Thursday 20 July 2017

When Joan met Athene


The great actress Athene Seyler is possibly not so well known these days. She may be familiar to fans of the work of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas as her last film role was for them, in the 1963 film Nurse on Wheels as Miss Farthingale. However Athene's career on the stage dated back to 1909 and in films she was first seen in 1921, in The Adventures of Mr Pickwick. Aside from her brief flirtation with the world of Pinewood comedy, Seyler played a fairly significant part in the life of the young Joan Sims.

When Joan first attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1947 for an audition, the celebrate actress Athene Seyler was on the panel of judges. On the day it did not work out well for Miss Sims as her reading of Winnie The Pooh did not go down well. Years later, Athene confided in Joan that she had never been a fan of A. A. Milne. Instead, Joan took the route of PARADA, the preliminary Academy in Highgate, North London, before finally joining the real thing two years later. Athene had left a lasting impression on Joan and Sims became a life long fan of her work. 


Over a decade later Joan was delighted to find herself working on stage with the great Ms Seyler when she played her maid in the stage production of Breath of Spring at the Cambridge Theatre in 1958. Joan was enthralled with Athene's brilliant performance as Dame Beatrice Appleby and the pair became firm friends. They would remain in touch and five years later, they worked together again in the aforementioned Nurse on Wheels. This film had been something of a personal disappointment for Joan as she had originally been cited as the lead, Joanna. However Peter Rogers came under pressure from his financial backers to cast a younger actress in the role (it subsequently went to Juliet Mills). Joan's confidence was seriously knocked by this decision and even though she accepted the supporting role of Deborah on the same money, it was a blow. Consolation came in the form of Athene who played one of the villagers in the supporting cast. 

The friendship was obviously a lasting one and the delightful Joan obviously had made her mark on Athene. Years later, Joan was mentioned in correspondence between Athene and the great American actress Helen Hayes. Helen was at the time filming her starring role in the Disney film One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, in which she appeared opposite the likes of Peter Ustinov, Derek Nimmo, Bernard Bresslaw and Joan. It would appear the filming schedule was taking its toll on Hayes who noted to Athene that the only things keeping her going were the humour of Ustinov and "the warm, funny Joan Sims who sends you her regards". For me it's always fascinating to read about our heroes' heroes. I've always admired Joan and her huge talents and it's great to find out who inspired and touched her in her life and work.


Athene Seyler lived a long life, reaching her 101st year before passing away in 1990. She appeared in some classic films during her long career including roles in Doctor at Large in 1957 as Lady Hawkins; Campbell's Kingdom as Miss Abigail; For Better For Worse in 1954 as Miss Mainbrace and the wonderful Make Mine Mink with Terry-Thomas, Hattie Jacques and Billie Whitelaw. On stage she took roles in such classics as The Cherry Orchard, Romeo and Juliet, Harvey and The Rivals. She became the President of RADA in 1950. One of her last screen appearances came in the late 1960s in the classic television series, The Avengers. Athene virtually retired from the acting profession by 1970 although she continued to appear as an interviewee well into the 1980s on programmes like the BBC chat show Wogan. In 1990, aged 101 she even appeared on stage at the National Theatre to discuss her life and work. 

To end, I'll leave you with a link to one of Athene's last appearances, as a cast away on the BBC Radio 4 series Desert Island Discs. She was interviewed by Sue Lawley in 1988, at the age of 99. It's a fascinating listen. You can listen here


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