Wednesday, 20 July 2011
Googie Withers RIP
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.