Thursday, 18 August 2016

Whatever Happened To ... Susan Stephen?

 

This is part of an occasional series of blogs looking at the lives and careers of some of the lesser known yet still valuable supporting actors who graced the Carry On films over the years. Today I am going to write about the actress Susan Stephen.

Susan Stephen only appeared in one Carry On, the second in the long-running series Carry On Nurse. Nurse was filmed at the end of 1958 and released the following year. While Susan received star billing for Nurse, by the late 1950s her promising film career was on the wane. She would be retired from the industry less than four years after Nurse hit cinema screens. Susan played Nurse Georgie Axwell in the film, forming an effective and cheeky double act with series legend Joan Sims (in her first Carry On). Susan gives an effective, bright and sparky performance in the film working well with Sims, Kenneth Williams and Wilfred Hyde White amongst others. She also features in the film's now classic ending involving Hattie Jacques' Matron, Hyde White and a daffodil!

Given the natural performance Susan Stephen gives in Nurse it is somewhat surprising she didn't return for more films with the gang. So what else do we know about Stephen's career?

 

Susan Stephen was born in London in July 1931. She took an interest in acting and performing at a young age and roles soon followed once she had trained at drama school. She made an early impact in the 1952 film comedy His Excellency, starring as Peggy Harrison opposite Eric Portman, Helen Cherry and Cecil Parker. She would work with Parker again two years later in what would be her biggest film success, playing opposite Dirk Bogarde in the sparkling comedy For Better For Worse.

For Better For Worse, released in 1954, was J Lee Thompson's adaptation of the hugely successful Arthur Watkyn play which had run for over 500 performances in the West End in the early 1950s. The original play had starred Leslie Phillips and Geraldine McEwan. The film version saw popular matinee idol Dirk Bogarde take over Leslie's part. The film centres on young married couple Tony and Anne setting up home together and features a delightfully colourful cast of characters played by reliable actors such as Cecil Parker, Eileen Herlie, Athene Seyler, Dennis Price, Thora Hird and one Mr Sidney James. The film performed well at the box office and also led to a lasting friendship between its two stars. Bogarde and Stephen kept in touch over the years and she often went to stay with him at his home in France.


Other film roles for Susan included playing Bicky alongside Richard Attenborough in the 1952 comedy Father's Doing Fine; Penny in the 1953 war film The Red Beret, starring Alan Ladd; the Jack Buchanan comedy As Long As They're Happy in 1955 (which also featured Joan Sims) and The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1957 which saw Susan act with the likes of Jennifer Jones, Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna and John Gielgud. 

Interestingly, Susan's last ever film role also has a Carry On connection. In 1962 she played Susan in the comedy Three Spare Wives. This film, directed by Ernest Morris, co-starred Robin Hunter (future husband of Amanda Barrie) and was originally a play by future Carry On scribe Talbot Rothwell.

Susan was married twice, first of all to fellow actor Lawrence Ward between 1952 and 1956. Her marriage to Ward ended in divorce. The following year she married film director Nicolas Roeg with whom she had four children and a relationship of twenty years. They divorced in 1977 citing his busy career directing films such as Don't Look Now, Walkabout and The Man Who Fell To Earth as a reason for them not spending enough time together. They remained firm friends and often spent Christmas together as a family. 

 

Susan's marriage to Roeg led to her reducing her acting career until she decided to retire in 1962. By the early 1960s she was appearing in B Movies produced by the infamous Danzinger Production Company, notorious for turning out films in a matter of days. Instead, Susan Stephen turned her attentions to raising her family and living a quiet life away from the spotlight. Sadly Susan passed away at the age of 68 in 2000.

If you know anything more about the life and career of Susan Stephen, please do get in touch with me either through the Get In Touch form on the blog or by emailing me directly at carryonfan15@gmail.com  

To finish, here's a delightful if rather twee British Pathe feature on a young Susan Stephen and her first husband Lawrence. I'm afraid you'll have to sit through the first section on some random woman's mysterious "cheese labeling business" in order to get to it but it's worth it (!) Although presenting their domestic arrangements in a typically 1950s way, it's still a lovely watch:



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