Molly Fisher & Fred Conyngham try their luck in London

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

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

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

Fred establishes himself as an actor

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

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

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

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

Molly on stage aged 13

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

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

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

Fred Conyngham’s appearances in England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molly Fisher in England

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

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

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

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

Working together again

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

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

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

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

Post war return to Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred died in 1974.

Russell Conyngham

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Murphy
February 2021


References

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

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

Australian Accents from Cinema’s Golden Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane E Southcott has written of concern amongst politicians and the efforts made in South Australian schools to improve Australian speech. She cites School Inspector Maughan reporting in 1912 that “a few minutes spent daily in the practice of pure enunciation would to much to eliminate what is known as ‘the Australian twang.'” Similar sentiments were undoubtedly felt throughout the rest of Australia.


1. Australian accents – tending to broad.

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


2. The accents of former Australian vaudevillians 

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


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


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


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


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

3. Cultivated Australian accents and the importance of elocution

Wealthy Australians living on the continent’s coastal fringe often sent their children to private schools, the only schools that could provide a pathway to universities and better careers. Today these schools still put resources into a young person’s rounded personal development – now less commonly through “Speech” (elocution) classes, but still through public speaking, debating and by encouraging the performance arts. In the early twentieth century, for these middle class Australians, there was probably a self consciousness about accents, and therefore a desire to speak without any hint of a colonial upbringing. 


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

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

    Obituaries for these women often claim they “came to England to lose their accent”. But of all Australians, those who had been to private schools probably already had a “drawing room accent”  – meaning they had little accent to lose.
    Audio from copy of the film in the author’s collection. The film is available through Loving the Classics. Photo – Lux Soap Famous Film Stars card, c1933-4. Author’s Collection


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


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



4. Australian accents – tending more general

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

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


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


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

    Nichols, a butcher’s daughter from inner Sydney, began her long radio and stage career in Australia in wartime. This brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers, and visiting Americans (she was even briefly married to one). One wonders whether her accent might have some American pronunciations?

    Joy Nichols Turf

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


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

Patti Morgan Cover of Pix 1945

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


5. Some other Australians speak

Further Reading on Australian accents

Nick Murphy
December 2020