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|Dame Flora Robson
in 1975, by Allan Warren
|Born||Flora McKenzie Robson
28 March 1902
South Shields, County Durham, UK
|Died||7 July 1984
Brighton, Sussex, UK
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.
Robson was born in South Shields, County Durham, 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.
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
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.
Personal life and death
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. 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.
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.
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.
|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|
|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|
|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|
|1971||La grande scrofa nera||La Nonna|
|1972||Alice's Adventures in Wonderland||Queen of Hearts|
|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|
|1981||Clash of the Titans||A Stygian Witch||Final film role|
- Queen Margaret in Will Shakespeare at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 1921
- Shakespearean repertory with Ben Greet's company, 1922
- JB Fagan's company at the Oxford Playhouse, 1923
- Two seasons at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge, 1929–30
- Abbey Putnam in Desire Under the Elms at the Gate Theatre, London, 1931
- Herodias in Salome at the Gate Theatre, London, 1931
- Mary Paterson in The Anatomist at the Westminster Theatre, London, 1931
- Stepdaughter in Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Westminster Theatre, London, 1932
- Bianca in Othello at the St. James' Theatre, London, 1932
- Olwen Peel in Dangerous Corner at the Lyric Theatre, London, 1932
- Eva in For Services Rendered at the Globe Theatre, London, 1932
- Ella Downey in All God's Chillun Got Wings at the Embassy Theatre, Swiss Cottage, 1933
- A season at the Old Vic, London, 1933–34
- Lady Catherine Brooke in Autumn at the St. Martin's Theatre, London, 1937
- Ellen Creed in Ladies in Retirement at the Henry Miller's Theatre, New York, 1940
- Sarah, Duchess of Malborough in Anne of England at the St. James Theatre, New York, 1941
- Rhoda Meldrum in The Damask Cheek at the Playhouse Theatre, New York, 1942–43
- Thérèse Raquin in Guilty at the Lyric, Hammersmith, 1944
- Lady Macbeth in Macbeth at the National Theatre, New York, 1948
- Lady Cicely Waynflete in Captain Brassbound's Conversion at the Lyric, Hammersmith, 1948
- Christine in Black Chiffon, at the Westminster Theatre, 1949 and the 48th Street Theatre, New York, 1950
- Lady Catherine Brooke in Autumn at the Q Theatre, London, 1951
- Paulina in The Winter's Tale at the Phoenix Theatre, London, 1951
- The Return at the Duchess Theatre, London, 1953–54
- Janet in The House By the Lake at the Duke of York's Theatre, London, 1956
- Mrs Alving in Ghosts at the Old Vic, 1958–59 and the Prince's Theatre, London, 1959
- Miss Tina in The Aspern Papers at the Queen's Theatre, London, 1959 and on tour to South Africa, 1960
- Grace Rovarte in Time and Yellow Roses at the St. Martin's Theatre, London, 1961
- Miss Moffatt in The Corn is Green at the Connaught Theatre, Worthing, the Flora Robson Playhouse, Newcastle upon Tyne and on tour to South Africa, 1962
- Gunhild in John Gabriel Borkman at the Duchess Theatre, London, 1963
- Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Flora Robson Playhouse, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1964
- Hecuba in The Trojan Women at the Edinburgh Festival, 1966
- Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 1968
- Mother in Ring Round the Moon at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 1968
- Agatha Payne in The Old Ladies at the Duchess Theatre, London, 1969
- Elizabeth I in Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England at the Edinburgh Festival, 1970
- GRO Register of Births: JUN 1902 10a 829 S. SHIELDS – Flora McKenzie Robson
- "Blue plaque unveiled at former home of Hollywood star". Enfield Independent. 27 April 2010.
- Howe, Marvine (8 July 1984). "Dame Flora Robson is Dead; A Leading Actress in Britain". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
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