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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janie concerned a small town girl who hosts a party for US servicemen that gets out of control while her parents are absent – perhaps the idea was a novelty for Australian audiences at the time. On stage with Gwenda were well established Australian performers like Fifi Banvard, and new faces including Margo Lee and Betty McDowall.[9]It was directed by Melbourne-born Alec Coppel, who already had experience as a writer in England and had come back home in 1940. He later went on to a Hollywood career – writing numerous … Continue reading The play found an audience and it ran for two months – thus establishing Gwenda’s credentials, but it was generally dismissed by most as lightweight entertainment. One newspaper wrote that it was without “real character development, plot construction… (and had) the appeal…of a nice whopping chocolate soda.”[10]The Daily Telegraph, 9 May 1943, P23, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Telegraph, London, 19 Aug 1977, P13

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


Note 1 – Some recipes from Gwenda.

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


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

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

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


Nick Murphy
February 2022


Further Reading

Text

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

Media

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

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

Newspaper & Magazine Sources

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

Primary Sources

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

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1, 7 ABC Weekly, Vol. 10 No. 21, 22 May 1948, P30. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
2 The Guardian 19 August 1977, P 14 via Newspapers.com
3 Birmingham City Post 23 August 1977 P4. Via British Library Newspaper Archive
4 Gwenda Wilson, UK Death Certificate
5 The Australasian (Melb), 24 Feb 1945 P16, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
6 The Australasian 24 Feb, 1945. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
8 Smith’s Weekly 5 June 1943, P19. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
9 It was directed by Melbourne-born Alec Coppel, who already had experience as a writer in England and had come back home in 1940. He later went on to a Hollywood career – writing numerous screenplays, including Vertigo (1958)
10 The Daily Telegraph, 9 May 1943, P23, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
11 ABC Weekly 27 May 1944, P12. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
12 Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. P165 Heinemann
13 The Argus (Melb) 13 Dec 1943 P6, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
14 For a contemporary account of the strike see The Age (Melb) 29 May 1944, P3. For a management view of the strike see Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. P172-175
15 Births Deaths & Marriages Victoria, Marriage certificate 1945/4791
16 The Argus (Melb),13 Mar 1945, P7. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
17 ABC Weekly 18 Sept 1948, P14 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
18 Truth (Syd) 20 March 1949, P35. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
19 For other articles like this see The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Aug 1950, P3, Australian Actor Praised, The Newcastle Sun, 14 Jul 1951, P4 Film Role For Young Australian Actor, The Sun (Syd) 12 Nov 1953, P39 ACTOR SAYS OPPORTUNITY IN ENGLAND, News (Adel)10 Nov 1954, P2 SA actor gets film contract. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
20 The Canberra Times, 24 Apr 1965, P9. The struggle from Down Under to acting up top. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
21 Theatre World, 1951, Vol 47, issue 313, via the Internet Archive
22 The Sun (Syd)18 Oct 1951, P36, Film news from Hollywood and London, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
23 Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 9 May 1952, P1, Via British Library Newspaper Archive
24 Butterworth’s Empire Law List, 1961, P32. Butterworth’s. Via Google Books
25 Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 3 July 1953, P1
26 Eric Lambert’s 1965 book MacDougal’s Farm is apparently based on MacDougal’s experience as a wartime POW. Known in the army as “Big Mac,” MacDougal died suddenly in September 1962, without recounting his experiences himself. Lambert’s book was not well received
27 See the BBC’s website devoted to the Archers
28 William Smethurst (1988) The Archers. The true story : the history of radio’s most famous programme. P97-101. Michael O’Mara, London
29 UK General Register Office, Death Certificate Gwenda Olive Wilson or MacDougal
30 William Smethurst (1988) The Archers. The true story : the history of radio’s most famous programme. P148-149. Michael O’Mara, London
31 The Argus (Melb) 8 Jan 1946 P8 Young Actress is Hostess at Sunday Night Suppers

John Wood (1909-1965)- Of Hollywood, Ealing studio and Changi prison

Above – Two young Australians exchange smiles on the set of An Englishman’s Home (1939).  Mary Maguire (centre) was 20 and John Wood (right) was 30. Paul Henreid‘s suspicious stare (just visible on the left) gives him away as one of the film’s baddies. Source probably Aldwych films. Author’s collection.

Born John Frederick Woods in the central western town of Forbes in New South Wales in November 1909, John Wood briefly became an film star in the mid 1930s and would undoubtedly have stayed one, if World War Two hadn’t intervened. His resume is extraordinary all the same. Like many of the actors profiled on this website, his upbringing was the comfortable one Australians of the time aspired to. Yet Wood stands out from some of his contemporaries, with a strong sense of duty combined with a genuine and unusual modesty in discussing his achievements. And he is one of those few former wartime POWs who felt the need to visit Japan after the war. His death from heart related trouble in 1965, at the relatively young age of 56, seems almost certainly a consequence of his wartime captivity in Singapore.

John’s father, Frederick Michael Woods, was a Chemist in Forbes with property interests in the area. His mother Flora, nee Fitzsimon, had given birth to a daughter, Una, in 1897 – suggesting John may have been a surprise, late-in-life baby for her. In later press interviews, Wood revealed he had attended the prestigious Shore school (Sydney Church of England Grammar School), which means he was most likely a boarder and contemporary of Errol Flynn, who was also at the school before being expelled in 1926. Wood studied and began a career in commercial art, but soon threw this in for acting, which had probably long been a passion. By 1930 he was a good looking young man, 175 cm (5’9″) tall, with blue eyes and dark brown hair.


a very young john wood 1929  adelaide-theatre-royal-1931

Above Left: A very young John Wood aged 20, as he appeared in the play The Family Upstairs in 1929. From The Daily Mercury 21 September 1929.  Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. Above right: Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal in 1931 – John Wood in company with other well known Australians – The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Where he trained is a mystery, although he gained some mentoring from established stage and screen actor Nan Taylor. Like so many Australian actors, his first professional stage roles were for the J.C.Williamson’s organisation (so big an organisation it was known as “the Firm”), at the age of only 20. Reviewers over the next few years consistently welcomed him as “a promising and handsome juvenile lead”,  who gave “as polished a performance as any.” His first leading role was in The Family Upstairs, a comedy about middle-class New York life written by Harry Delf in the mid 1920s. Over the next four years, Wood became part of a very talented and creative pool of performers who presented a series of “light comedies” for J.C. Williamsons, all over Australia – amongst them Cecil Kellaway, Mary MacGregor, Coral Brown(e) and Mona Barlee (Mona Barrie). There were visiting British actors to work with too, like Barry K Barnes and Margaret Rawlings – who came out to tour in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

SMH 27 April 1933

Above: John Wood, Mona Barrie and others in While Parents Sleep in Sydney, late April 1933. The Sydney Morning Herald. April 27, 1933 via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By about 1930 the Woods family had moved from Forbes to a comfortable home in Wycombe Rd, at Neutral Bay on Sydney’s north shore. And at about the same time, Wood dropped the “s” from his surname. His final play before leaving Australia was Anthony Kimmins’ farce, While Parents Sleep.

Sun 12 DEcember 1933In the early 1930s it was obvious to aspiring actors that Australia simply wasn’t big enough to sustain an acting career. Although there was steady work on stage in Australia (a few had even found work in the occasional Australian film) many of these leading players packed up and set off to try their luck overseas. Mary MacGregor had left in early 1933, Mona Barrie in June, and Coral Browne was to leave in May 1934. John Wood departed for London on a Norwegian passenger/cargo ship, the Troja, in October 1933.

Only a few weeks after his arrival in London he was offered a role in Charley’s Aunt at the Gaiety Theatre. It then toured English towns. Wood’s transition to acting in England had been remarkably smooth.

Above: News of Wood’s success in England reported in The (Sydney) Sun, 12 December 1933. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Later in 1934 he landed a substantial role in British Lion’s The Case of Gabriel Perry (aka Wild Justice), directed by Albert de Courville. Although this film seems impossible to source now, Wood’s performance must have impressed. In December 1934, RKO offered Wood a test, based on reports from a talent scout working in England, and he arrived in the US on the Olympic in January 1935, and rushed to Hollywood. He had a frustrating wait for work until May, when he gained the important role of Flavius (as an adult) in The Last Days of Pompeii, being made by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper (of King Kong fame). Studio publicity followed – writing in The San Francisco Examiner Louella Parsons suggested that Wood was known as the “Clark Gable of England.” By October, the completed film had been released in the US, with generally positive reviews for the great spectacle and praise for Wood and Basil Rathbone. But there were some variable performances from other actors and distracting historical errors (the most obvious being that an adolescent Flavius who met Jesus in say, AD30 could not have been aged still in his 20s at Pompeii in AD79). The film was slow to return a profit.

pompeii2  pompeii3

Above: Screen grabs from RKO‘s The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) Left: Wood (Flavius) with Preston Foster (Marcus). Right: Wood and Dorothy Wilson (Claudia or Clodia). The film is still widely available. Author’s collection.

More mysteriously, John Wood made no further films in the US. He appeared in the press for a few months – his good looks, interest in landscape painting and attentiveness to newly arrived friend Mary MacGregor was noted by US gossip columnists, and he is known to have tried out unsuccessfully for a role in George Cukor‘s Romeo and Juliet. But that was it, and by June 1936 he was back in London preparing to appear in the play Lady of La Paz at the Criterion Theatre, with fellow Australian Janet Johnson. Wood once said that although he enjoyed film work, he had never had a role he really liked. Perhaps he shared Margaret Vyner‘s view that Hollywood film work was too insecure.


However, Wood had a great breakthrough in England in 1937. He took a leading role in Stanley Lupino‘s film version of his own very popular musical Over She Goes. Although top billing went to Lupino, Laddie Cliff, Sally Gray and Claire Luce, John Wood was now established as a notable star. (Laddie Cliff’s  sudden death at the end of 1937 cast a shadow over publicity for the film)

Over She Goes 2  Over she goes 1

Above: Screen grabs from Over She Goes (1938). Left; Stanley Lupino, John Wood and Laddie Cliff sing and dance in “Side by Side”.
Right: John Wood, Syd Walker and Claire Luce. (In the bed in the background is Judy Kelly, the naughty gold digger.) Networkonair currently sell this title as part of their “British Musicals of the 1930s – Volume 1”. Author’s collection.

In this production Wood sings and dances with impressive skill and timing. Memorable musical numbers from the film can be seen online, including

Above: Wood and Claire Luce in a love scene from Over She Goes (1937)

The years 1937-1939 were his busiest and most successful in London. He had a nice apartment in Eccleston Mews in Belgravia and was continuously employed on stage and in a string of film roles. These included another musical with Lupino and two films with Mary MaguireBlack Eyes and An Englishman’s Home. Then, on 17 August 1939 he boarded the Rimutaka for the six week journey home to Sydney.  Half-way home passengers heard that Australia had followed Britain’s lead and declared war on Germany. But his reason for returning to Australia was unrelated to the rising tensions in Europe – his mother Flora was ill and he was returning to see her. Sadly she died on 10 September, 1939 about a week before the ship reached Sydney.

john wood

Above: John Wood, at the height of his success in England, sometime between 1936-9. The photo was used by Herbert de Leon, his London agent. Author’s collection.

Now in Sydney again, he gave talks and a few interviews, and appeared at Sydney’s Minerva Theatre and in Melbourne  in several productions. Like many Australians anxious about the war, he also joined the Militia. Wood was aware of how his friends in London were faring during the Battle of Britain – the war became more serious each day. Like many young Australians, he transferred across from the Militia to the regular Army in late 1940. He was disembarked at Singapore in March 1941, now a Signalman of the 8th Division. In December 1941 the Japanese launched their offensive in South East Asia and the Pacific. The Malaya Campaign to repel the Japanese was a disaster and the forces under British commander General Percival fell back to Singapore.

3798756

Above: Painting of Wood by Murray Griffin. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (Click to follow link) Item now in the public domain. Dated 1943, but more likely to have been painted in 1941. The War Memorial also holds other sketches of Wood, listed in further readings below.

On 15 -16 February 1942 the British surrendered at Singapore, and about 80,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers went into captivity. Wood was not the only performer to be incarcerated in Changi Prison – indeed he was amongst many well-known prisoners – however his work for the Australian Concert Party is very well referenced by those who were there. Fellow POW Russell Braddon described him “the greatest source of stage anecdotes and comic songs that Changi knew.”

Other accounts of the Australian Concert Party appear in the collection of reminiscences called The Changi Book, written by an author now unknown. “30… members of the party produced a new show every fortnight, with new music, and new scenery…and without a break, for almost three years.” And John Wood, who developed great skills as a female impersonator – “on some occasions as a hair-raising blonde, on others as a hot blooded senorita,” apparently deserved special acknowledgement. “Enough credit can never be paid him for the fact that by his superb acting, he educated Australian audiences…from an attitude of ribald hilarity to one of grateful appreciation of feminine charms whenever he played a female role. It will never be forgotten by 10,000 faded, starved, half dead POWs that John Wood… gave a performance of Judith in Hay Fever…as worthy of any of the great actresses who ever played Coward.” 

The impact of years of internment took their toll on many of the former POWs and coloured an entire generation of Australian attitudes to Asia, and Japan in particular. Repatriated before the end of 1945, John Wood threw himself back into performing as did other actors from Changi – Slim De Grey and Doug McKenzie. Russell Braddon suffered a severe breakdown but turned to writing to appease himself. Wood also volunteered to join a group of performers planning to appear for the British Occupation Forces in Japan, with While the Sun Shines and The Hasty Heart. Perhaps this was Wood’s effort to come to terms with the awful experience of the recent past. While there in 1947, he reportedly sought out and met one of the Japanese Army interpreters, “a decent Jap” from Changi, whom he called Jesuki Terai.

John Wood The Hasty Heart 1946.jpg

Above: Gwenda Wilson (Left), John Wood (centre) and others in J.C. Williamson’s production of The Hasty Heart – being performed in Australia before the Japan Tour. Source: National Library of Australia

In 1946, John was joined in Australia by Phyllis Buchanan, a British actress he had met before the war. She had spent her war years driving ambulances, and apparently waited patiently for John for almost 7 years. Newspapers represented that they had  “quietly married” in Melbourne, but there seems no corroborating evidence of this.

Phyl buchanan the graphic 1926     The Herald 21 june 1946

Above left: Phil (Phyllis May) Buchanan in her early English career, The Graphic , 16 January 1926. Above Right; John and Phil lighting up in Melbourne in 1946. The Herald 16 June 1946. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Phil and John departed Sydney for London on the rather creaky pre-war ship Moreton Bay, in late September 1948. Wood found roles on stage again, including a long run in His Excellency with Eric Portman at the Princes then Picadilly Theatres. Wood tried to raise interest in a London production of Sumner Locke Elliot‘s Rusty Bugles, without success. His final role on stage was in Carrington VC at the Westminster Theatre in mid 1953. Also in the cast was Western Australian Allan Cuthbertson, making his signature role of Colonel Henniker.

He made one last British film in 1952. Stolen Face was made by Hammer films in London, directed by Terence Fisher. Paul Henreid, struggling to find work after being “semi-blacklisted” (his words) in Hollywood, found some work in France and England, including this film. It is the story of a plastic surgeon (Henreid) who remakes the face of a criminal to resemble his lost love (Lizabeth Scott plays a double role). Wood played Henreid’s assisting doctor. The trailer can be viewed here.

Stolen face2  Stolen face1

John Wood and Paul Henreid in Stolen Face (1952). Screen grabs from a copy in the author’s collection.

In the mid 1950s Wood suffered some serious but unspecified heart trouble. His old battalion newsletter noted that he and Phil had moved from their Chelsea flat to the Spanish island of Mallorca – breeding dogs, painting the scenery and enjoying the sun. John Wood made two return trips to Australia by air, alone, in 1963 and 1964. After the second trip home he did not return to Mallorca again. He died alone at his apartment at 25 Waruda Street Kirribilli, some time around 1 March 1965. There were no public notices – sadly he was completely forgotten, even in his homeland. His sister had died in 1963.


Note 1.
The IMDB incorrectly claims Wood was involved in a court case arising from a practical joke on the set of Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers/Babes in Toyland (1934). But he wasn’t. He had not arrived in the US when that film was made. This was clearly an actor named John D Wood, and the matter went to court in June 1936, by which time this John Wood had returned to England. See The Los Angeles Times, 10 June, 1936.

Nick Murphy
November 2019

Further Reading

  • Russell Braddon (1955) The Naked Island. Pan Books.
  • William Bryden (1981), Errol Leslie Flynn (1909–1959) Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, Melbourne University Press. (also online)
  • Slim DeGrey (1991) Changi The Funny Side. A Writer’s World Book
  • Midge Gillies (2011) The Barbed-Wire University. The real lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War. Arum Press.
  • Lachlan Grant (Ed) (2015) The Changi Book. New South/Australian War Memorial.
  • Unknown. (1937)  RKO Players Biographies @ Internet Archive
  • Makan 2/30 Battalion Home Page The Battalion newsletter contains several references to Wood in later life.
  • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage. Rowman and Littlefield.

Australian War Memorial art

Sergeant John Wood –  painting by Murray Griffin.
Men of AIF Concert party  – sketches by Murray Griffin
Men of AIF Concert party (2nd set) – sketches by Murray Griffin
Pantomime Production Changi – sketch by Murray Griffin
AIF Theatre Changi – sketch by Murray Griffin

National Library of Australia’s Trove

J.C. Williamson’s Collection of Photographs.

Newspapers:
The Daily Mercury 21 September 1929.
The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931
The Sydney Morning Herald  27 April, 1933
The Sun (Sydney) 12 December 1933
The Sun (Sydney) 16 Sep 1945
The Herald (Melbourne) 16 June 1946
The Sun (Sydney) 6 Nov 1946
The Sun (Sydney)  21 Jan 1948 

National Archives of Australia

Service Record, Signalman John Wood, NX65819.
Incoming Passenger records.

British Newspaper Archive.

The Graphic , 16 January 1926
Daily Mirror, 12 December 1961

Newspapers.com

The San Francisco Examiner 15 June 1935
The Los Angeles Times, 10 June, 1936.

Judy Kelly (1913-1991)- From the outback to Elstree Studios

Above: It seems every film star once smoked like a chimney. Judy Kelly in a publicity photo of the early 1940s – and a long way from Narrabri, New South Wales. Author’s collection.

Judy Kelly made a name for herself performing on the stage and on screen in England between 1932 and 1949. She is unusual in some respects because her pathway to becoming a recognised actor seems – at first glance – to have been achieved with remarkable ease, when compared to the trials and tribulations of others. She had no professional acting experience in her native Australia and yet by 1949 she had almost fifty film credits behind her and she had emerged as a competent actor.

She was born Julie Aileen Kelly at Narrabri, an inland town of New South Wales, about 500 kilometres north west of Sydney, in 1913. An older brother Owen Arthur had been born in 1911. Judy’s mother Blanche Esse nee Davis belonged to a well connected farming family, from the more prosperous southern area of the state.

At the time of his marriage to Blanche in 1911, Eugene Gerald Kelly, had been appointed a teacher at a one teacher school. Mogil Mogil was remote – a town with a tiny population but supporting two pubs and a butcher, with uncertain school enrolments , uncertain rainfall and a reputation for hitting 114 degrees fahrenheit in the shade in summer (45.5 degrees C). Perhaps the reason they had moved to the relative comfort of Narrabri in 1913 was because remote life was so hard. But by 1916 Blanche had moved again, taking the children with her to the pastoral property of her brother, H. M. Davis, near Robertson, in the green rolling hills of the southern highlands. Here, another daughter, Betty, was born in 1917. Eugene joined the Australian Army in 1916, in the great enlistment surge after Gallipoli, being posted overseas soon after.

Judy and her siblings spent much of their childhood growing up on another Davis family farm at Lockhart, in the Riverina district. Of Judy’s childhood we know little, except that she had adopted the name “Judy” well before she travelled to England, and she may have dabbled in some amateur theatricals while at Wagga Grammar School. Blanche and Eugene were finally divorced – acrimoniously and publicly – in 1923.  (Note 1)

Blanche and Judy leave AustraliaIn April 1932, 19 year old Judy won a “Talkie Quest,” a drawn out competition run by the short-lived Sydney newspaper “The World” in collaboration with the Capital Cinema and British International Pictures (BIP).

Reportedly, 1,200 young women entered the competition, whose judges included director Ken Hall and actor Bert Bailey. The prize was very attractive – it included three months training at Elstree in England and a try-out in films. Judy was described as a teacher by several newspapers, but if that was so she  must have been unqualified, given her age. But most later accounts stated she was a cinema usher.

Above:  Blanche and Judy departing for London. The Home, An Australian Quarterly. Vol. 13 No. 8. August 1, 1932. Via National Library of Australia Trove.

After extraordinary publicity and many farewells, Judy and her mother departed for England on the P&O ship Cathage, arriving on 29 July, 1932. She was set to work for BIP almost immediately and the transition to British film actor all went remarkably well. But not surprisingly, in the British Pathe newsreel made soon after she arrived, she still looked very young and uncomfortable in front of the camera. She acknowledged how hard it was at first, when she told a journalist I have only made one friend. Molly Lamont — fellow Colonials they call us, since she is South African. There is a terribly impersonal atmosphere about a studio. Directors look right through you and murmur: ‘What are we going to call this young woman?'” 

Judy claimed her first experience of film was with Molly Lamont, as an extra in Lord Camber’s Ladies (other sources state it was Sleepless Nights), but her first credited role in a film for BIP was in Money Talks. This was a 70 minute BIP quickie comedy, a vehicle for popular vaudeville and radio comedian Julian Rose and produced by the prolific Walter C Mycroft.  Judy had a small role as the daughter of Abe Pilstein (played by Rose). Thereafter, she appeared in a string of mostly program fillers – or B-films, often mysteries and crime dramas such as Crime on the Hill (1933), The Four Masked Men and The Black Abbot (1934). But at the same time, she can also be seen in a few supporting and un-credited roles in quality films, such as Alexander Korda‘s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934).

Judy Kelly British!May 1933
Above Left and centre: An early photo of  a very young Judy Kelly. The short bio on the card may confuse the casual reader today – reflecting the reality that many people considered Australians of the time to be “British born”. Author’s collection.
At right: A still of Judy from Everyone’s Magazine, May 10, 1933. It is reportedly from the BIF film Their Night Out. In later years she explained she took every role offered to her. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Judy developed a reputation for working hard. She judged competitions, appeared at openings, modeled clothes and sought out every acting opportunity she could. (Click here for a British Pathe newsreel of Judy judging some laundry sports in 1937). Doubtless this also had something to do with advice from her agent – the well known Herbert de Leon, who also represented Margaret Lockwood, Greer Garson and numerous others.

Back in Australia, sometime in March 1933, Judy’s sister Betty managed to accidentally shoot herself in the arm. She was trying to shoot a sting-ray, she said, and the injury , although minor, might delay her plans to travel to England to become an actor like her sister. About a year later, she and older brother Owen finally arrived in England on the SS Barrabool. All three Kelly children settled into life with Blanche in an apartment in London’s Paddington. None of them ever returned to Australia. The contrast between a quiet life in rural New South Wales, and London, the bustling capital of the Empire, must have been stark.

Judy and Betty Kelly
On 21 April, 1934, The Australian Women’s Weekly compared Judy (left), who had now lost a great deal of weight, with a photo of her sister Betty (right), photographed while en-route to England.  Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. 

It was no wonder Betty thought she, too might become an actor. Judy Kelly was now well established (and was much more at ease in front of the camera) as the following British Pathe newsreels suggest.

But as the 1930s wore on, some of Judy Kelly’s feature films continued to be like her first. British films of the 1930s were often made on a limited budget, sometimes produced to fulfil the exhibitor’s obligations under the Cinematograph Films Act (1927) – which was to show a certain proportion of British films in their programs. But this era of filmmaking doesn’t necessarily deserve the bad reputation it has sometimes been given – the films were a “mixed bag” that included great successes amongst the forgettable and underwhelming. Judy’s repertoire reflected this diverse range of films. It included light romantic comedies, mysteries and even a few jaunty musicals, including Charing Cross Road (1935) with John Mills and Over She Goes (1937) with Sydney-born actor John Wood

Judy Kelly and John Wood Over She Goes
Above: a screen grab of Judy Kelly as Anne Mayhew, with fellow Australian John Wood (1909-1965) as the eligible Lord Harry in the musical Over She Goes. She plays Harry’s gold-digging former fiancee. This rarely screened film can be purchased from networkonair.com. Author’s collection. 

It was Margaret Lockwood who said“The British star who waits for the ideal role… will do a lot of waiting” and one can’t help but feel Judy Kelly might have sometimes felt the same way. Perhaps this explains why from the late 1930s, she was also found performing on the stage, with some success. In 1937, she went on a tour of South Africa, performing in Barre Lyndon‘s crime drama The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse. The play had been a hit in London, and like so many new plays of the 1930s it was quickly made into a film – by Hollywood in this case. Judy also appeared on stage in light comedies and musicals such as (Australian writer) Eric Coppel‘s Believe it or Not in 1940, Stanley Lupino‘s musical Lady Behave in 1941, Vernon Sylvaine‘s farce Women Aren’t Angels in 1941 and his comedy-thriller Warn that Man in 1943.

Two of Judy Kelly’s stage appearances. Lady Behave was a musical, Warn That Man a thriller. Author’s collection.

One striking feature of Judy Kelly’s story is her consciousness of being an Australian at work in England. She wrote a few articles for popular Australian paper “Smith’s Weekly” that expressed that awareness – including an unusually frank comment about England’s class system; “The English are a curious people—so curious, indeed, that I, an Australian, sometimes feel a foreigner among them…To anyone reared in the Australian democratic tradition, (the) alignment of social forces is inexplicable.”  It was doubtless coincidental, but she appeared in a number of films with fellow Australians busy working in England – amongst them Coral Browne (Charing Cross Road in 1935) Betty Stockfeld and Edward Ashley (Under Proof in 1936), Frank Leighton ( The Last Chance in 1937),  John Wood (Over She Goes in 1937 and Luck of the Navy in 1938), Ian Fleming (The Butler’s Dilemma in 1943) and John Warwick (Dancing with Crime in 1947). She reported that at times she bought her friends Australian presents and sometimes she mixed with other Australians – including Patti Morgan, whose 1949 wedding she attended.

Judy kelly 2

Judy Kelly in a publicity photo c 1945 and looking every bit the movie star. Author’s collection 

Judy Kelly in Tomorrow we Live 1942Like many of the actors profiled on this website, Judy Kelly also made her contribution to British propaganda in several films – including Luck of the Navy (1938) and Tomorrow We Live (1943). This genre of British films is also interesting for the liberal use of refugee actors from Nazi- Europe,  in the case of the latter film – this includes Herbert Lom, Karel Štěpánek and Fritz Wendhausen.

Above: This is a screen grab from Tomorrow We Live, re-titled At Dawn We Die for the US market. Judy plays Germaine from the bar. She looks a little sad because the man she is keen on – Jean Baptiste – has just said “goodnight little cabbage” before dismissing her. Author’s collection.

Her final films are perhaps her most notable. In 1945 she appeared in a small role in the well received British horror film Dead of Night. But it was in John Paddy Carstairs’ film-noir crime thriller Dancing With Crime (1947) that she most demonstrated her ability. Set in a perpetually wet and dark post-war London, she played Toni, a hard drinking dance hostess for a dodgy Dance Hall, really a front for black market operations. Richard Attenborough plays Ted Peters – a salt of the earth taxi driver, while Joy, played by Sheila Sim, is his perpetually worried girlfriend. It’s the sort of film where the characters say cheerful things like “Don’t worry about me Ducks” and “I’m off to see a man about a fortune” between fighting or shooting at each other. In the end, Toni cooperates with the Police Inspector, played by Australian John Warwick, while Ted and Joy are sent off home to enjoy the rest of their lives.

Judy Kelly in Dancing w crime

Here is Judy Kelly as Toni, giving her boss (one of the gangsters, played by Barry K. Barnes) a piece of her mind, in Dancing with Crime (1947). Author’s collection.

In 1949 Judy appeared in Warning to Wantons, where she plays the mother of the insufferable Renee (Anne Vernon), a sixteen year old who is determined to use her feminine guile to manipulate the dopey eligible Count Max (David Tomlinson) on the eve of his wedding, plus any other men she meets. It’s well acted but the plot is so unpalatable it makes tiresome viewing today. It is worth noting that Kelly was only 36 while playing a mother in this, her final film. It was based on a novel with the same title by Australian novelist Mary Mitchell . (Note 2)

  Eric Summer ILN Sept 17 1966   Judy Kelly Birmingham Gazette May 31 1952

Above Left: Eric Summer photographed in 1966. Illustrated London News, 17 September 1966. Copyright ILN Group.
Above Right: Judy Kelly and her baby in 1952. Birmingham Gazette, 31 May 1952. Via British Newspaper Archive.

In April 1946 Judy married Eric Summer, a businessman, lawyer and former British Army colonel. Amongst Summer’s later accomplishments was his Chairmanship of Royston Industries, makers of the first Black box flight recorders. A son was born of the union in 1952.

Betty Kelly did not develop an acting career. But from 1938-1949 she was married to popular English comedian Michael Howard. Judy’s older brother Owen Arthur Kelly served in the British Army in World War II. He married Vera Felix (Kempner) in 1941.

Judy Kelly retired from acting in 1949 and lived much of her later life in the Surrey countryside. Unfortunately this talented actor left no further commentaries about her work or life. She died in London in 1991, aged 77.


Note 1
Judy’s father, Eugene Gerald Kelly was never mentioned in her biographies. At best, it was inferred her father had been a pastoralist, occasionally it was stated he was dead.  The reason for his disappearance from the family story is hinted at by examination of his colourful wartime military record in the 45th Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) – available online in the Australian National Archives. In addition, a clumsy attempt by Eugene to pretend to be dead in 1920, apparently in an effort to avoid paying Blanche child support, was reported by “Truth” newspaper. Clearly Eugene’s relationship with his wife and children fractured irrevocably. It is a testimony to their fortitude that they successfully rebuilt their lives in Britain without further contact.

Note 2
The IMDB lists Judy as appearing in a British film Adam’s Apple/Honeymoon Abroad  in 1928 and in the US in the Jack Benny TV show in 1954. These are different people. There is no record of her travelling to the UK at the age of 15 to play a “Vamp” and the woman in the Jack Benny show was a well known US-born dancer, who had also worked with Bob Hope.

Nick Murphy
September 2019

Further reading

Texts

  • Kurt Gänzl (1986) British Musical Theatre Vol. 2. Oxford University Press.
  • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
    (Produced too late to interview Judy Kelly, this wonderful book contains interviews with many of her contemporaries)
  • Robert Murphy (2009) The British Cinema Book. BFI Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Vincent Porter (Ed) (2006) Walter Mycroft: The Time of My Life. The Scarecrow Press.
  • Jeffery Richards (Ed) (1998) The Unknown 1930s. An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929-1939. I.B.Taurus
  • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1940-1949: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield.

Online

  • Ancestry.com

NSW Police Gazettes 1919-1923
UK Shipping records
UK Census records

  • National Library of Australia – Trove

GOSSIP FOR WOMEN. The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.)  28 Jan 1911  P.10

FAKED OBITUARY. Truth (Brisbane, Qld.) 29 April 1923: P.13.

LONELIEST GIRL IN ENGLAND, The Daily News, (Perth, WA)19 September, 1932. P. 2.

WILL I SUCCEED? JUDY KELLY’S IMPRESSIONS Everyone’s. 23 November 1932.

JUDY KELLY TELLS HOW IT FEELS TO CRASH TALKIES. Everyone’s. 30 November 1932.

THE PICTURE PARADE. Everyone’s. 10 May 1933.

ANOTHER FILM KELLY. Western Mail (Perth, WA) 5 April 1934 P.33

PARIS PRESENTS NEW IDEAS IN FURNISHINGSmith’s Weekly (Sydney, NSW), 4 January,  1936. p.16.

MISS AUSTRALIA, 1937 Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW) 10 Mar 1937 P.4

YOUNG AUSTRALIANS IMPORTANT IN ELSTREE STUDIO News (Adelaide, SA) 8 Jul 1937 :  P. 12

Eugene Gerald Kelly #2263, Service record, 4/45 Battalion, AIF.