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.”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.
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 LangQueensland, 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…”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.
Following some work in Melbourne Little Theatre,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.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 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.”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.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.UK Marriage Certificate 1934, Wandsworth, Vol 1d, P1146.
The son of a publican and Melbourne City Councillor who had died suddenly in 1915, Joss Dillon was eleven years Joan’s senior.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,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.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.Ambler was his mother’s maiden name
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.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.“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.”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.
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.
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.ABC Weekly, 1 Jan 1949, P11. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. Joss Ambler was interviewed on 15 Jan, 1949
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.
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.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.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.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.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.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.
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.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.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.Correspondence, Geelong Grammar Archivist, 25 March 2022
- Sophie Church, School Historian, Geelong Grammar School
Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
- Anne Rees (2015) ‘Browne, Coral Edith (1913–1991)’accessed online 26 March 2022.
- Allan Ashbol (1986), ‘McMahon, Gregan (1874–1941)’ accessed online 26 March 2022.
- Frank Van Straten (2009) ‘Bentley, Charles Walter (Dick) (1907–1995)‘, accessed online 5 April 2022.
- 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
- National Library of Australia’s Trove
- British Library Newspaper Archive
- Lantern, the Media History Digital Library
- 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
|↑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|