Rogues & Vagabonds

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

Archive Obituary • MARY HAYLEY BELL • Actress & Writer • 2006

whistle_down_the_wind_posterThe actress and writer Mary Hayley Bell, better known as Lady Mills, died at the age of 94 on 1 December 2005. Although her last years were blighted by Alzheimer’s, Lady Mills will be remembered particularly for her endearing tale of an escaped murderer being taken for Jesus Christ in Whistle Down the Wind. The book, published in 1958, was made into a film by Bryan Forbes [1961] starring Alan Bates and her youngest daughter, Hayley Mills. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical from 1998 is being revived this year [2006] with Bill Kenwright directing, opening at the Palace Theatre for a limited run from 28 March.

She will also be remembered for her long and happy marriage to Sir John Mills who died in April 2005, which produced three children, actresses Juliet and Hayley, and son Jonathan. So strong was their relationship that they renewed their vows in 2001 in front friends and family.

Mary Hayley Bell was born in Shanghai and brought up in China before attending Malvern Girls College in England. She trained for the stage at RADA and met her future husband while touring the Far East in the early 1930s, having made her debut in The Barretts of Wimpole Street for an American company in Shanghai.

Her first play, Men in Shadow, about the French Resistance, was produced in 1942 which, after having its title changed from To Stall the Grey Rat at Noel Coward’s suggestion (he described Bell’s title as “piss-poor”), and having parts excised at the insistence of MI5, had a successful run in the West End starring Mills, whom she had married in 1941. The play was also successful in the provinces, New York and Moscow.

However, apart from her next play, Duet for Two Hands (1945), which was even more of a success, later efforts did not fare so well in the eyes of the critics who accused her work of being unfashionably ‘well-made’ and complacently middle class. In 1962, she said, “They don’t want my plays now … I never want to write another.” She had stopped acting after marriage: “That’s it. I’m not acting any more. We can’t have two actors in the family. We married so that we could be together.”

It was turning to novels that produced her greatest success, Whistle Down the Wind, though a later family collaboration, Sky West and Crooked (1965), which Mills directed and in which Hayley also starred, did not repeat the success of Whistle.

Lady Mills published an autobiography in 1968, What Shall We Do Tomorrow? and is survived by her three children and several grandchildren.

Sarah Vernon © 2006

Originally published on R&V 28-02-06

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