Wednesday 26 July 2017

Favourites in Five: Sarah Miller Walters

This is the first in a new series of blogs where I ask some of my favourite regular contributors and film fans to select five of the biggest influences on their lives from the world of film, television and theatre. These are all very personal choices and I find it fascinating to find out who everyone picks.

We're starting off today with Sarah Miller Walters and although she's been a bit cheeky and chosen six famous faces instead of five, but given her sixth and final choice, I could hardly refuse could I?

Margaret Rutherford 

If British cinema was a ship, the figurehead would be Margaret Rutherford. She would lean out from the prow with a jutting chin and her capes a-flutter.  Everybody knows and loves her. But delve a little deeper and be prepared for surprises. Her father spent time in Broadmoor, and had murdered his own father.  Her mother committed suicide. Combined with Margaret’s own bouts of depression, this was behind her conscious decision to not have children. Remarkably, she decided to dedicate her life to joy instead. I can’t help but think that any modern-day actor would use a history like Margaret’s as an excuse for bad behaviour and drug or alcohol abuse. It seems that her only vices were a fondness for sandwiches and afternoon naps. 

Margaret’s films continue to delight so many people and her face remains known and loved 45 years after her death (sadly just weeks before I was born, how I wish I had been alive at the same time as Margaret!) Her significance to me is simply that I always wanted to be her. I never aspired to glamour. I just wanted the nerve to wear capes and hats with the same aplomb. I wanted to be as knowledgeable a historian as she portrays in “Passport to Pimlico” and to ride a bike with the same exuberance as she does in “Blithe Spirit”. WHAT a gal!


Joyce Grenfell

This is another face that needs no introduction to anyone with at least a passing interest in 20th century British culture.  From the 1940s to her death in 1979, Joyce was a regular on our radio, television, stage and cinema screen. Her most famous film role is Policewoman Ruby Gates from the St Trinians film series, but many will also be familiar with her Nursery School Teacher monologues. 
“George, don’t do that.”

Joyce wrote all of her own monologues - there are so many of these, please do explore beyond the nursery teacher. It is as a writer that she holds particular interest for me. I think that Joyce and I have something in common – and that is a desire to be continually writing things down. She was a prolific letter writer and several absorbing volumes have been published. These offer a unique first- hand account of life in general during a fascinating period of history; as well as an insight into the life of a celebrity. She is both a historical icon and a resource. Follow @CallMeSossidge on Twitter!


Lilian Baylis

Lilian’s name is not as familiar as my previous two choices and this is a great shame. It is unfortunate that those talents not actually there before us on the screen or the stage and therefore not in the public eye are more easily forgotten. Lilian is a theatrical hero and I would like to help keep her legend alive. To this end, I have recently been conducting some research into her life and work.

Lilian was the manager of the Old Vic theatre from 1912 until her death in 1937. During this time she also founded Sadlers Wells and sowed the seeds of what would become the National Theatre. She was determined that theatre was for all, not just those who could afford it. 

Most fascinating is the roll call of names of actors who learned or polished their trade on her stage. Read books and programmes and name after name leaps out at you. John Laurie, Athene Seyler, Eric Portman, Sybil Thorndike, James Mason, Edith Evans, Roger Livesey, Flora Robson. This is just dipping a toe in the water. Better still, Lilian was a Character. A one-off. She had to be to succeed as a female theatre manager in those days. Stories of her eccentricities abound and are the icing on the cake of a fantastic life. Do look her up.


Will Hay

One of my earliest film related memories is of watching the Will Hay film “Where’s That Fire?” I don’t know how old I was – possibly not even old enough to understand some of the jokes.  But I do know that I laughed myself silly at the scenes where Hay and his sidekicks are trying to install a pole in the fire station. And I still do now. One of my favourite ever films is ‘Oh, Mr Porter!’ Again, it never goes stale. Hay’s sense of comedy is timeless, he knew what he was doing. A successful music hall act, he managed to move his act onto the screen – which is probably not as easy as he makes it look.  Away from his performing career he was an astronomer and an extremely intelligent man who died much too soon, aged just 60.


George Formby

To many, George Formby is the ugly feller from Wigan with the ukulele and repertoire of cheeky songs. These can still raise an eyebrow and a smile today. His films are great entertainment too, and they are also a historical resource.  It was my use of Formby’s films in a study of wartime propaganda when I was a student that was behind the idea for my blog, ‘The History Usherette.’ In the 1930s, his films tackled subjects that were relevant to ordinary people. And when war came, he was keen to boost morale through his screen work as well as his concert tours. His films reflect on what would have been common concerns to his audience. As a result, this offers a great insight into the years between 1935 and 1945. I wrote an essay about this in one of my books if you would like to know more (Matinee Musings by The History Usherette).


Kenneth Williams

Those of us who were born in the early 1970s grew up with Kenneth Williams. When we were young, he was that feller on ‘Jackanory’ with the funny voices. Then he was the narrator behind the tea-time cartoon ‘Willo The Wisp’ featuring the hilarious Evil Edna. As we got a bit older, we started to see the Carry On films on television on weekend afternoons, and he was the only guest worth watching on the otherwise boring chat shows that our parents watched. 

I was 15 when he died and was sad about it, while still knowing relatively little about him. Then his diaries were published and I read them – and new vistas opened up. I bought cassettes of ‘Round The Horne’ and ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’; I learned the story behind Julian and Sandy’s bona slang.  Kenneth Williams is a national institution who holds an enormous power to entertain and educate long after he so sadly trolled off and left us, still wanting more. 

I hope you have enjoyed the blog - and thanks again to Sarah for taking the time to do it! You can follow Sarah on Twitter here and there is plenty of wonderful Joyce Grenfell fun @CallMeSossidge

And you can find out more about Sarah's wonderful books here 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan on Facebook and on Instagram

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