Thursday 28 July 2011

Last night's set list

At The Habit, York: -

Out On The Weekend (Neil Young)
Walk Right In (The Rooftop Singers)
Our Sgt. Major Jumped from 40,000ft (Trad. arr. Ravenscroft)

What a night! The best open mic I've ever attended. The place was packed when I went in at 9:30. There must have been 15 or 16 players and it wasn't even a full moon. Tom T came along but had to leave before my set.

The night finished wlth Mark Wynn & Dave Ward MacLean playing a set that just blew everyone away. Marvellous!

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Free-running in the community urban environment...

Ealing Studios and postwar British film...

The troubled heart of Ealing and British postwar cinema
Decades of rainy-Sunday screenings have blinded us to the true nature of postwar British cinema – freedom, naughtiness and a very black humour indeed

Matthew Sweet
Thursday 21 July 2011

It begins with a parrot and a gaucho band. We're in South America – or a tiny patch of it, conjured some 60 years ago on a sound stage in London. The customers wear fur wraps and hair cream. The Atlantic stands, suspiciously immobile, beyond the window. And here is Alec Guinness, a British robber in rich retirement, sitting at a table, grinning a complacent grin and declaring his attachment to the Latin high life in that thin, high, gurgling voice. He is a prototypical Ronnie Biggs – and he's prepared to put his money where his mouth is.

When a conspicuously privileged middle-aged woman stops to talk, Guinness presses a roll of banknotes into her outstretched hands – a donation for the "victims of the revolution". A waiter receives a similarly thick wad of beneficence. Another gift is bestowed upon an almond-eyed beauty in long black gloves. Chiquita nuzzles her benefactor's neck, murmuring her gratitude into his ear. Guinness's face becomes a mask of bliss.

These are the opening moments of the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob – restored and released into cinemas this week. It's a worthy exhibit A in any argument for the richness and vitality and sophistication of British film, but useful evidence, too, for those who argue that our native cinema is unambitiously parochial and too small to contain a talent of truly great magnitude. The reason? The film will not allow Guinness's thief to get away with it: though we won't realise it until the last reel, he is already handcuffed to the Scotland Yard officer charged to bring him back to Britain, rationing, and the fag end of the Attlee administration. And that woman pressing herself against Guinness, passing through the scene with a single line, is Audrey Hepburn – a future international superstar for whom British cinema failed to find a single interesting part.

When Ealing studios was sold in 1955 and its personnel absorbed in the great maw of the Rank Organisation, a memorial plaque was bolted to the wall. "Here during a quarter of a century were made many films projecting Britain and the British character." Perhaps this tablet now commemorates a time when there was more agreement on what those terms might mean. During the war years and their immediate aftermath, Ealing studios helped to clarify Britain's sense of itself – or, at least, its sense of what it hoped to be. We were the postmistresses and vicar's daughters of Went the Day Well?, who used guns and axes to pick off the Nazi infiltrators in their midst. We were the motley gang of Spanish civil war veterans and sour middle-aged clerks who settled their differences to face the inferno of The Bells Go Down. We were the boys of Hue and Cry, who cornered Jack Warner's gang of spivs and racketeers on that bombsite by the Thames.

For the persuasive clarity of these images, Ealing paid the price. When its pictures fell from fashion, they were dismissed as insular, inward-looking, cosy. This was, according to historian Anne Massey, "a vision of a little England [that] detracted from the realities of living in ugly, bombed-out cities". The critic Alexander Walker derided these films as "comfort food for middle England that sat well with the national stomach". It was a profound critical misjudgment – what's comforting about being murdered with an axe in a rural post office? – but it stuck.

Among its enemies and its friends, our native cinema has a reputation for decency and good manners. The awards bestowed on Shakespeare in Love and on The King's Speech are evidence for the American academy's enthusiasm for literate, middlebrow British movies full of nicely dressed Rada graduates. It feels as if this has always been the case – but I suspect the passion only began in earnest when Colin Welland waved his Chariots of Fire Oscar in the air and started bellowing: "The British are coming!"

Before America acquired its Pavlovian response to received pronunciation, British cinema signified something very different to audiences on the other side of the Atlantic. Permissiveness. Smut. License. Amorality. British cinema meant a couple of hours in the dark enjoying an agreeably un-American form of freedom – one that Hollywood was not always capable of supplying. Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII reigned in New York because the film deconstructed the stuffy romance of the costume drama with faintly filthy humour.

Audiences loved the sadomasochistic sturm und drang of the Gainsborough melodramas, in which James Mason, Jean Kent, Phyllis Calvert and Patricia Roc mounted horses and slapped each other about. They thrilled to the Eastmancolor blood sports of the Hammer horror pictures. They were pleasantly gobsmacked by the transcendental naughtiness of the Carry On series, which loosed a species of gag that would have made Doris Day jump on a chair and scream. If American cinemagoers had not been so delighted by the moment in Carry On Nurse when Hattie Jacques discovers Wilfrid Hyde-White, prone on the hospital linen with a daffodil inserted into his anus, then the Carry Ons might not have made it to the Wilson years.

In the 1950s, Roger Manvell, the first head of the British Film Academy, moaned that British pictures were like "faded leaves painted in exquisite detail by a lady in Cornwall". At the same time, American audiences were turning to our cinema for its vigour, its extremity, its willingness to find black humour in crime, atrocity and moral transgression. It's very hard to imagine a Hollywood studio countenancing the scene in Kind Hearts and Coronets in which Dennis Price assassinates a ballooning old lady with a bow, an arrow and a deft little gag. "I shot an arrow in the air," he purrs. "She fell to earth in Berkeley Square." (The line is a parody of Longfellow, one of the most revered figures in the American literary canon.) Hard, too, to imagine a contemporaneous US horror flick concocting the moment in Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein when the film cuts from an image of the Creature slaying a housemaid to Peter Cushing asking Hazel Court to pass the marmalade. And Trainspotting and Shaun of the Dead prove that this is not a trick that was only possible to pull off half a century ago.

For many modern observers of the film business, globalisation has killed the idea of a national cinema – a form of film-making in which a picture can demonstrate its loyalty to a particular local cultural sensibility. There are, to my mind, two impressive counter-arguments to this idea: the emptiness of European films manufactured to please the American market, and the continued dominance of Hollywood, which has made American-ness one of the most attractive properties in the world. British film-makers have been negotiating Hollywood's power for nearly a century. There will always be Audrey Hepburns who escape their notice until they receive a coronation on the other side of the Atlantic – and there is scarcely much point in agonising over it.

In 1946, Michael Balcon, the head of Ealing studios, wrote an article in which he contended that the second world war had transformed the sensibility and the habits of the British people. "Films," he argued, "have come to mean in the lives of many communities what religion meant to such communities in other times." Ending the supply of indigenous pictures, he suggested, would be the cultural equivalent of cutting off the water supply. Balcon was the son of South African emigres; he was Jewish; he was a grammar school boy from Birmingham. Few were more qualified than him to anatomise the nature of the country in which he told his stories.

Nostalgia, overfamiliarity, decades of rainy-Sunday screenings: these have blinded us to the truthfulness of this vision. The Lavender Hill Mob is not a form of comfort food. Guinness and his gang are brought to justice, but that doesn't cancel out the giddy excitement of their spree. There is something raging inside the film's anti-hero, the lowly bank employee who makes it to the new world with a stash of bullion, and is then forced home again; something that spoke to an audience that had survived the traumas of the second world war, but knew that other, undeclared wars were already being fought. And if we could acknowledge this, and gaze into the troubled heart of Ealing, we might know ourselves better. Know Britain, and the British character.

Monday 25 July 2011

Over and over the crow flies uncover the cornfield...

It's only rock 'n' roll...

Jean Hartley RIP

Image result for jean hartley publisher marvell press
Jean Hartley obituary
Co-founder of the Marvell Press, an early publisher of Philip Larkin's poems

Anthony Thwaite
Thursday 21 July 2011 18.22

Jean Hartley was half of the tiny firm that published the first mature book of poems by the best poet of the age. Philip Larkin's The Less Deceived was brought out in 1955 by the Marvell Press, run by Jean, who has died aged 78, and her husband, George, from their two-up, two-down house in Hessle, on the outskirts of Hull. The book instantly made Larkin's reputation.

A few years earlier, the Hartleys had started the literary magazine Listen on the proceeds of Jean's accumulated child allowance. She was the "business manager", which meant that she did most of the work while George was out and about scouting for "contacts". The Marvell Press was so named partly because of the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell's connection with Hull, partly because they realised it would be a marvel if the thing worked.

It did work, and Jean herself was a remarkable woman. She was born in the heart of Hull's fishing community. Her father, Billy Holland, was a foundry worker. In the early months of the second world war, Jean was briefly evacuated to North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. She went on to win a scholarship to Thoresby high school, in Hull, and found, at the age of 14, that she had to choose one of the three vocational courses offered. She chose "commercial", but left after only a year. Her first job was as a shorthand typist with a small firm of accountants, where she was paid £1 a week.

She already had a hunger for serious reading, and spent part of her first week's wages on a book of poems by Edith Sitwell. It "did not stand the test of time. I was more selective thereafter." At the age of 17, dallying with a boy called Peter, who purported to be a poet, she became pregnant. Jean was sent to a strict but kindly Anglican home for unmarried mothers. When she returned to Hull, she took up with an earlier bohemian acquaintance, George Hartley, who was now a shoe salesman. He courted her with flowers stolen from local gardens. Before long, pregnant again, she married George.

In her memoir, Philip Larkin, The Marvell Press and Me (1989), Jean observed: "Hindsight tells me I should have been reading Dr Marie Stopes rather than Ernest Dowson." But she and George got the first issue of Listen out at the same time that Jean's second daughter was born.

The magazine began to thrive ("critically at any rate"), with a range of contributors that broadly represented what was collectively labelled "The Movement" – Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Donald Davie, John Wain, and also, in almost every issue, Larkin. There followed The Less Deceived, first published with a list of 120 subscribers. (The current dealers' value of this book is about £500.) Jean was busy packing copies, rushing to the post office, keeping a house and family, while George went back to the local art college.

By 1967, George had acquired a teaching certificate and was teaching at a local boys' school. Jean decided to pack in her secretarial job, and take some O- and A-levels. Soon she was encouraged to apply for university. Feeling too embarrassed to ask Larkin for a reference, she consulted him over whether she should try Richard Hoggart (who, much earlier, had taught her on some Workers' Educational Association courses) or CB Cox, to which he replied: "Why not let me do one for you? I've known you long enough. Of course you'll need an UCCA form. UCCA! God's gift to limerick writers." Jean was touched that Larkin came round after she had taken each of the three A-level English literature papers, to see how she had done and talk about the questions.

By the summer of 1968, Jean found that life with George had become unendurable, so she moved out with the girls. They found an attic flat, where they lived for three years while Jean was an undergraduate. At the beginning of this course, Larkin told her: "I expect you'll be hard-up living on a grant. I opened a book account for my niece when she went to university. Why don't I do the same for you?"

Jean did well at Hull University and, after graduating in 1972, was accepted to read for a BPhil degree. Needing money while studying, she managed to get a job teaching English in "a smart, purpose-built girls comprehensive" – her old school, Thoresby, rebuilt and now called Amy Johnson school, after the Hull aviator. Later she taught at the local college of education.

After Larkin's death in 1985, Jean was instrumental in setting up the Philip Larkin Society, and for a time edited its journal, About Larkin. She had warm relationships with several women who had been close to Larkin: Ruth Siverns (nee Bowman), Winifred Dawson (nee Arnott) and Maeve Brennan. In 1995 she published the very useful guide Philip Larkin's Hull and East Yorkshire. She was also a gifted painter and potter.

In 2010 Hartley's memoir was reissued by Faber Finds and Hull Truck theatre presented a stage adaptation, Wrong Beginnings, by David Pattison, as part of the events commemorating the 25th anniversary of Larkin's death. Earlier this year Hartley was awarded an honorary DLitt by Hull University, in response to which she said, of herself and her fellow mature students: "We all learned, like the hairdresser heroine of Educating Rita, that we too could sing a different tune."

After her separation from George, Jean never received any money from The Less Deceived. In her last years and final illness she was fortunate to have the love and support of her daughters, Alison and Laurien, and her granddaughter, Sarah, who survive her.

• Jean Hartley, publisher and writer, born 27 April 1933; died 18 July 2011

Sunday 24 July 2011

Loudo and Rufus in London

House of Rufus
Royal Opera House

Maddy Costa
Friday 22 July 2011 18.44 BST

You might expect someone as shamelessly self-absorbed as Rufus Wainwright to hog every moment of his unprecedented five-night stint at the Royal Opera House. Instead, he's generously sharing the limelight with his family, devoting entire sets to his sister Martha and father Loudon. In fact, Loudon so dominates their evening together that fans of his son – who, in a two-hour performance, delivers just six songs as solo singer – could be forgiven for feeling short‑changed.

What this show loses in concentrated Rufus, however, it gains in a fascinating display of the two men's similarities and differences. Loudon is like a single, relentless glare of light: his lyrics are trenchant and unsentimental, his music plain and direct. Whereas Rufus is a gigantic mirror ball refracting that light into a multitude of stars: his lyrics are prolix, his emotions flamboyant, his music – even when it's just him on the piano – sumptuous. When Loudon sings of death, he is playful, obstreperous and apprehensive by turns. When Rufus sings, in The Tower of Learning, "I really do fear that I'm dying", he just sounds melodramatic.

They seem polar opposites, and yet, when it comes to narcissism, Rufus is clearly a chip off the old block. It's just that Rufus expresses that narcissism through extravagant gestures, while Loudon simply sings a lot of songs about himself. That's not entirely fair: Loudon also examines his relationships with his family with unflinching, even lacerating honesty – and Rufus follows suit with Dinner at Eight, his curiously inexpressive voice smudging the violence of the song. What this show subtly documents is father and son's gradual, slightly grudging, acceptance of their symbiosis, exquisitely expressed in their duet on a fierce blues song by Loudon Wainwright Jr, the patriarch who wreaked havoc on them both.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Amy Winehouse RIP

Amy Winehouse found dead, aged 27

23 July 2011 Last updated at 17:41

Singer Amy Winehouse, 27, has been found dead at her north London home.

A Metropolitan Police spokesman confirmed that a 27-year-old woman had died in Camden and that the cause of death was as yet unexplained.

London Ambulance Service said it had been called to the flat at 1554 BST and sent two vehicles but the woman died.

The troubled singer had a long battle with drink and drugs which overshadowed her recent musical career. She pulled out of a comeback tour last month.

Jeered at gig

Winehouse cancelled the European tour after being jeered at her first gig in Serbia, when she appeared too drunk to perform.

For 90 minutes, she mumbled through parts of songs and at times left the stage - leaving her band to fill in.

A large crowd has begun to gather behind the police cordon - with around 60 to 65 people here. Many of them are very young, the majority under the age of 18.

Lots of them say they came after hearing the news on social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook - because they were saddened by the news and wanted to know more.
A car arrived earlier with four or five people who were visibly upset. The indication was that they seemed to know the singer as they were actually allowed through into the road.

There are a lot of people here who are very upset. She was a very talented person with a hugely loyal following.

She had recently finished a course of alcohol rehabilitation in London and at the time was under strict instructions not to drink.

A section of the road where the singer lived was cordoned off on Saturday evening, as journalists, local residents and fans gathered at the police tapes.

Forensic officers were seen going in and out of the building.

Winehouse had won widespread acclaim with her 2003 debut album, Frank.

But it was 2006's Back to Black which brought her worldwide stardom, winning five Grammy Awards.

Rumours of Winehouse's death began circulating on Twitter on Saturday evening. Among those to comment was singer and actress Kelly Osbourne.

She tweeted: "i cant even breath right now im crying so hard i just lost 1 of my best friends. i love you forever Amy & will never forget the real you!"

Singer and presenter Myleene Klass tweeted: "OMG. Amy Winehouse. Exceptional talent and really nice lady. RIP."

BBC Radio 1 DJ Fearne Cotton wrote: "Can not believe the news. Amy was a special girl. The saddest news."

Daily Telegraph rock critic Neil McCormick said he was "utterly shocked" at her death.

Last appearance

He said she had appeared focused when giving an "incredible performance" for a recent studio recording of a duet with Tony Bennett.

"It's deeply sad. It's the most completely tragic waste of talent that I can remember," he added.

Winehouse made her last public appearance on Wednesday night when she joined her goddaughter Dionne Bromfield on stage at The Roundhouse in Camden.

The singer danced with Bromfield and encouraged the audience to buy her album in the impromptu appearance before leaving the stage.

At the time she pulled out of the tour, her spokesman had said everyone wanted to do everything to "help her return to her best".

Samuel Palmer

Ray Milland #6

The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder, 1942)
There's an excellent piece on this wonderfully strange movie here:

and another here:

So let's leave it at that!

Friday 22 July 2011

Lucian Freud RIP

Lucian Freud, the foremost figurative artist of his generation, dies aged 88
Lucian Freud, a colossus of the art world for more than half a century, has died peacefully at his home aged 88.

By James Orr, and Raf Sanchez
11:18PM BST 21 Jul 2011

In a statement his New York-based art dealer and close friend William Acquavella said the realist painter died on Wednesday following a brief illness, but gave no further details.

Freud was known for his intense realist portraits, particularly of nudes.
In recent years his paintings commanded huge prices at auction, including one called Naked Woman on a Sofa that sold for $33.6 million (£20.5million) in 2008. Last month, a portrait entitled Woman Smiling, 1958-59, sold for £4,745,250.

Mr Acquavella said he would mourn Freud “as one of the great painters of the twentieth century.”

“My family and I mourn Lucian Freud not only as one of the great painters of the twentieth century but also as a very dear friend,” he said.

“As the foremost figurative artist of his generation he imbued both portraiture and landscape with profound insight, drama and energy.

“In company he was exciting, humble, warm and witty. He lived to paint and painted until the day he died, far removed from the noise of the art world.”

Freud was well known for bucking the trends of the art world, insisting on using his realist approach even when it was out of favour with critics and collectors.

He stubbornly developed his own unique style, eventually winning recognition as one of the world's greatest painters.

“He certainly is considered one of the most important painters of the 20th and 21st Centuries,” said Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman of the postwar art department at Christie's auction house in New York.

“He stayed with his figurative approach even when it was extremely unpopular, when abstraction was the leading concept, and as time moved on his classic approach has proven to be very important. He fought the system and basically won.”

Freud, grandson of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was born in Berlin in 1922. His Jewish family was forced to flee the city in 1933 and he became a British citizen in 1939.

The artist was a member of the Order of Merit - one of Britain's most prestigious chivalry honours founded in 1902 by Edward VII. The honour is a special award presented to individuals of great achievement in the fields of the arts, learning, literature and science.

Current members include former prime minister Baroness Thatcher, naturalist Sir David Attenborough and inventor of the worldwide web Sir Timothy Berners-Lee. Members receive no rank or title apart from the initials OM after their name.

Freud’s most famous subject was arguably the supermodel Kate Moss, who he painted in the nude while she was pregnant. He named the painting Naked Portrait 2002.

He also painted a portrait of the Queen - completed in his characteristically uncompromising and unflattering style, with some commentators describing the Monarch's expression as "glum".

The Director of the Tate in London, Nicholas Serota, said: “The vitality of his nudes, the intensity of the still life paintings and the presence of his portraits of family and friends guarantee Lucian Freud a unique place in the pantheon of late twentieth century art.
“His early paintings redefined British art and his later works stand comparison with the great figurative painters of any period.”

Freud's sister-in-law Ann, told the Daily Telegraph that neither she nor her husband Stephen, knew of the painter's illness and only learned of his death through TV reports.

Mrs Freud said: "We literally out found five minutes ago and it's a terrible shock. I didn't even know he was unwell. He wouldn't keep a telephone so no one could phone him directly.”

Thursday 21 July 2011

Ray Milland #5

The Uninvited (1944)

Considered by Martin Scorsese to be one of the eleven best horror films of all time, Lewis Allen’s seductively melancholic ghostly tale, The Uninvited (1944), was one of the first Hollywood films to portray a haunting as a supernatural event in a serious manner; before this, it was someething that could be explained away rationally or it was played for laughs.
Partly inspired by the success of Hitchcock’s enigmatic melodrama, Rebecca (1940) and partly by the recent group of Val Lewton’s atmospheric supernatural films, like Cat People (1941) and The Seventh Victim (1943) at RKO, and aware that the Universal horror series was past its best (four more years and Abbott and Costello would be meeting Frankenstein), Paramount were looking for a big budget ghost story hit and they found the basis in Dororthy McCardle’s Rebecca-style haunted house mystery, Uneasy Freehold, set on the south-west English coast.
Ray Milland plays London music critic and composer, Roderick Fitzgerald, who, with his sister, Pamela, moves into an old house overlooking the rocky coast of Cornwall. The owner is Commander Beech, who inherited it from his grandmother and had given it to his daughter, Mary Beech Meredith, who has since passed away. Her daughter, Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), is deeply attached to the house, against her grandfather’s wishes, and Rick begins to fall in love with her.
After moving in, the Fitzgeralds open up an artist's studio, in which a bouquet of roses wilts away and where they experience an unexplainable drop in temperature. Their dog, who had earlier refused to climb the stairs, disappears and Rick hears a woman sobbing – something that Pamela has already heard.
Stella feels a calming presence and smells mimosa, a scent she associates with her late mother; however, she becomes upset and claims her mother died cruelly. She dashes out to the cliff top from where her mother fell, but Rick saves her before she too falls – it’s as if she has been possessed!
Local doctor, Dr Scott (Alan Napier), reveals that Stella’s father had an affair with a Spanish gypsy called Carmel, who stole baby Stella and threw Mary Meredith of the cliffs, before succumbing to illness and dying.
During a séance, the ghost communicates that it is guarding Stella, who then becomes obsessed by the spirit of Carmel and she is packed off to a sanitorium by Commander Beech.
The sanitorium manager, Miss Holloway, a childhood friend and obsessive devotée of Mary Meredith, tells the Fitzgeralds how she cared for Carmel, but she died of pneumonia; however, Dr Scott tells them she died of neglect, so they set out to bring Stella back.

Realising that Dr Scott and the Fitzgeralds are on their way, Holloway sends Stella home by train, hoping that the spirit in the house will lead her to the cliff edge. When she arrives back, she refuses to listen to her grandfather’s pleas to leave, but the appearance of the spirit causes him to die of a heart attack.
Rick, Pamela, and Dr. Scott manage to arrive in time to stop Stella falling off the cliff and back in the house, a physician’s journal discovered by Dr Scott reveals that Carmel gave birth to a child, Stella, and her spirit has returned to be close to her daughter. The scent of mimosa and the sobbing had been emanating from Carmel, whose spirit has been freed by her daughter’s return. However, the jealous spirit of the spurned Mary Meredith remains to be confronted by Rick, who tells her no-one is afraid of her any longer and she finally leaves.

When Hitchcock finished filming Rebecca, producer David O. Selznick wanted the smoke from the burning Manderley to form a large letter “R”. Fortunately, the director had the last word and only filmed a burning monogrammed nightdress. With The Uninivited, Allen wanted to rely on suggestion and atmosphere, but Paramount insisted on the inclusion of several ghost shots during post-production and he was unable to stand up to the producers. The ghost’s features were puportedly modelled by actress Elizabeth Russell (no relation to Gail, but a regular in Val Lewton’s horror movies) and physical form by model and bit-player Lynda Grey. Russell also posed for the large portrait of Mary Meredith that is seen on the wall of Miss Holloway’s office in the film. Fortunately, the ghost shots were removed from the British release and critics praised its chilling atmospheric suggestion.
The superbly atmospheric cinematography by Charles Lang won the 1945 Academy Award for Black and White Cinematography.
The popular standard, Stella by Starlight, was based on the main (instrumental) theme of Victor Young’s score and helps underline the melancholy mood of the film. It wasn’t until later that Young’s collaborator, Ned Washington, added lyrics and the song became a standard.

Milland did not appear in the weak follow-up, The Unseen (1945). While it was also directed by Allen (and numbered Raymond Chandler among those who received a writing credit), it was more of a murder mystery with shades of George Cukor's recent popular film Gaslight (1944).

Wednesday 20 July 2011

The Saga of the Internal Mountain

Tall Story? Doubts Over Everest's True Height

The world's highest mountain, Mount Everest, is to be remeasured amid claims from China and western climbers that official calculations are not accurate.


Perhaps they should've measured it from the inside when Lord Seagoon climbed it back in 1954...

Googie Withers RIP

Image result for googie withers
Googie Withers

Googie Withers, who died on July 15 aged 94, was a leading lady of British stage and screen in the 1940s and 1950s, with a famously long 62-year marriage to the Australian actor John McCallum, her regular co-star in 10 popular films of the time.
Through talent and determination, she succeeded in carving out a varied career despite a name that seemed forever to consign her to light comedy roles. Born in Karachi, she was given the nickname Googie by her Indian nanny and it stuck. A Hindi word, it meant (according to who was telling) "dove" or "crazy". Subscribers to the latter view held that it reflected her antic behaviour as a child.

As an actress it undeniably held her back. In the inter-war years, the influential critic James Agate missed no opportunity to upbraid her for it. How could she hope to be taken seriously as an actress, he thundered, with such a name? For many years he was right. The studios dyed her hair blonde and typecast her as maids or dolly birds, with supporting roles in George Formby and Tommy Trinder farces.

The actress stood firm. She had used the name for a long time and it had brought her luck. Why abandon it? Ginger Rogers, after all, was proof that an actress could have a nursery name and still win an Oscar (for Kitty Foyle in 1940).

For Googie Withers the war was a turning point. It temporarily brought to an end the era of frothy comedies in which she had hitherto been cast. Suddenly, the demand was for weightier fare to help the war effort. Seizing the moment, she rinsed out her blonde hair, reverting to her natural brunette, and made a pitch for more dramatic roles.

That she was able to make the transition was due to the director Michael Powell. She first worked with him in 1934 on his film The Girl in the Crowd and again in 1935 in The Love Test. In 1936, he directed her for a third time in Her Last Affairs. As usual, she was cast as a comic serving maid, but tucked away in the script was a short sequence that tapped her histrionic abilities.

"One day", Powell told her, "you'll be able to play a dramatic part and I'll direct you." Six years later, when he was casting his wartime picture One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, he remembered his promise and offered her a part as a member of the Dutch Resistance. There was opposition at first. On past form, many thought she would fail in the role, but Powell boosted her confidence. "I think you can do it", he told her, "but I don't mind telling you that no one else thinks you can." It was a shrewd combination of challenge and reassurance, spurring her on to success.

She never looked back, developing into a respected actress, initially in the theatre and cinema and later on television. Among her acclaimed stage performances, she played Gertrude in Hamlet in 1962 and Lady Bracknell in The Importance Of Being Earnest in 1979. On television she was named best actress of the year in 1954 in Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea and between 1973 and 1976 played the Governor of Stone Park, a fictitious women's prison in the long-running series Within These Walls.

Born in India on March 12 1917, she was the daughter of Captain EC Withers and his Dutch wife Lizette. She was herself christened Georgette Lizette, which she found a mouthful to pronounce. It was one reason why she preferred another stage name.

From a young age she intended to become a professional dancer. She took her first lessons at the age of four and, when she was eight, came to England for more advanced training. She was educated first at Fredville Park school in Nonnington, Kent, and later at the Convent of the Holy Family in Kensington. Her professional training was undertaken with Italia Conti and then with Helena Lehmiski in Birmingham.

Her first stage experience was in 1929, when she played a toy, a cat, a fairy and a milkmaid in the Christmas pantomime The Windmill Man at the Victoria Palace. Catching measles during the run, she passed it on to half the company, much to the management's displeasure.

Aged 15, in partnership with Vera Morris, she won the Open Dancing Championship of Great Britain but her career was set back by an accident during an acrobatic number in which she injured her arm so badly that it seemed at first to require amputation. Luckily, this was avoided.

While recovering in New Brighton, she spent six months with a concert party at the Floral Pavilion and then, at 17, headed for London. She enrolled at another dancing school run by Buddy Bradley and began to appear as a chorus girl in such shows as Ballyhoo and Nice Goings On. Her first starring part was in Happy Weekend, which came about in the time-honoured showbiz fashion when the leading lady fell sick.

Her performance in this play attracted the attention of the film producer Sergei Nolbandov, who offered her a screen test. In the event, though she turned up for it, it never took place. It would have cost too much, the studio claimed, but rushed her untried into a small part in The Girl In The Crowd. It was the start of a fruitful professional association with Michael Powell.

During the war, she joined Southern Command's Garrison theatre and after the liberation of France, played to the troops in Holland and Belgium. In Antwerp, she narrowly escaped death when the theatre where she was playing was hit by a V2 rocket only minutes after she had left.

In 1944, she and the entire cast of the JB Priestley play They Came To A City, which had enjoyed a nine-month run in London's West End, were invited to Ealing Studios to produce a film version. Ealing offered a congenial working environment and the kind of dramatic roles that, after the war, she increasingly sought. She stayed and did her best work there.

Particularly successful were the films she made with the director Robert Hamer. After an episode in the portmanteau picture Dead Of Night (1945), they worked together on a film of the play Pink String And Sealing Wax (1945), a period piece set in Brighton, in which Googie Withers enjoyed her strongest part to date as a murderess.

Even finer was It Always Rains On Sunday (1947), in which Hamer cast her as a former barmaid who shelters an ex-lover, now an escaped convict. Her portrait of a working-class housewife, prematurely soured by life and looking back enviously to the flashier, more exciting world she might have known with her lover, significantly extended her range and was among her finest performances for the screen.

Her co-star was John McCallum, the Australian actor soon to become her husband. She also appeared with him that year in The Loves Of Joanna Godden, another period drama set in the early 1900s and based on a popular novel by Sheila Kaye-Smith. In an early instance of feminism, she was cast as a strong-willed farming lady at a time when this was considered an unsuitable occupation for a woman.

Over the years, she and John McCallum appeared together in eight more films, including Miranda (1948), about a mermaid, Travellers' Joy (1949), Port of Escape (1956) and The Nickel Queen (1971). Later in life, they also co-starred on stage, achieving personal triumphs in a UK tour of On Golden Pond.

Her other films, made without McCallum, included Once Upon A Dream (1948), in which she played an officer's wife subject to romantic daydreams about her husband's batman, Pat Jackson's White Corridors (1951), in which she was cast as a surgeon, spending a month in a hospital before production began to familiarise herself with procedure, and Night And The City (1950) with Richard Widmark, a film noir about the wrestling game set in London.

In 1958, John McCallum was offered a managerial post with the TC Williamson theatrical agency in his native Australia and the family moved to Melbourne to set up a permanent home there. He held the post for eight years. Meanwhile, both continued to pursue theatrical careers here and in Australia.

After 1971, having made more than 60 films in the course of her career, Googie Withers made no more pictures but staged a comeback on British television. In 1985 she appeared in an adaptation of Anita Brookner's novel Hotel du Lac and in 1989, in a version of Kingsley Amis's Ending Up, with fellow veterans John Mills, Michael Hordern and Wendy Hiller.

She was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1980 and CBE in 2002.

Googie Withers and John McCallum married in 1948 and had three children – two daughters, Joanna (herself an actress) and Amanda, and a son, Nicholas. In 1979 McCallum published an anecdotal memoir of their lives together under the title Life with Googie. He died in 2010.