Flora Robson

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Dame Flora Robson
DBE
Dame Flora Robson Allan Warren.jpg
in 1975, by Allan Warren
Born Flora McKenzie Robson
(1902-03-28)28 March 1902
South Shields, County Durham, UK
Died 7 July 1984(1984-07-07) (aged 82)
Brighton, Sussex, UK
Years active 1921–1984

Dame Flora McKenzie Robson, DBE (28 March 1902 – 7 July 1984) was an English actress and star of the theatrical stage and cinema, particularly renowned for her performances in plays demanding dramatic and emotional intensity. Her range extended from queens to murderesses.

Early life[edit]

Robson was born in South Shields, County Durham,[1] of Scottish descent to a family of six siblings. Many of her forebears were engineers, mostly in shipping. Her father was a ship's engineer who moved from Wallsend near Newcastle to Palmers Green in 1907 and Southgate in 1910, both in north London, and later to Welwyn Garden City.

She was educated at the Palmers Green High School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.[2]

Career[edit]

Her father discovered that Flora had a talent for recitation and, from the age of five, she was taken around by horse and carriage to recite, and to compete in recitations. This established a pattern that remained with her.

Robson made her stage debut in 1921. In films, her most notable role was that of Queen Elizabeth I in both Fire Over England (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940). In 1934, Robson played the Empress Elizabeth in Alexander Korda's Catherine the Great (1934). She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ingrid Bergman's servant, Angelique Buiton in Saratoga Trunk (1945). That same year audiences in the U.K. and the U.S. watched her hypnotic performance as Ftatateeta, the nursemaid and royal confidante and murderess-upon-command to Vivien Leigh's Queen Cleopatra, in the screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).

After the Second World War, demonstrating her range, she appeared in Holiday Camp (1947), the first of a series of films which featured the very ordinary Huggett family; as Sister Philippa in Black Narcissus (1947); as a magistrate in Goodtime Girl (1948); as a prospective Labour MP in Frieda (1947); and in costume melodrama, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948). Her other film roles included the Empress Dowager Cixi in the 1963 film 55 Days at Peking, the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), Livia in the abortively-attempted I, Claudius in 1937, Miss Milchrest in Murder at the Gallop (1963).

She struggled to find a footing in the theatre after she graduated from RADA with a bronze medal since she lacked the conventional good looks which were then an absolute requisite for actresses in dramatic roles (she had a long face with a big nose and a wide mouth). After touring in minor parts with Ben Greet's Shakespeare company she may have played small parts for two seasons in the new repertory company at Oxford, alongside a youthful John Gielgud, but her contract was not renewed: she was told, as tactfully as possible, that they required a prettier actress. Unable to secure any acting engagements she gave up the stage at the age of 23 and in a disconsolate life-change she took up work as a welfare officer in the Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City. For four years, Dame Flora, who would become one of the half dozen finest dramatic actresses of her generation, continued in this twilight zone until the young Tyrone Guthrie, due to direct a season at the new Festival Theatre, Cambridge, asked her to join his company. It was the dramatic making of her. Her acting – as the stepdaughter in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author – made her the theatrical talk of Cambridge. She followed on to as much excited applause with Isabella in Measure for Measure, opposite a youthful Robert Donat, Pirandello's Naked, the title role in Iphigenia, Varya in The Cherry Orchard and finally the huge challenge of Rebecca West in Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm. These performances signalled the arrival of an actress who could either transmit emotional stress or simply hint at it, with rare power. Never again, in a career which was a constant struggle to achieve the roles worthy of her talents, would she have such a run of opportunities. In her second season, though, she had few dramatic opportunities and once again her lack of chocolate-box appeal meant that the management dispensed with her services.

Yet chance or destiny came to her rescue in the early 1930s, when she was cast as the adulterous Abbie in Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, a play which in that age of stage censorship was considered too shocking to be given a public performance. In the little club theatre, The Gate, near Charing Cross, she scored a direct hit with audiences and critics alike. It was, though, her brief, shocking appearance as the doomed prostitute in James Bridie's play The Anatomist that put her firmly on the road to success. "If you are not moved by this girl's performance, then you are immovable" the Observer critic wrote. This success would lead to her famous 1933 season as leading lady at the Old Vic, opposite Charles Laughton. By the end of it she was caught in the theatrical firmament as a star.

She continued her acting career late into life, though not on the West End stage, from which she retired at the age of 67, latterly often for American television films, including a lavish production of A Tale of Two Cities (in which she played Miss Pross). She also performed for British television, including The Shrimp and the Anemone. In the 1960s she continued to act in the West End, in such plays as Ring Round the Moon, The Importance of Being Earnest and Three Sisters.

Dame Flora's career ran down after her curious decision to leave the stage after The Old Ladies. However she continued to act on film and television, though the roles were often not rewarding at all. She was last briefly seen a Stygian Witch in the fantasy adventure Clash of the Titans in 1981. Both the BBC and ITV made special programmes to celebrate her 80th birthday in 1982 and the BBC ran a short season of her best films.

Awards and honours[edit]

She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as Angelique Buiton, a Haitian maid, in Saratoga Trunk (1945).

She was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1952, and raised to Dame Commander (DBE) in 1960. She was also the first famous name to become President of the Brighton Little Theatre.

On 4 July 1958, she received an honorary DLitt from Durham University at a congregation in Durham Castle.

She was the subject of This Is Your Life in February 1961 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in central London.

Personal life and death[edit]

Her private life was largely focused on her large family of sisters, nephews and nieces, who used the home in Wykeham Terrace, Brighton, which she shared with sisters, Margaret and Shela.

She died in Brighton, aged 82; the cause was never revealed. She had never been married or had any children.[3] The two sisters, with whom she shared her life and home, died around the same time: Shela shortly before Flora, in 1984, and Margaret on 1 February 1985.

Legacies[edit]

Dame Flora Robson Avenue, built in 1962, in Simonside, South Shields, is named after her. There is a plaque on their house in Wykeham Terrace, Dyke Road, Brighton, and also one in the doorway of St. Nicholas's Church, just up the hill from their house and of which Flora Robson was a great supporter.

There is also a plaque to commemorate the opening of the Prince Charles Theatre (Leicester Square, London) by Flora Robson.

In 1996, the British Film Institute erected a plaque at number 14 Marine Gardens, location of Flora's other home in Brighton, where she lived from 1961 to 1976.

A plaque at 40 Handside Lane in Welwyn Garden City records Flora Robson living there from 1923 to 1925.

A blue plaque sponsored by Southgate District Civic Trust and Robson's former school Palmers Green High School was unveiled at her family home from 1910 to 1921, The Lawe, 65, The Mall, Southgate, on 25 April 2010.[2]

Partial filmography[edit]

Year Title Role Note
1931 A Gentleman of Paris Uncredited
1932 Dance Pretty Lady Mrs. Raeburn
1933 One Precious Year Julia Skene
1934 The Rise of Catherine the Great Empress Elisabeth
The Private Life of Don Juan Undetermined Role Scenes Deleted
1937 Fire Over England Queen Elizabeth I of England
Farewell Again Lucy Blair
I, Claudius Livia
1939 Wuthering Heights Ellen Dean
Poison Pen Mary Rider
We Are Not Alone Jessica Newcome
Invisible Stripes Mrs. Taylor
1940 The Sea Hawk Queen Elizabeth
1941 Bahama Passage Mrs. Ainsworth
1944 Two Thousand Women Miss Manningford
1945 Great Day Mrs. Liz Ellis
Saratoga Trunk Angelique Buiton Nominated - Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Caesar and Cleopatra Ftatateeta
1946 The Years Between Nanny
1947 Black Narcissus Sister Philippa
Frieda Nell
Holiday Camp Esther Harman
1948 Good-Time Girl Miss Thorpe
Saraband for Dead Lovers Countess Platen
1952 The Tall Headlines Mary Rackham
1953 Malta Story Melita Gonzar
1954 Romeo and Juliet Nurse
1956 BBC Sunday-Night Theatre Lilly Mofat/Sister Agatha 2 episodes
1957 High Tide at Noon Donna MacKenzie
No Time for Tears Sister Birch
1958 The Gypsy and the Gentleman Mrs. Haggard
Innocent Sinners Olivia Chesney
1959 World Theatre Anna Fierling 1 episode
1963 55 Days at Peking Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi
Murder at the Gallop Miss Milchrest
1964 Guns at Batasi Miss Barker-Wise
1965 Young Cassidy Mrs. Cassidy
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines Mother Superior
1966 7 Women Miss Binns
David Copperfield Betsey Trotwood 8 episodes
1967 Eye of the Devil Countess Estell
The Shuttered Room Aunt Agatha
Cry in the Wind Anna
1968 BBC Play of the Month May Beringer 1 episode
1970 The Beast in the Cellar Joyce Ballantyne
Fragment of Fear Lucy Dawson
The Beloved Antigone
1971 La grande scrofa nera La Nonna
1972 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Queen of Hearts
1974 Heidi Gradmother 4 episodes
1975 The Canterville Ghost Mrs. Umney TV Movie
A Legacy Narrator 5 episodes
1978 Les Misérables The Prioress TV Movie
1979 A Man Called Intrepid Sister Luke 3 episodes
1980 Dominique Mrs. Davis
1981 Clash of the Titans A Stygian Witch Final film role

Theatre performances[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ GRO Register of Births: JUN 1902 10a 829 S. SHIELDS – Flora McKenzie Robson
  2. ^ a b "Blue plaque unveiled at former home of Hollywood star". Enfield Independent. 27 April 2010. 
  3. ^ Howe, Marvine (8 July 1984). "Dame Flora Robson is Dead; A Leading Actress in Britain". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 May 2016. 

External links[edit]