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

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

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

* The first draft of his unpublished autobiography was entitled The Strutting and the fretting – which is a quotation adapted from Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts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

Lamble in Melbourne

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

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

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

Lamble commented on Australian accents in his autobiography and his own “oxford accent.” This is interesting given he said some of his family and fellow students at school had broad accents.[8]Lloyd Lamble (c1990) The Strutting & the Fretting, unpublished autobiography, P60. Private collection. Other titles considered apparently include Hi Diddle Dee Dee: An Actor’s Life For Me and … Continue reading However, it is likely his accent developed with the aid of elocution or “speech” lessons at Wesley. In 1937 Lamble started his own acting and radio school, which included elocution lessons for aspiring radio artists.[9]Lamble, p93 Also see Note 1 below.

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

Breakthrough role

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

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

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

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

Marriages, children & communism

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

Another change related to his personal circumstances. On his return to Sydney he met actress Barbara Smith (a younger sister of actress Nancy O’Neil). Barbara Smith had studied at London’s RADA before returning to Australia in 1935 and was forging her own career on stage and radio at the time.[20]The Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 May 1937, P54, Via Trove The couple’s affair began while they were performing together in Dinner at Eight at the Minerva Theatre in 1939. In his autobiography, Lamble describes the resulting confrontation with Marjorie, who on hearing of the affair, had rushed up from Melbourne. “Poor darling! She was shattered and it was an awful, traumatic time.[21]Lamble p101 Their divorce was finally granted in May 1943. [22]Herald (Melb) 27 May 1943, page 3 via Trove

Lloyd Lamble and Barbara Smith in 1941. Private Collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of his children, Lamble has nothing to say in his autobiography, but the end of the relationship with Barbara was another traumatic experience, he records, and it divided his friends and acquaintances,[31]Lamble p171 and in time, deeply embarrassed his own family. Reading his memoirs now, it is actually extremely difficult to follow the 1940s period of his life sequentially, and this writer assumes it is because Lamble found the events of the decade difficult to acknowledge, even fifty years later. An important coda is that the Smith family insisted Lloyd “do the right thing” by Barbara and their two children, and marry her. The couple married in Sydney on September 20, 1945, but Lloyd left Barbara immediately after the wedding. A divorce was finalised in March 1949.[32]The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 12 Sep 1948, P16 via Trove

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

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

Leaving Australia

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

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

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

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

While only months before he had been on stage with visiting British actor Robert Morley (1908-1992), Lamble recalled that in 1950 he had to resort to door to door sales to make ends meet. [37]Lamble p219-221

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

A snapshot of his British career

Lloyd Lamble’s unpublished autobiography could reasonably be expected to deal in detail with his successful 35 year career in Britain after 1951. Unfortunately, it does not. Late in life he became convinced he was “a failed actor”[38]Lamble p361 and elsewhere. The book is also dedicated “To all those thousands of actors who never quite made it” Lamble p2 and much of what he wrote for posterity is framed in this way. Of his many British TV roles, he had almost nothing to say. Perhaps the issue was that having enjoyed such success in the small theatrical world of Australia and New Zealand, he suddenly found himself consigned to being a character actor in the very large theatrical world of post-war Britain. There seems little doubt that he compared himself to his Australian contemporaries like Peter Finch, and felt he had been less successful.

Lamble was lucky when he arrived. Although he and Lesley had little money, within a few weeks Al Parker (1885-1974), then the leading London agent,[39]and husband of Australian Margaret Johnston (1914-2002) was representing him – a huge advantage professionally.[40]Lamble p250 By April Lamble was onstage in The Martin’s Nest at the Westminster Theatre. After a three week run – he felt the play was not a success – he moved on to productions at West London’s Q Theatre for a year.

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

Al Parker was also responsible for introducing Lamble to television – which was live television at the time. Lamble described his experience on The Passing Show (1951) as “agony”, due to the technical challenges. In fact, he joked that “an actor who has led a bad life will…be condemned to do live television for all eternity.”[41]Lamble p246-7 Not surprisingly, at this time he preferred film to TV – and his early film performances demonstrated his versatility. These included leading roles as “Jacko” the stage manager in Curtain Up (1952), a comedy about a rep company preparing a play, and as Inspector Freddie Frisnay in Terence Fisher’s mystery Mantrap (1953). Watched today, his beautiful speaking voice is a feature – reminding us of his extensive experience as a radio actor.

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

Amongst his best known film roles were his cameos in the St Trinian’s films – commencing with The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), the story of a riotous girls’ school. Lamble played local Police Superintendent Sammy Kemp-Bird, with Joyce Grenfell (1910-1979) as his too wholesome girlfriend Sgt Ruby Gates. The running joke was that Kemp-Bird had once promised marriage to Sgt Gates but now didn’t wish to go through with it, and sought any excuse to avoid commitment. The cameo was repeated in two sequels in 1957 and 1960 and is a highlight of the films. Lamble recalled her fondly – in real life he thought she was exactly like the character she portrayed.[42]Lamble p270

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

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

At some point, Lamble fell out with Al Parker rather spectacularly, although the reason why is unknown. Lamble acknowledged in his autobiography that it was a foolish decision to leave Parker and that, in turn, Parker wrote a vitriolic letter claiming he had established Lamble in “all mediums, despite the fact that… [he was] a communist.”[44]Lamble p275 So Lamble’s reputation, whether gained unfairly or not, had travelled with him to the UK.

Lamble’s connections with Australia seem to have remained strong. In 1953, he chaired a meeting of British-based Australian playwrights at Australia House,[45]The Stage,12 March 1953, P10, via British Newspaper Archive and he was still active with an association of Australian performing Artists in the late 1970s. He knew and sometimes mixed with many of the Australians who had left post-war and were now working in the UK – Dick Bentley (1907-1995), Fenella Maguire (1935-2001), Bill Kerr (1922-2014) and John Sherman (1911-1966) were all friends mentioned in his autobiography. BBC records show he appeared in radio programs with others, including Vincent Ball, and Allan Cuthbertson in Lasseter’s Reef in 1953, and others in radio episodes of The Flying Doctor in the late 1950s. However, he complained that the national connection counted for little in the way of actual employment offers – there were only two occasions where expat Australian directors gave him work.[46]Lamble p267 This is not all that surprising, as the same phenomenon was experienced by other Australian actors in the UK and US. Australians like to believe they will help each other out without question, but perhaps internationally, the business is just too competitive for that to be a reality.

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

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

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

With a very long list of stage and TV appearances, it was inevitable that Lamble would often be recognised in public. His autobiography provides one anecdote told against himself, when he was approached by a man who said “we’ve met…” “Oh you’ve probably seen me on the Telly” answered Lamble. “Don’t be a clot” was the man’s reply. “We worked together last week.”[50]Lamble p244-245 The anecdote also serves to remind the reader of the mundane and often underwhelming nature of so much TV work.

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

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

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

Lloyd Lamble with his daughter in 1998. Private collection

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

Undoubtedly his own worst critic, Lamble’s draft autobiography screams out for a ghost writer. His remarkable 50+ year career on radio, TV, the stage and film, his political idealism, blacklisting and subsequent journey to Britain as one of the great group of post-war Australian actors, was a story worth telling.

Lloyd Lamble died in Cornwall, in March 2008.

Lloyd Lamble with Lesley Jackson, 2004. Private collection.

Note 1: Lamble on accents

In a 1942 article he wrote for ABC Weekly, Lamble seemed to suggest a warm climate was responsible for the Australian accent – which was an easy-going “lazy” accent. His comments reflected contemporary thinking about accents – the desirability of an actor or announcer developing a refined accent and the value of training or elocution.[51]ABC Weekly, 31 October 1942, P22 via Trove Interviewed by students from the University of Wellington in 1944, Lamble was noted as speaking with “a pleasing voice… his accent conforms to standard English.” Asked whether New Zealand or Australian accents were acceptable on the stage, Lamble indicated they were not. He suggested “the pronounced Australian accent was only used on the stage in… low comedy, e.g. Dad and Dave.”[52]See The Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion, Victoria College, University of Wellington, Vol 7, No 6, July 12, 1944

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


Note 2: Lloyd Lamble the Communist?

As Stephen Alomes notes, it has never been demonstrated that Lamble was a Communist party member.[53]Stephen Alomes (1999) When London Calls. The expatriation of Australian creative artists to Britain.P37. Cambridge University Press. The National Archives of Australia holds Lloyd Lamble’s 56 page ASIO file.[54]The Australian Security & Intelligence Organisation was established in 1949. It is generally regarded as the equivalent of MI5 in the UK or the FBI in the USA. ASIO’s predecessor was the … Continue reading Today the file makes for fairly unremarkable reading and one can only conclude that it says as much about Australia at the time as it does about Lamble. It was clearly his leadership of Actor’s Equity in the 1940s that first attracted official attention, and his support for causes like the Spanish Republican movement added to suspicion. Other acts, such as his letter of protest regarding the treatment of the Hollywood Ten in the USA were noted. Communist Party of Australia (CPA) meeting minutes collected by ASIO show occasional mention of him – sometimes promising to read workers poetry at Union meetings or promising to be involved in fundraising events. Yet the list of the people he associated and corresponded with [55]presumably his mail was intercepted was much more mundane – it included a wide circle of friends and acquaintances – including actors like Elsie Mackay (Montesole), Allan Cuthbertson and his brother Henry (“Bruzz”) Cuthbertson, Queenie Ashton and Carrie Moore – none of them remotely communists.

It was never illegal to be a communist in Australia. In 1950 the High Court ruled a new law to ban the Communist Party to be unconstitutional.[56]The Communist Party Dissolution Act A referendum to change Australia’s Constitution so that the party could be banned also failed. All the same, the accusation of being a communist marginalised some and stalled the careers of others. Alomes notes that Chips Rafferty, Michael Pate and Peter Finch were also listed at times as being possible Communists.[57]Alomes, P36 In a long investigative article written in 1990, David McKnight and Greg Pemberton suggested that “puritanical, anti-intellectual Australia clearly viewed Finch, Rafferty and many others as radicals because they belonged to the arts world and were strong trade unionists…” Michael Pate, who was interviewed by McKnight and Pemberton, said “In no way would we have thought to be subversive to Australia. We were radical thinkers in that we didn’t agree with all the opinions of the establishment.” [58]David McKnight and Greg Pemberton, “Seeing Reds” The Age (Melb), Good Weekend Magazine (insert) P35+ via Newspapers.com


Nick Murphy
October 2022


Special Thanks

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

References

  • Primary Sources
    • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne.
    • National Archives of Australia
    • Ancestry.com
    • Victoria; Births, Deaths & Marriages
    • New South Wales; Births, Deaths & Marriages
    • National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Papers Past.
    • National Library of Australia, Trove.
    • British Newspaper Archive.
  • Text
    • Stephen Alomes (1999) When London Calls. The expatriation of Australian creative artists to Britain. Cambridge University Press.
    • Lloyd Lamble (c 1990) The Strutting and the Fretting. Unpublished first draft of autobiography. Private collection.
    • Richard Lane (1994) The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama. Melbourne University Press.
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • David McKnight and Greg Pemberton, “Seeing Reds” The Age (Melb), Good Weekend Magazine (insert) P35+
    • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper(1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford Uni Press
    • Eric Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd
This site has been selected for preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film, P376, BFI/Methuen
2 He would later claim that he suffered periods of unemployment at this time which may well have heightened his political senses – see also The Daily News (Syd) 12 Feb 1940, P2 Via Trove
3 RR Walker(1984) Dial 1179, The 3KZ Story. P.22 Lloyd O’Neil
4 Richard Lane (1994) The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama. P185-6, Melbourne University Press
5 Newspapers had noted his success on the amateur stage as early as 1933 – see The Argus (Melb) 13 May 1933 via Trove
6 Walker P23
7 Note: Damage on the print emulsion has been covered up
8 Lloyd Lamble (c1990) The Strutting & the Fretting, unpublished autobiography, P60. Private collection. Other titles considered apparently include Hi Diddle Dee Dee: An Actor’s Life For Me and Who the hell is Lloyd Lamble? A later draft is held by the National Library of Australia
9 Lamble, p93
10 The Argus (Melb) 19 Nov 1938, P25. Via Trove
11 The Argus (Melb) 17 Feb 1936 P5 Via Trove
12 The Age (Melb) 17 Feb 1936, P12, Via Trove
13 A nice compliment from the paper, but Emlyn Williams was performing the role himself at the time on Broadway, to similar acclaim. Evening Star,(NZ) 3 Aug 1936, P6. Via National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Papers Past
14 Victoria BDM, marriage certificate 998/1937 18 March 1937
15 See for example, the breathy interview with him in Wireless Weekly, 7 Sept 1940, P9.”…Worships at the shrine of a radio actor” Via Trove
16 The Wireless Weekly, Sept 14, 1940, Vol. 35 No. 37, P5 Via Trove
17 The Bulletin May 8, 1940, P31 Via Trove, also cited in Richard Lane (1994) P186
18 See for example The West Australian, 18 Jul 1941, P3 and The West Australian, 22 Apr 1942, P3, Via Trove
19 Daily News, 12 Feb 1940, P2, Via Trove
20 The Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 May 1937, P54, Via Trove
21 Lamble p101
22 Herald (Melb) 27 May 1943, page 3 via Trove
23 The most complete list of his work is in Richard Lane P278-9
24 Richard Lane, P185-7 and Lamble: P141
25 The Press newspaper, 25 August, 1944. Via Papers Past
26 See also the entry for Movietone newsreel, “sinking of the hospital ship Centaur” at the Australian War Memorial
27 Tribune (Syd) 31 Aug 1944, P3 via Trove
28 Smith’s Weekly (Syd), 7 Aug 1943, P19 via Trove
29 In Lamble’s autobiography he also uses the spelling Leslie
30 The Australian Women’s Weekly. 8 May 1948. P26. Via Trove. See also Pike and Cooper(1980) P272
31 Lamble p171
32 The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 12 Sep 1948, P16 via Trove
33 Barbara Lamble gave up the stage, and became a secretary to support her two children
34 Cover of ABC Weekly, December 17, 1949 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
35 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
36 Stephen Alomes (1999) When London Calls. The expatriation of Australian creative artists to Britain.P36. Cambridge University
37 Lamble p219-221
38 Lamble p361 and elsewhere. The book is also dedicated “To all those thousands of actors who never quite made it” Lamble p2
39 and husband of Australian Margaret Johnston (1914-2002)
40 Lamble p250
41 Lamble p246-7
42 Lamble p270
43 Leicester Evening Mail, 21 Dec 1957, P4, via Newspapers.com
44 Lamble p275
45 The Stage,12 March 1953, P10, via British Newspaper Archive
46 Lamble p267
47 The Stage, 11 September 1952, P11, via British Newspaper Archive
48 The Stage, 4 July 1991, P6, via British Newspaper Archive
49 See The Stage, 18 Nov 1976, P1. Via British Newspaper Archive
50 Lamble p244-245
51 ABC Weekly, 31 October 1942, P22 via Trove
52 See The Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion, Victoria College, University of Wellington, Vol 7, No 6, July 12, 1944
53 Stephen Alomes (1999) When London Calls. The expatriation of Australian creative artists to Britain.P37. Cambridge University Press.
54 The Australian Security & Intelligence Organisation was established in 1949. It is generally regarded as the equivalent of MI5 in the UK or the FBI in the USA. ASIO’s predecessor was the Commonwealth Investigation Service
55 presumably his mail was intercepted
56 The Communist Party Dissolution Act
57 Alomes, P36
58 David McKnight and Greg Pemberton, “Seeing Reds” The Age (Melb), Good Weekend Magazine (insert) P35+ via Newspapers.com

Joan Lang (1911-2003) & Joss Ambler (1900-1959)

Above: Joan Lang as Ilse in the Melbourne production of Children in Uniform,1933. Private Collection, used with kind permission.
The Five Second Version.
As a four year old, Queensland born Joan Lang supposedly told adults that “When I am big I am going to be a… famous actress and the King and all the people will come and see me.”[1]Courier Mail (Qld) 20 Feb 1934, P 17, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove After appearing in one Australian film and a successful play in Melbourne in 1933, she carved out a successful career in British repertory for twenty years. While it seems unlikely Royalty ever watched her perform, she became a well regarded but usually supporting player, sometimes appearing with her first husband, Melbourne born Joss Ambler, but most often in her own right in comedy roles. In the mid 1950s she remarried and moved to the US. She died in Texas in 2003. Joss Ambler died in 1959, having appeared in numerous character roles in British films after 1937.
Joan Lang in Britain in the 1930s. [2]Edinburgh Evening News, 27 June 1939. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Reconstructing the lives of those for whom there are limited sources of information is difficult. This is the case with Joan Lang and her first husband Joss Ambler, and it also explains why so much written about them is wrong – most notably the oft-repeated claim that Ambler was married to US actress June Lang (1917-2005). Joan and Joss were both capable actors, but they seem to have been quickly consigned to character roles and passing appearances, and without direct family to preserve their memories, much of their history has been lost.

Joan’s childhood in Australia

Born in Queensland, Australia on November 17, 1911, Joan Olive Agnes Lang[3]Queensland, Births, Deaths & Marriages, Olive Agnes Joan Lang(sic) birth document 1912/B/28649 was the only child of Andrew Lang and Olive nee Hopkins. (Also see Note 1 below) They were not a theatrical family, but it seems that her experiences at the Hermitage, a Geelong girls’ school, helped foster a passion for performing. In 1929, her final year at the school, she was picked out for particular praise for her performance as Mrs Pringle in a production of Marigold.“So excellent a portrayal was given… [bringing] an impression of vivid reality to all the scenes…”[4]Coo-ee, 1929, Magazine of The Hermitage, courtesy Geelong Grammar Archives Reportedly also a good pianist, dancer and vocalist, Joan was the director and a leading actor in a number of charity productions in regional Victoria in 1931-2, in aid of returned servicemen.

Joan in a character role, with Joe Valli, in the film Waltzing Matilda 1933[5]Everyone’s 12 July 1933, P25, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Following some work in Melbourne Little Theatre,[6]The Courier-Mail (Bris) 20 Feb 1934, P17
A BRISBANE-BORN FILM ACTRESS, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
in May 1933 Joan landed a small role in actor-director Pat Hanna‘s newest film Waltzing Matilda, alongside other up and coming Melbourne actors Coral Browne and Joss Ambler. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper describe the film as “studio bound and slow,” and it was not a success, despite Hanna’s popularity on stage as a knockabout Australian (or “digger”) comedian.[7]Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper(1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. P217. Oxford University Press/AFI Young women in Hanna’s films (like the very young Mary Maguire in Diggers in Blighty) tended to be relegated to very secondary roles – the humorous narrative was the domain of Hanna and his costar Joe Valli.

A few months later Joan took a role in actor-director Gregan McMahon’s production of Schoolgirls in Uniform. This was an English language adaption of Christa Winsloe‘s boarding school drama Mädchen in Uniform. McMahon is also credited with launching the stage career of Coral Browne, who had a leading role. In a minor role in the cast was a young Janet Johnson, who would also go on to a career in Britain in the 1930s.

Joan (at left) as a school girl Ilse and Coral Browne (centre, standing) as the teacher, in Children in Uniform, which opened in Melbourne, Australia in October 1933. Illustrations from Table Talk by Stanley Parker.[8]Table Talk, Oct 26, 1933, P19, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Joan impressed audiences in her role as school girl Ilse, providing some welcome comic relief in an otherwise intense play. Of Joan, Table Talk reported “here is a girl who is a born comedian…indeed at one time it almost looked as though she were going to run away with the play.”[9]Table Talk, Oct 19, 1933, P20. National Library of Australia’s Trove Aged just 22, she made the decision to try her luck in London in late 1933. She had achieved success quite quickly at home, and probably felt the time to go overseas seemed right. She departed Australia on the Swedish cargo ship MS Bullaren, in January 1934.[10]The Daily News (Perth), 2 Jan 1934, P5, TO SEEK SUCCESS IN ENGLAND With her was Joseph Dillon, stage name Joss Ambler, another member of the Gregan McMahon players, with whom she had apparently begun a relationship. The couple married in Wandsworth, a few months after arriving in England.[11]UK Marriage Certificate 1934, Wandsworth, Vol 1d, P1146.

Joss Ambler

The son of a publican and Melbourne City Councillor who had died suddenly in 1915, Joss Dillon was eleven years Joan’s senior.[12]Victoria, Births, Death & Marriages. Birth certificate, 23 June 1900, Joseph Sinnot Dillon 20505/1900 After an indifferent time at school and a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to join the wartime Australian Army whilst still underage,[13]Read his World War 1 enlistment file at the National Archives of Australia – Dillon, Joseph Sinnot Stanislaus, which includes a letter from his very anxious mother he became a partner in an agency for Norton motorcycles, becoming active in the sport in the 1920s.[14]Sporting Globe (Melb) 24 Nov 1923, P6 MOTOR CYCLING IS EXPERIENCING A BIG BOOM IN VICTORIA. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Somehow, he also discovered a passion for performing on stage, coming to the notice of Gregan McMahon at the same time as Joan.[15]Ambler was his mother’s maiden name

Left Joss Ambler in Australia in 1933.[16]Johnstone River Advocate, 18 Aug 1933, P3. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove and at right, in Britain five years later, in the play Three Blind Mice.[17]The Sketch, 11 May 1938, P305. Copyright Illustrated London news Group. Via British Library Newspaper Archive

Joan’s “flair for puckish humour”

The newly married Joan Lang and Joss Ambler did not stay in London for long. By the end of 1934 they had moved to Scotland, joining the Brandon-Thomas Repertory Company. As well as performing in Scotland, during 1935 they also established their own drama school (the Modern Theatre Academy) in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The Brandon-Thomas company’s repertoire generally included comedies and farces – including Harry Wagstaff Gribble’s March Hares (1935), W Somerset Maugham’s Home and Beauty (1935), James M Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton (1936) and Jevan Brandon-Thomas’s (1898-1977) own farce Passing Brompton Road (July 1935). Rep company plays were chosen according to likely audience appeal and, by the early 1930s, faced increasingly stiff competition from sound films. Thus plays would run for a few weeks before being replaced by something new – and hopefully equally as popular.[18]For more on British repertory theatre tradition see – George Rowell & Anthony Jackson (1984) The Repertory Movement; a history of regional theatre in Britain, Cambridge University Press

After almost two years performing in Scotland, in September 1936 the couple returned to London, where Joss had an offer of some film work. In an article that noted Joan was “always most at home playing little girl and maid parts,” the Scotsman newspaper also inadvertently highlighted a problem for actresses of the time – there were fewer roles of substance for women.[19]“She was outstanding as Tweeny in The Admirable Crichton reported The Scotsman, 16 Sept 1936, P9. Via British Library Newspaper Archive Fifteen years later, Dorothy Alison would tell a similar story – the narrow range of work for actresses, despite initial successes and no lack of ability.

An Australian newspaper report of 1936 described Joan’s well established “flair for puckish comedy”, while Joss was “tall, solid, with features magnificently adapted to character work.”[20]The West Australian (Perth) 12 March 1936, P5. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove But despite her ability, Joan did not find roles in films – or perhaps she just preferred the stage. Joss appeared in his first films in 1937.

Joan in Top Secret’s pre-London run.[21]Liverpool Echo 23 Sep 1949, via Newspapers.com

Reviews of Joan Lang’s stage performances from the late 1930s give some idea of her prowess. While generally a supporting player, she was often picked out for positive comment by the press. When she appeared in Noël Coward’s cycle of short plays Tonight at 8:30 at the Kings Theatre in mid 1939, The Stage reported “Joan Lang deserves the reception accorded her for a delightful study of (a) snivelling child.” A few months later, in Coward’s Private Lives at Edinburgh’s Empire theatre, The Scotsman reported that she gave “one of the best performances of the evening.” Over the next few years she shared the stage with well established British actors – the likes of Vivien Leigh, Leo Genn, Torin Thatcher, Cyril Cusack, Gwynne Whitby, Leslie Banks and a very young Claire Bloom. She performed in plays directed by Muriel Pratt (the first wife of producer William Bridges-Adams), including Daleby Deep, Murder by Suggestion and But for the Grace. In May 1939, she was back in another Jevan Brandon-Thomas production, The Return of Peter Grimm, at the King’s Theatre.

Early in World War 2, Joan appeared in this morale boosting British variety show.[22]Peterborough Standard 14 Aug 1942, B7, Via British Library Newspaper Archive

In January 1949 Joan Lang appeared on the radio program Dick Bentley Speaks. Bentley, an Australian musician and comedian who had been in England in the 1930s and returned in 1947, recorded interviews with many of the Australians working in England, in a radio series running in 1948-1950. Joan told him of her work (presumably with ENSA) arranging concerts for ex-POWs. She also sent messages to some of the Australian servicemen she had met. Sadly, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Archives department has assured this writer that Bentley’s radio series no longer exists – our knowledge of what Joan and others had to say is derived entirely from newspaper reports.[23]ABC Weekly, 1 Jan 1949, P11. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. Joss Ambler was interviewed on 15 Jan, 1949

Like most Australian actors in Britain, Joss and Joan tried to maintain connections to family and friends back home, even during wartime. This notice appeared in an Australian paper over Christmas, 1942.[24]The Age,(Melb) 16 December 1942, P4. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Joan gained some further publicity in 1949, when The Sketch ran a series of photos and stories about Alan Melville’s new comedy Top Secret. It opened first in Liverpool, before starting a season in London. The reviews were mixed, but even those who found fault with the play had to acknowledge Joan’s success as Miss Fish, the inefficient secretary whose incompetence threatens the interests of the British Embassy, in an imaginary South American country. It was a story of its time of course, more relevant in an era when Britain was divesting itself of its Empire.

Above: Joan as Miss Fish admiring a brick that has just been thrown through a window, in Top Secret in 1949 – Hugh Wakefield as the Ambassador. “Isn’t it pretty. What is it?” was her line.[25]The Sketch Nov 9, 1949, P422. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Via British Library Newspaper Archive

Sometime in the late 1940s, Joan and Joss’s marriage came to an end. In June 1952 Joan married a US air force Lieutenant-Colonel, Almon A Tucker, who was based in England at the time.[26]The Minneapolis Star, 17 Jun 1952, P15. Via Newspaper.com Soon after marrying, the couple relocated to the US, and at about this time, Joan left the stage. She lived the rest of her long life in the United States, and died there in January 2003, aged 92.[27]Find a Grave, Joan Olive Tucker

Joss Ambler’s later career

The IMDB lists almost 80 appearances on screen by Joss Ambler between 1937 and his death. He had some standout roles – for example in the two George Formby films of 1939 – Trouble Brewing and Come on George! and a third in 1942. However it has been noted that his roles were often as noisy drunks, stuffy authority figures or vaguely humorous members of the British upper classes – complete with trademark walrus moustache and old fashioned spectacles.[28]See also Brian McFarlane(2003)The Encyclopedia of British Film, P13, Methuen BFI. P13 Even as early as 1940, he indicated he had tired of some of these roles.[29]The Picture Show Annual, 1940, Via Lantern, the Media History Digital Library Typecasting in film could be frustrating, which may explain why he also continued to appear on stage when he could – his last performance in London being in Thirteen for Dinner, at the Duke of York’s Theatre, in December 1953. He had remarried by this time, but he died of cancer in London on 19 September 1959, aged only 59.[30]UK General Register Office Death Certificate Joseph Sinnott Dillon.

Joss’s sister Frances Dillon acted on stage in Australia, sometimes using the stage name Josephine Ambler.

Screengrab of Joss Ambler in a typical character role on the screen – here as a Police Chief in The Peterville Diamond (1943)

Note 1: All those stories about Joan’s family…

At a time when so many performers embellished their profile and fibbed about their ages, it is noteworthy that the stories attributed to Joan Lang and her family are true. Andrew Lang (1844-1912), the famous Scottish writer, poet and collector of fairy tales, really was her paternal grand uncle – from the part of the family that never left Scotland. Her maternal grandfather, Henry “Bull” Hopkins, an experienced Queensland drover, died of thirst on an ill-fated stock-drive near the Rankin River in the searing summer of December 1901.[31]The Tenterfield Intercolonial Courier and Fairfield and Wallangarra Advocate, 2 May 1902, P2, The Hopkins Tragedy. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. Her own father, Andrew Lang, a former World War One pilot with the Australian Flying Corps and later the Royal Flying Corps, died in a car crash in 1924 while trying to set an Australian motoring record.[32]The Argus (Melb), 22 May 1924, P11, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove A relative in Victoria’s Western District, the well known pastoralist John Lang Currie, then took a role in her care while she attended Geelong’s Hermitage School from 1926-1929.[33]Correspondence, Geelong Grammar Archivist, 25 March 2022


References

Special Thanks

  • Sophie Church, School Historian, Geelong Grammar School

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

Text

  • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. Methuen BFI
  • 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

Newspaper & Magazine Sources

Primary Sources

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

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Courier Mail (Qld) 20 Feb 1934, P 17, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
2 Edinburgh Evening News, 27 June 1939. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.
3 Queensland, Births, Deaths & Marriages, Olive Agnes Joan Lang(sic) birth document 1912/B/28649
4 Coo-ee, 1929, Magazine of The Hermitage, courtesy Geelong Grammar Archives
5 Everyone’s 12 July 1933, P25, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
6 The Courier-Mail (Bris) 20 Feb 1934, P17
A BRISBANE-BORN FILM ACTRESS, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
7 Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper(1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. P217. Oxford University Press/AFI
8 Table Talk, Oct 26, 1933, P19, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
9 Table Talk, Oct 19, 1933, P20. National Library of Australia’s Trove
10 The Daily News (Perth), 2 Jan 1934, P5, TO SEEK SUCCESS IN ENGLAND
11 UK Marriage Certificate 1934, Wandsworth, Vol 1d, P1146.
12 Victoria, Births, Death & Marriages. Birth certificate, 23 June 1900, Joseph Sinnot Dillon 20505/1900
13 Read his World War 1 enlistment file at the National Archives of Australia – Dillon, Joseph Sinnot Stanislaus, which includes a letter from his very anxious mother
14 Sporting Globe (Melb) 24 Nov 1923, P6 MOTOR CYCLING IS EXPERIENCING A BIG BOOM IN VICTORIA. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
15 Ambler was his mother’s maiden name
16 Johnstone River Advocate, 18 Aug 1933, P3. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
17 The Sketch, 11 May 1938, P305. Copyright Illustrated London news Group. Via British Library Newspaper Archive
18 For more on British repertory theatre tradition see – George Rowell & Anthony Jackson (1984) The Repertory Movement; a history of regional theatre in Britain, Cambridge University Press
19 “She was outstanding as Tweeny in The Admirable Crichton reported The Scotsman, 16 Sept 1936, P9. Via British Library Newspaper Archive
20 The West Australian (Perth) 12 March 1936, P5. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
21 Liverpool Echo 23 Sep 1949, via Newspapers.com
22 Peterborough Standard 14 Aug 1942, B7, Via British Library Newspaper Archive
23 ABC Weekly, 1 Jan 1949, P11. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. Joss Ambler was interviewed on 15 Jan, 1949
24 The Age,(Melb) 16 December 1942, P4. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
25 The Sketch Nov 9, 1949, P422. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Via British Library Newspaper Archive
26 The Minneapolis Star, 17 Jun 1952, P15. Via Newspaper.com
27 Find a Grave, Joan Olive Tucker
28 See also Brian McFarlane(2003)The Encyclopedia of British Film, P13, Methuen BFI. P13
29 The Picture Show Annual, 1940, Via Lantern, the Media History Digital Library
30 UK General Register Office Death Certificate Joseph Sinnott Dillon
31 The Tenterfield Intercolonial Courier and Fairfield and Wallangarra Advocate, 2 May 1902, P2, The Hopkins Tragedy. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
32 The Argus (Melb), 22 May 1924, P11, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
33 Correspondence, Geelong Grammar Archivist, 25 March 2022

Janet Johnson (1914-1983) in London and Hollywood.

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.