theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
The American-born actress Constance Cummings, whose acting straddled stage and screen in Britain and America, has died at the age of 95. Best remembered now, perhaps, for playing Ruth Condomine in the film version of Coward’s Blithe Spirit opposite Rex Harrison as husband Charles, she died last Wednesday, leaving memories of some very strong performances in London and the regions. Her career began on Broadway in the chorus line, encompassed pre-war American movies with Harold Lloyd and Mae West before she came over to England in 1934 with her British playwright and producer husband, Benn W Levy, who later became an MP, to appear in Sour Grapes in the West End.
Her stage career took in Juliet opposite Robert Donat’s Romeo, Winter Journey opposite Michael Redgrave, Goodbye Mr Chips, Shaw’s Saint Joan for the Old Vic at Buxton Festival – “How can you tell I would be any good as Joan if you haven’t ever seen me on the stage?” she asked the venerable playwright. “I can tell, child, I can tell,” he said. She was persuaded by Frank Hauser of Oxford Playhouse to give Lysistrata and Huis Clos a shot; she played Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night opposite Laurence Olivier, Gertrude to Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet, and much else besides. James Agate considered her “an incontestably fine emotional actress”, while W A Darlington acclaimed her as the ‘Film Star Who Can Act’. Cummings was more than prepared to work in the regions. She appeared in Mrs Warren’s Profession in Bristol, Somerset Maugham’s The Circle in Guildford and Durrenmatt’s The Visit in Coventry. She also played a succession of roles in Ibsen, Chekhov, Euripides and Shakespeare at the National Theatre in the 1960s.
Avril Angers was a brilliant comic actress who could sing and dance, and move her audiences to tears and laughter. Daughter of comedian Harry Angers, her mother Lilian Errol was one of the original members of the Fol de Rols concert party. She herself first came to prominence as a Forces’ Sweetheart working with ENSA during the Second World War. She was equally at home no matter which medium. At one point she was recording five different radio series including Bandbox andMonday Night at Eight. She worked with Leslie Henson and Hermione Baddeley in The Gaieties at the Winter Gardens, Max Wall in Make It a Date at the Duchess and later Cockie, Bruce Forsyth in Little Me, as Miss Marple in Murder at the Vicarage. She stretched herself in rep with plays such as Congreve’s Love for Love and Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday and even worked on the fringe, notably in Coward’s Easy Virtue and Post-Mortem at the King’s Head.
It was regular appearances on television in Stars in Your Eyes and How Do You View with Terry-Thomas that made her name in the 1940s and 50s and she continued to turn up in everything fromDad’s Army and The Liver Birds to Victoria Wood and All Creatures Great and Small. Avril Angers was last seen on television in Common as Muck in 1994, and died of pneumonia on 9 November at the age of 87.
When I was much younger, I thought Geoffrey Keen was the luckiest actor alive, that a law had been passed to say he had to appear in all British films or else. Whether he was playing solid, reliable officials or slightly menacing civil servants, Keen proved a popular and reliable choice for directors. His work included The Third Man, Born Free, Doctor Zhivago, several of the later Bond films, and one of the most famous television series of the 1960s, The Troubleshooters. But his theatre work should not be forgotten. This son of Shakespearean actor Malcolm Keen had a stage career that encompassed Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, Anouilh, Emlyn Williams, Rattigan and others. Geoffrey Keen died on 3 November, aged 89.
Graham Payn will forever be linked with Noël Coward. They were friends and collaborators throughout the post-war years, Payn performing and directing, although seemingly lacking ambition: “He sleeps and sleeps, and the days go by. I love him dearly and for ever, but this lack of drive in any direction is a bad augury for the future. I am willing and happy to look after him for the rest of my life, but he must do something,” said Coward. Payn was a famously unknown musical comedy actor when he was cast in Coward’s 1945 revue, Sigh No More, and receieved great notices for his singing of ‘Matelot’. A child performer who had played Curly in Peter Pan at the age of 13, Sigh No More led to further roles written specially for him by Coward, as well as parts in the work of others. When Coward died in 1973, Payn collaborated with Sheridan Morley and Cole Lesley to write Noël Coward and His Friends published in 1979, and edited The Noël Coward Diaries with Morley (1982). Graham Payn was 87 when he died on 4 November.
In the early 1970s, most of us were transfixed by the Edwardian upper class/working class world of the television series, Upstairs, Downstairs. Although created from an original idea by actresses Eileen Atkins and one of its stars, Jean Marsh, its success had as much to do with its principal writer, the producer, director and author, Alfred Shaughnessy, who died on 2 November. Shaughnessy’s family background, which included the 11th President of the United States and a stepfather who was Equerry to George VI, could not have been a more suitable person to develop the series. Shaughnessy’s path to television immortality began in the theatre of the 1930s. After fighting in Normandy during the Second World War, he secured a job with Michael Balcon as a ‘reader’, going on to produce and direct in film, television and radio, as well as writing various novels and two volumes of autobiography, Both Ends of the Candle and A Confession in Writing.
It was impossible to miss the American actor William Hootkins. A man of substantial girth and a wicked way with an anecdote, he most recently made an impression as Alfred Hitchcock in Terry Johnson’s Hitchcock Blonde at the Royal Court and in the West End – ‘The quiet man at the heart of the emotional maelström, past and present, is the wonderful comic figure of William Hootkins. Literally a hoot as Hitch, Hootkins gives no glib impression here,’ wrote Howard Watson on R&V. As well as acting on the big and small screens, here and in the US – Bad Timing, Star Wars, Hear My Song, Batman, The Lost Boys, Poirot, Bergerac, The West Wing – his voice was in constant demand; this year alone, in spite of treatment for pancreatic cancer, he recorded an unabridged version of Moby Dick that is nearly 25 hours in length. Born and brought up in Dallas, Texas, Hootkins trained at LAMDA. He died on 23 October, aged 57 and will also be remembered for playing several substantial figures from history including Churchill in the late Bob Sherman’s Their Finest Hour, Lyndon B Johnson and J Edgar Hoover.
Regulars at the Mermaid Theatre or St George’s Theatre in the 1970s will have no difficulty remembering theatre administrator and radio producer Jonathan James-Moore. His bright red hair gave him an unmistakable appearance that some likened to Worzel Gummidge and he was much-loved as he negotiated his way around Bernard Miles’ eccentric personality. Aged 59 when he died on 20 November, he was a founder director of the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company in the 1960s and later became BBC Radio head of Light Entertainment. He had also appeared on stage with Cambridge Footlights where cohorts included Alan Strachan and Miriam Margolyes, having studied engineering at the university. The diversity of subjects presented on radio under James-Moore’s aegis was enormous but he was particularly good at taking on board new comedy writers and performers such as Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris and Steve Coogan – and maintaining long-running series such as News Huddlines and Just a Minute. He was a manic-depressive but always enjoyed a laugh. “If you ever had a meeting with Jonathan you knew it would be a laugh. He was an absolutely lovely man, terrific fun,” said Head of BBC Radio, Jenny Abramsky.
Harry Thompson was a writer and producer who had a marked impact on satire and comedy with television shows like Have I Got News For You, They Think it’s All Over, The Eleven O’Clock Show,Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, Harry Enfield and Chums, Da Ali G Show, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and, last but not least, Monkey Dust. The Oxford University-educated Thompson (a fellow graduate was Ian Hislop), who died of lung cancer, diagnosed in April, on 7 November at a mere 45, was also a writer of biography, coming up with books on Tintin creator, Hergé, and Peter Cook. His first novel,The Thing of Darkness, was long-listed for the 2005 Booker. Thompson’s enthusiasm and wittily subversive approach to life and work, up until the day he died, is a great loss, especially as he had only just left Talkback Thames to form his own production company, Silver River. At the British Comedy Awards next month, Thompson will be sadly absent for the presentation of his recently announced Jury’s Award For Outstanding Contribution to British Comedy. A few hours before he died, he married his partner of two years, Lisa Whadcock.
If you were a smoker in a place without ashtrays and Barbara Keogh was present, you could be assured of somewhere to flick your ash! I first met Barbara at Vivien Pickles’ play-reading group, Riverside Writers, which met regularly at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. The group was later resurrected as Hammersmith Actors & Writers by Ron Forfar and myself. Each smoker (and many of the non-smokers) would vie for the seat next to Barbara, not only for her travelling ashtray but her wicked sense of humour and her ability to cut to the chase when commenting on whatever new play had just been read.
She was a hugely versatile actress, as adept at playing the crustiest of upper class ladies to the most tragic of working class women, and everything in between. Her talent was nurtured at Birmingham School of Speech and Drama and LAMDA, and honed by weekly rep where she played everything possible, including a couple of redoubtable characters, Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals and Mrs Danvers inRebecca. She could be gloriously glamorous or beautifully grotesque and graced some of the best television work to come onto our screens such as On Giants’ Shoulders and Road as well as making countless appearances in such as Dixon of Dock Green, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, The Grimleys, and Little Britain. Along the way she worked on stage with the likes of Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Sir Ralph Richardson, Dinsdale Landen, Helen Mirren and Pete Postlethwaite. Having been working only four days previously, Barbara died on 25 October at the age of 76. I, for one, will miss her.
Sarah Vernon © 2005
Originally published on R&V 27-11-05
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