regularly in plays under the J.C. Williamson’s banner including the dramas The Shining Hour (August 1935) and Aimée and Phillip Stuart‘s Sixteen (October 1935) – concerning a heroine who has to work to support her fatherless family. In the latter play she received very positive reviews for her supporting role. The Argus newspaper felt she was “one of the most promising of the younger school of local actresses.”

Her first outings in film occurred in 1935. Early in the year Charles Chauvel made his panorama of Australian history – Heritage. According to some accounts, Johnson appeared as an extra in the “wife ship” scene – where Mary (then called Peggy) Maguire was playing an Irish immigrant girl. The scene can be viewed here at the Australian Screen/NFSA website. Unfortunately,  this writer cannot identify Janet Johnson with any confidence. Maguire and Johnson reportedly became friends at the time.Johnson 1935.jpg

Above: Janet Johnson at the height of her Australian stage successes, Table Talk, 24 October 1935. From the National Library of Australia’s Trove

Harry Southwell‘s The Burgomeister (also known as Flames of Conscience) was made in Sydney in the later half of 1935 and Johnson was cast in one of the leading roles. Based on a well known stage melodrama it was briefly screened in September but the film struggled to find a distributor. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper suggest this was because it was not very good. Just how bad it was we will never know, because the film is now lost, except for one short sequence. Then, in January 1936, visiting English Actor/Director Miles Mander cast the final roles in The Flying Doctor, a Gaumont British/National Pictures co-production being made in Sydney. He tested both Mary Maguire and Janet Johnson for the leading role. Although 22 year old Johnson had significantly more acting experience, Mander cast 17 year old Maguire in the role. Within a few weeks, Johnson determined to try her luck overseas and accompanied by her mother, departed for England on the SS Largs Bay.

lady of la paz030

Above: Program from The Lady of La Paz at the Criterion Theatre, June 1936. Australian John Wood was also in the cast. Author’s collection.

She fell into acting in London with remarkable ease. Soon after arrival she had a role in The Lady of La Paz, a stage play at the Criterion Theatre, which brought her in contact with established actor Lillian Braithwaite, rising star Nova Pilbeam and fellow Australian John Wood.  And shortly afterwards, she gained a supporting role in her first UK film, Everybody Dance, with Cicely Courtneidge. An even more exciting development occurred when she was offered work in Hollywood by none other than Joe Schenck, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, who had seen her perform. She and her mother arrived in the US in mid-November.

Mail Adelaide 3 april 1937
Above: Together in Hollywood. Mary Maguire with Miles Mander and Janet Johnson. The Mail (Adelaide), 3 April 1937. Mander encouraged a number of young Australian actors to try their luck overseas. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. A clearer copy of this photo is printed in this Daily Mail review of Michael Adam’s book on Mary Maguire.

But like John Wood and Margaret Vyner, Johnson came to the conclusion Hollywood was not for her. Although she met other industry people and must have been on a Fox retainer, she left the US in May 1937, having not made a film at all. Was she offered something she didn’t want or was she simply bored waiting around for work? Unfortunately,  we don’t know. “Hollywood made me feel such a fish out of water” she famously said of the experience. She told The Daily Mirror newspaper in January 1938 that she still had nightmares about the place. “If a girl wants to become a good actress the last place to go to is Hollywood” she said. There was one bonus to her visit to Hollywood however – she had met Charles Birkin, a young British writer, then working in the US. (Their attraction was definitely mutual, as he packed up and returned to Britain a week after Janet).

JAnet 1939

Above: Janet Johnson in a publicity photo for her London agent, Christopher Mann c.1939. Author’s collection

The next three years in England were Janet Johnson’s busiest and her reputation as a fine actor was consolidated. She featured in at least three British “quota quickies” – films made on a small budget and fairly quickly so as to fulfill studio obligations to the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927. The most interesting of these was Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard, a film about a female detective, and based on a character created by novelist Nigel Morland. However, Johnson’s major interest at this time was performing on stage, not in film.

Her first play back in England was in Diana Morgan‘s “slight comedy” Bats in the Belfry at the Ambassadors Theatre, working again with Lillian Braithwaite and taking over from Vivian Leigh in the supporting role of Jessica Moreton. She then appeared in a string of light comedies including Australian writer Max Murray’s The Admiral’s Chair, Robert E Sherwood‘s anti-war play Idiot’s Delight and Leslie Storm‘s Tony Draws a Horse. Her final play was Diana Morgan’s A House in the Square, again with Lillian Braithwaite.

In the late summer of 1937 Johnson also appeared in a series of Shakespeare performances for the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park  – including The Tempest and Comedy of Errors.

Above Left: Margaret Rawlings, Lillian Braithwaite and Janet Johnson in A House in the Square. The Bystander, 10 April 1940. The British Newspaper Archive/British Library. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Above Centre: Johnson with cast members of The Tempest. The Sphere, 4 Sept, 1937. The British Newspaper Archive/British Library. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Above Right. Janet and Charles Birkin. 18 July, 1940. The Herald, 18 July 1940. National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Her final film, The Proud Valley, released shortly before her marriage, was certainly her finest. A vehicle for African-American singer and actor, Paul Robeson, it was produced by Michael Balcon. Writing for the Melbourne Herald, Margaret Giruth reported: “This is a strong, beautifully directed film about a life that is stark and difficult and poverty-ridden. Paul Robeson sings and acts magnificently. So does Rachel Thomas as the mother. And magnificent is (also) the word for Janet Johnson’s acting…”

Seen today, the film might be said to be predictable and a little sentimental. But that it touched audiences at the time seems without question. Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was moved to write to Michael Balcon and congratulate him. The film “throbs with genuine human emotion and the acting is superb” he wrote.

Above: Screen grabs of Janet Johnson in her last and finest film  – The Proud Valley, 1940. The film is available on DVD through Amazon, the BFI and the Criterion Collection. Copy in the author’s collection.

Janet Johnson and Charles Birkin married in July 1940, and a few years later Birkin inherited a baronetcy from his father. Both Charles and Janet served during World War Two – Janet is reported to have driven ambulances and Charles was reported as wounded during the June 1944 landings at Normandy. Johnson did not appear on stage or in film again after the marriage, and there is no evidence she tried.

Two daughters and a son John, were born of the union. John Birkin has developed a long career directing for television and specializing in British comedy – amongst those he has worked with include Harry Enfield, Rowan Atkinson and French and Saunders.

Janet Johnson returned at least once to Australia, in 1962, to see her parents and friends again. Her sister Margaret worked in London for Vogue magazine for many years.

johnson in 1962

Above: Lady Janet Birkin in 1962, on a return to Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August, 1962. Via newspapers.com

Lady Janet Birkin lived much of her later life on the Isle of Man and died in 1983 in London – she was only in her late 60s at the time. Sadly she had left no reflections on her career in Australia and Britain. The Australian press did not notice her passing.


Nick Murphy
December 2019.

 


Further Reading

Film clips online

Text

  • Michael Adams (2019) Australia’s Sweetheart. Hachette.
  • Rose Collis. (2007) Coral Browne, This Effing Lady. Oberon Books, London
  • M. Danischewsky (Ed) (1947) Michael Balcon’s 25 Years in Film. World Film Publications, London
  • Maggie Gale (1996) West End Women: Women and the London Stage 1918 – 1962
    Routledge. London
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Limited, Adelaide.
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. A Guide to Feature Production. Oxford Uni Press/AFI
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1940-1949: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers, women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books

Web
Australian Dictionary of Biography online.


National Library of Australia – Trove

  • Table Talk Thursday 24 Mar 1932 Society Folk in Attractive Garb
  • Table Talk Thursday 23 Nov 1933, Table Talk of the Week
  • The Sydney Morning Herald Tue 21 May 1940 HORSES AND BUGGIES IN MAYFAIR
  • The Herald, 18 July 1940.

Newspapers.com

  • The Age 18 August 1962 Flew from London
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August, 1962

British Library/British Newspaper Archive

  • The Bystander, 10 April 1940. (Illustrated London News Group)
  • The Sphere, 4 Sept, 1937. (Illustrated London News Group)
  • The Daily Mirror, 27 January 1938.