Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Obituary • JUDY CAMPBELL • 2004

The actress Judy Campbell, photographed by her husband lt Cdr David Birkin at Dartmouth in 1942 [Wikimedia]

The actress Judy Campbell, photographed by her husband lt Cdr David Birkin at Dartmouth in 1942 [Wikimedia]

British actress | 31st May 1916 – 6th June 2004

From a husky nightingale to a theatrical career spanning over sixty years, Judy Campbell, who said “The wonderful thing about being an actor is always having somewhere to go in the evening”, died at the age of 88 on 6th June 2004. Her funeral took place at Chelsea Old Church on 18th June.

Looking at her lineage, one could almost say that she was destined to be a performer. Her mother Mary Fulton was an actress and her father was the playwright J A Campbell who also ran the Theatre Royal in Grantham, where she was born. At the age of 6 she was allowed to go on stage and perform ‘Peter Pan I Love You’. Afterwards, even though both her parents were in the business, they were afraid that the adulation would go to their young daughter’s head, so they sent her away to boarding school, St Michael’s Convent in East Grinstead. It wasn’t until 1935 that she appeared at the Theatre Royal again in The Last of Mrs Cheyney by Frederick Lonsdale and from there she learnt her craft working in repertory around the country.

Then came 1940. London was besieged by German air raids; the Blitz was at its height, but although the city was dark, a new star was to shine forth from a London West End stage. The Comedy Theatre in Panton Street hosted a show called New Faces and Judy Campbell had planned to perform a monologue of Dorothy Parker’s. Unfortunately, the script had been mislaid and, much to her horror, replaced with the song ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’. She had never professed to be a singer but even so, she went out onto the moonlit set dressed in a white ball gown and captured the audience’s imagination with her heartfelt rendition of the now evocative Eric Maschwitz ballad.

Amongst the audience sat Noël Coward who, after having wined and dined her, said, “It takes talent to put over a song when you haven’t got talent. One day we’ll act together”; two years later she created the roles of Ethel in This Happy Breed and Joanna in Present Laughter. Her association with Coward didn’t stop there — she played Elvira in Blithe Spirit, toured with Hay Fever, and in 1951 he cast her as the Hollywood Fiancée in Relative Values. The beautiful ‘Nightingale’ took her to the Middle East where she appeared in a revue for Binkie Beaumont, and she flew to the King’s Head in 2002 and Jermyn Street Theatre in 2003 to reprise ‘Nightingale’ and other Coward numbers along with anecdotes about her career and working with The Master in a show she devised with accompanist Stefan Bednarczyk, Where Are the Songs We Sung?.

Through the 1950s, ‘60s and ’70s she was in great demand as a leading comic actress playing in, amongst others, Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1961) and You Never Can Tell (1966), and Alan Ayckbourn’s first London success as Lady Slingsby-Craddock in Mr Whatnot (1964). Her comic abilities were further utilised as the Grand Duchess in The Sleeping Prince by Terence Rattigan and as Lady Bracknell in a musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest. She also showed her versatility as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman in Oxford, as she did with her varied television appearances including Inspector Morse, Nanny, Anna Karenina, Dust to Dust and the 2002 remake of The Forsyte Saga. There were films too including Convoy (1940), Breach of Promise (1942), Green for Danger (1946), and later There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970) and Mr Forbush and the Penguins (1971).

Judy Campbell in 1945 [Wikimedia]

Judy Campbell in 1945 [Wikimedia]

In 1943, Judy Campbell married David Birkin, a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy. He later took up farming and together they had three children whom they brought up surrounded by the Berkshire Downs. Throughout their marriage — her husband died in 1995 — she continued to work in addition to being a mother.

She is survived by one son, the writer and director Andrew Birkin, and two daughters, one of whom is the actress Jane Birkin, whose song with Serge Gainsbourg, ‘Je T’Aime Moi Non-Plus’, was banned by the BBC in 1967; Judy Campbell professed not to understand a word of it!

She will be long remembered for her extraordinary career, and with respect by those who knew her and by those who had the privilege of working with her.

Peggy Leader © 2004

Originally published on R&V 17-07-04

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