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Top 10 British Actresses of the 1940s

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With its proud theatrical tradition, this country has always produced exceptional acting talent. Since the 1930s, however, the lure of Hollywood has often deprived the British film industry of some of its finest performers. But transatlantic travel was restricted during the Second World War and a number of emerging actresses seized the opportunity to provide embattled audiences with a little escapism and glamour. Cinema Paradiso celebrates their achievement.

Cinema proved crucial to national survival in the 1940s. During the previous decade, films had helped audiences cope with the privations of the Great Depression and the loss of two kings. But, following the outbreak of war against Nazi Germany in September 1939, the nation's movie theatres became key to reporting the progress of the struggle at home and abroad, passing on vital propaganda messages, boosting patriotism and morale, and providing some much-needed escapism from the arduous toils of war work, the pain of separation and loss, and the grim realities of being under attack from the Luftwaffe.

Rising to the Challenge

Although moving pictures had been around for two decades, the authorities had failed to recognise their potential for keeping the public informed and entertained during the Great War. Consequently, production virtually ground to a halt, as it was thought the nation had a better use for the chemicals needed to manufacture celluloid and develop photographic images. No such mistake was made in 1939, however, even though cinemas were closed during the Phony War because it was thought they would be targets for aerial bombardment. But the newly formed Ministry of Information urged Downing Street to reopen commercial and specialist newsreel theatres so that they could show the kind of shorts gathered in collections like Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950, The British Home Front At War, Ration Books and Rabbit Pies: Films from the Home Front, How to Be Eccentric: The Essential Richard Massingham and the three volumes in The Complete Humphrey Jennings.

After the war, the MOI became the COI, as the Central Office of Information guided citizens through the seismic social, political and economic changes taking place under Clement Attlee's Labour government. The BFI has issued four selections of these shorts in The COI Collection, which reveal how numerous wartime restrictions continued into the period of postwar austerity. Yet, for all the dangers and hardships faced by the British people in the 1940s, it remains a golden age for cinema.

A still from Variety Acts and Turns of the Second World War 1939-1945 (1945)
A still from Variety Acts and Turns of the Second World War 1939-1945 (1945)

As the BBC's limited and expensive television service had yet to capture the imagination, there was a box-office boom, with a record 1.6 billion tickets being sold in 1946 alone. Moreover, with the war in the North Atlantic jeopardising shipments of new American movies, British companies had to make up the shortfall and production levels remained steady, despite the national emergency. Collections like Variety Acts and Turns of the Second World War 1939-1945 and A Rainy Afternoon At the Flicks suggest that some of the more shoestring offerings can seem a little rough and ready by today's standards. But the busy studios afforded opportunities for emerging talents to shine both behind and in front of the camera.

The Studios Do Their Bit

While studios like Elstree and Shepperton were converted into storage and manufacturing facilities during the war, Pinewood became home to the Royal Mint, Lloyd's of London and the Crown Film Unit, which produced such influential war pictures as Pat Jackson's Western Approaches (1944), which took its realist cues from Charles Frend's San Demetrio, London (1943), which cast members of the stricken vessel's crew in recreating their intrepid experiences.

Bearing the influence of the British Documentary Movement, this much-commended feature was made by Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios, which also produced such key home front studies as Alberto Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942) and Basil Dearden's The Bells Go Down, which followed Humphrey Jennings's Fires Were Started (both 1943) in paying tribute to the fire service. Even comedians like Will Hay and George Formby did their bit for King and Country in Basil Dearden's The Goose Steps Out (1942) and Marcel Varnel's Get Cracking (1943).

Balcon had founded Gainsborough Pictures in 1924 and the company with the famous Sarah Siddons logo enjoyed its best years producing wartime diversions at the Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd's Bush. Although it scored hits with comedies like Val Guest's Arthur Askey vehicle, Bees in Paradise (1944), it was best known for the costume melodramas that became known as 'Gainsborough bodice-rippers' and made stars of James Mason, Stewart Granger and four of the actresses who will appear in Cinema Paradiso's Top 10, Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, Patricia Roc and Jean Kent.

Bogart or Bacon

After six years of conflict, the British people voted for change in the General Election of July 1945 and returned a landslide Labour government that set about nationalising key industries and establishing the National Health Service. The emphasis on the harshness of life in Austerity Britain filtered through into 'problem pictures' like Robert Hamer's It Always Rains On Sunday (1947), St John Legh Clowes's No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Montgomery Tully's Boys in Brown (both 1949), which risked the ire of the British Board of Film Censors with their frank discussion of sex, domestic violence and crime.

But, in trying to help the film industry, the government landed it in hot water during the so-called 'Bogart or bacon' debate. In an effort to limit imports to essential items, it was decided that food supplies mattered more than luxury items like movies. Moreover, Labour concluded that it could claw back some of the $70 million heading to Hollywood by putting a levy on American films showing in British cinemas. The US studios were so appalled by this bid to get 'a dollar's worth of film for a quarter' that it imposed a boycott on the UK market and the government encouraged local film-makers to increase production to make up the shortfall.

Unfortunately, at a time when British companies were making around 100 features a year, producers simply didn't have the funds, staff or studio resources to increase output by the levels necessary to keep the nationwide cinema chains supplied with the 400 or so new pictures they required each year. Thus, at the very moment that Brits watched more films than anyone else in the world, they were being asked to make do with a mix of oldies and bargain basement quickies. Deprived of a principal form of leisure and pleasure, the public began to stay away and exhibitors facing a cash flow crisis appealed to the government to rectify the situation. Left with little option, Labour did a deal with Hollywood to restore the flow of new releases. However, the producers who had invested heavily in rallying to the call to save our cinema found themselves with pictures that nobody wanted to see and big studios and minor independents alike took a sizeable financial hit.

A Golden Age

A still from Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)
A still from Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

Adversity seemed to bring the best out of Britain's film-makers, however. There was certainly plenty to smile about at Ealing, where Charles Crichton's Hue and Cry (1946) launched a string of comedies that included Alexander Mackendrick's Whisky Galore!, Henry Cornelius's Passport to Pimlico and Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (all 1949) and came to define both the era and the national character. Ealing also sponsored the horror classic, Dead of Night (1945), as well as such period pieces as Hamer's Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and Basil Dearden's Saraband For Dead Lovers (1948), whose Oscar-nominated sets were resplendently photographed in Technicolor by Douglas Slocombe in contrast to the inky monochrome achieved by Otto Heller for Thorold Dickinson's Expressionist retelling of Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades (1949).

The masters of colour at a time when it was still something of a novelty for British film-makers were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who had created such memorable wartime sagas as 49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (both 1941), A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I'm Going (1945) in black and white before following their first colour outing, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), with three visual masterpieces with cinematographer Jack Cardiff: A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).

Cardiff also filmed Under Capricorn (1949) for Alfred Hitchcock, which marked his return to Britain after he has earned much criticism for seeing out the war in the relative safety of Tinseltown. In his absence, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who had written The Lady Vanishes (1938), proved that they could also produce tense thrillers like I See a Dark Stranger (1945) and Green For Danger (1946). The duo had also written Night Train to Munich (1940) for Carol Reed, who further demonstrated his knack for suspense with Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949), the latter two of which were produced from Graham Greene stories by the ever-resourceful Hungarian, Alexander Korda. However, Launder and Gilliat also had a gift for diversity, as they alternated the directing chores on such self-penned efforts as Millions Like Us (1943), Two Thousand Women (1944), The Rake's Progress (1945) and Captain Boycott (1947).

Both The Archers and Individual Pictures had found a home at Pinewood, the base of the Rank Organisation. Another to fetch up here was one time editor David Lean, who had followed a impressive debut alongside Noël Coward on In Which We Serve (1942), with such varied fare as This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1944) and Brief Encounter, as well as the Dickensian duo of Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). He would end the decade with The Passionate Friends and Madeleine (both 1949), a pair of collaborations with future wife Ann Todd, who had found belated fame in Compton Bennett's The Seventh Veil (1945), which had been written by the husband-and-wife team of Sydney and Muriel Box, who was one of the most powerful women in British cinema, thanks to the patronage of J. Arthur Rank, who was not only beginning to see the wisdom of investing in Pinewood's famous Charm School, but also of backing Laurence Olivier's dream of filming Hamlet (1948), as it became the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

A Wealth of Talent

For much of the 1920s and 30s, British cinema found itself caught between the West End and Hollywood. This situation changed during the first half of the 1940s, as Stateside travel was so difficult and patriotic actresses felt it was their duty to entertain their fellow countrymen and women on the stage, the screen and the radio. Several Brits did continue to work in America, however, including Madeleine Carroll (North West Mounted Police, 1940), Ida Lupino (High Sierra), Frieda Inescort (You'll Never Get Rich, both 1941), Angela Lansbury (Gaslight, 1944) and June Duprez (And Then There Were None, 1945).

A still from Gone with the Wind (1939)
A still from Gone with the Wind (1939)

Vivien Leigh had become the most famous actress in the world after producer David O. Selznick had cast her as Scarlett O'Hara in his lavish adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's bestseller, Gone With the Wind (1939). But Leigh's marriage to Laurence Olivier made them British cinema's golden couple, although several other actresses had gone to Hollywood with their husbands, including Gladys Cooper (Rebecca, 1940), Anna Lee (How Green Was My Valley, 1941), Edna Best (The Ghost and Mrs Muir, 1947) and Elsa Lanchester (The Big Clock, 1948), who had respectively followed actor Philip Merivale, director Robert Stevenson and stars Herbert Marshall and Charles Laughton.

Hollywood was also home to a trio of Oscar-winning actresses with Anglo-connections, the Tokyo-born sisters Olivia De Havilland (To Each His Own, 1946) and Joan Fontaine (Suspicion, 1941) and the London-born Elizabeth Taylor (National Velvet, 1944). The Irish triumvirate of Greer Garson (Mrs Miniver, 1942), Maureen O'Hara (This Land Is Mine) and Geraldine Fitzgerald (Watch on the Rhine, both 1943) were also nicely settled within the studio system and they would soon be joined by Deborah Kerr (The Day Will Dawn, 1942) and Peggy Cummins (Green Grass of Wyoming, 1948).

Although they enjoyed degrees of international success, distinctive actresses like Wendy Hiller (Major Barbara, 1941), Joan Greenwood (The Gentle Sex, 1943), Margaret Leighton (The Winslow Boy) and Merle Oberon (Berlin Express, both 1948) were seen to best advantage in homegrown pictures and the same was true of other such established stars as Diana Wynyard (Gaslight, 1940), Linden Travers (South American George, 1941), Kay Walsh (This Happy Breed), Elizabeth Allan (He Snoops to Conquer, both 1944), Rachel Kempson (The Captive Heart, 1946), Sheila Sim (Dancing With Crime), Sally Gray (They Made Me a Fugitive, both 1947), Judy Campbell (Bonnie Prince Charlie), Fay Compton (Esther Waters, both 1948) and Chili Bouchier (The Case of Charles Peace).

Then there were the character players. Among the most durable were Joan Hickson (Freedom Radio, 1941), Irene Handl (I'll Turn to You, 1946) and Thora Hird (Corridor of Mirrors, 1948), who could turn their hand to anything and eventually became national treasures, as did Margaret Rutherford (Blithe Spirit, 1945) and Joyce Grenfell (A Run For Your Money, 1949). But never forget the selfless contributions of such dependables as Freda Jackson (Henry V), Katie Johnson (Tawny Pipit, both 1944), Joyce Carey (Blithe Spirit), Edie Martin (They Were Sisters, both 1945), Martita Hunt (Great Expectations, 1946), Athene Seyler (Nicholas Nickelby, 1947), Kathleen Harrison (Here Come the Huggetts, 1948), Gladys Henson (Train of Events) and Megs Jenkins (The History of Mr Polly, both 1949), whose faces remain instantly recognisable, even though viewers may not always remember their names.

Finally, we come to the 40s starlets who would go on to adorn the walls of film fans for years to come, although poor Kay Kendall (London Town, 1946) got to enjoy less time in the spotlight than most. Easily the biggest name amongst these newcomers is Jean Simmons, the child star who would make an immediate impact on Hollywood after marrying her Adam and Evelyne (1949), co-star, Stewart Granger. Among the young things brightening the postwar gloom were Anne Crawford (The Master of Bankdam, 1947), Hazel Court (Forbidden), Dinah Sheridan (Calling Paul Temple, both 1948), Yvonne Mitchell (The Queen of Spades), Diana Dors (A Boy, a Girl and a Bike), Kathleen Byron (The Small Back Room). Petula Clark (Don't Ever Leave Me) and Elizabeth Sellars (Floodtide, all 1949), with the latter pair still going strong at the respective ages of 88 and 97.

Flora Robson (1902-84)

Despite being a star student at RADA, Flora Robson quit acting after the Oxford Playhouse released her for being too plain. Fortunately, she rediscovered her passion in amateur productions and eventually appeared in over 100 plays and almost 50 films. Having excelled in Poison Pen (1939), her performances as Queen Elizabeth I in Fire Over England (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940) raised her Hollywood profile, while she followed a fine display as Ellen Dean in Wuthering Heights (1939) by earning a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for Saratoga Trunk (1945). But, while she took occasional leads, Robson became one of British cinema's most versatile character players in pictures as different as Two Thousand Women (1944), The Years Between (1946), Black Narcissus and Holiday Camp (both 1947).

A still from Tall Headlines (1952)
A still from Tall Headlines (1952)

Often playing older than her age, she particularly impressed as Ftatateeta in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), Countess Platen in Saraband For Dead Lovers (1948) and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (1954). But Robson responded to every challenge, whether dealing with family tragedy in Tall Headlines (1952), Nazi occupation in Malta Story (1953), the Boxer Rebellion in 55 Days At Peking (1963) and a colonial uprising in Guns At Batasi (1964).

She also teamed effectively with director Philip Leacock on High Tide At Noon (1957) and Innocent Sinners (1958) before making a splendid murder suspect for Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple in Murder At the Gallop (1964). Robson also revealed her baleful side in Fragment of Fear (1970) and The Beast in the Cellar (1971), in which she was admirably paired with Beryl Reid. Having revelled in some dyspeptic regality as the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), Robson played the Prioress in Les Miserables (1978) in between two films with Greek connections, Sin (1971) and Clash of the Titans (1981).

Celia Johnson (1908-82)

Acting on screen didn't come naturally to Celia Johnson. Having trained at RADA, she spent the first 15 years of her career on the stage and only signed up to make Carol Reed's Oscar-nominated short, A Letter From Home (1941), because wartime domestic duties prevented her from committing to a long-running play. Noël Coward was suitably impressed and hired Johnson to play his wife in the naval saga, In Which We Serve (1942), which he co-directed with David Lean. The latter also recruited Johnson to play Robert Newton's spouse in This Happy Breed (1944), an adaptation of a Coward play that she made despite finding cinema an 'unsatisfactory medium' and complaining of 'the revoltingness of all the people who have anything to do with films'.

Such misgivings almost resulted in Johnson turning down the role of Laura Jesson in the next Lean-Coward collaboration, Brief Encounter (1945), which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress as the middle-class housewife who falls for a married doctor (Trevor Howard). Having taken time off to raise her four children with journalist Peter Fleming (whose brother, Ian, wrote the James Bond books), she reunited with Coward for a final time on The Astonished Heart (1950). But, while she made occasional features like The Holly and the Ivy (1952), The Captain's Paradise (1953) and Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings (1955), family always came first.

Finding television less onerous than cinema, Johnson became a familiar face on the small screen, as she played Sister Simplice in Les Miserables (1978) and reunited with Trevor Howard for Paul Scott's Raj drama, Staying On (1980). Yet, while she brought a touch of class to the BBC version of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well (1981), Nanny (1982) and Number 10 (1983), her most notable later performance came in her final feature, as Miss Mackay, the headmistress trying to rein in Maggie Smith in Ronald Neame's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), for which Johnson won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress.

Phyllis Calvert (1915-2002)

Despite debuting on screen at the age of 12, Phyllis Calvert had to content herself with supporting parts in pictures like Let George Do It (1940; on The George Formby Collection, Vol.1) before she became one of the Gainsborough ensemble that thrilled wartime audiences in a series of Regency romps. Having competed with Margaret Lockwood for the attention of James Mason in The Man in Grey (1943), Calvert discovered how cruel he could be in Fanny By Gaslight (1944) and They Were Sisters (1945) before finding Stewart Granger more to her liking in Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) and The Magic Bow (1946).

A still from Indiscreet (1958)
A still from Indiscreet (1958)

Yet, while she proved a fine team player in the wartime internment saga, Two Thousand Women (1944), producers seemed to struggle to find roles to suit Calvert's wry resilience. Consequently, she was more profitably engaged on stage between lavishing affection on Mandy Miller as her mother in Mandy (1952) and her aunt in Child in the House (1956). But she could hold her own against superstars, as she proved on a rare excursion to Hollywood to join Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Stanley Donen's romcom, Indiscreet (1958).

Having started the decade with a dignified display alongside Robert Morley in Oscar Wilde (1960), Calvert was mostly seen on stage and television before ending the 60s with deft turns in Twisted Nerve (1968) and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). She guested regularly in shows like Lady Killers (1980), Boon (1987), After Henry (1990), The House of Elliott (1994) and Midsomer Murders (2000) before bowing out of cinema with a cameo as Aunt Helena in Marleen Gorris's Virginia Woolf adaptation, Mrs Dalloway (1997).

Patricia Roc (1915-2003)

A RADA graduate who was swept into films by Alexander Korda in 1938, Patricia Roc played the dutiful daughters in Three Silent Men (1940) and Vera Lynn's best friend in We'll Meet Again (1942) before she teamed with Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat for two of the most stirring 'People's War' features, Millions Like Us (1943) and Two Thousand Women (1944), in which she respectively played a factory girl who falls for an RAF airman and a fugitive disguised as a nun in Occupied France.

The conflict also reared its head in Johnny Frenchman (1945). But Roc would become a firm favourite with wartime audiences through her involvement with Gainsborough, where she tussled with Margaret Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert for the affections of Stewart Granger in Love Story (1944) and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945). She fell foul of Lockwood's scheming again in Leslie Arliss's The Wicked Lady (1945), as she steals her husband before joining forces with highwayman James Mason, and in Jassy (1947), as they fought over Dermot Walsh.

But, while such period melodramas made Roc one of the UK's most bankable stars, she lost momentum after Rank loaned her to Universal for Jacques Tourneur's Canyon Passage (1946) and Burgess Meredith's The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949). Roc also became romantically involved with Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, she suffered nobly as a betrayed mother in When the Bough Breaks and caused trouble between the clans on the Isle of Skye in The Brothers (both 1947). However, her brand of winsome, well-spoken wholesomeness went out of fashion in the following decade and Roc opted to seek assignments in Europe after marrying French cinematographer André Thomas. She retired from the big screen in 1960.

Dulcie Gray (1915-2011)

It's become fashionable to dismiss the husband-and-wife pairing of Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, as they often worked together and belonged to the Received Pronunciation School of British thesping. In fact, Gray was a talented writer with a string of whodunits and an award-winning book on butterflies to her credit. She was also a fine actress, whose career could have taken a very different turn if, when casting their 1947 adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, the Boulting Brothers had taken Gray and Richard Attenborough from the 1943 stage version that had seen him become synonymous with the role of teenage mobster Pinkie Brown.

Nevertheless, Gray's performance earned her a contract with Gainsborough and she held her own against Patricia Roc in Two Thousand Women (1944) and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) and against James Mason in A Place of One's Own and They Were Sisters (both 1945), although he drove her to an early grave in the latter. Following The Years Between (1946), Gray found herself being threatened by Eric Portman in Wanted For Murder (1947). Interesting roles ensued in A Man About the House and Mine Own Executioner (both 1947). But, having started performing on stage with Denison after he returned from war service, Gray became his regular co-star on screen and their partnership rather restricted their options.

A still from Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1983)
A still from Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1983)

They team delightfully in My Brother Jonathan (1948), The Franchise Affair (1951), Angels One Five (1952) and There Was a Young Lady (1953). But they were best seen in Henry Cass's The Glass Mountain (1948), in which Gray plays the devoted wife of a composer who can't forget the debt he owes to Italian partisan, Valentina Cortese, who had saved his life after his plane was shot down over the Alps during the Second World War. In later years, while they continued to appear together on stage, Gray took several solo assignments on television. As well as guesting in Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime and Rumpole of the Bailey (both 1983), she also took the role of Kate Harvey in the BBC's long-running sailing saga, Howards' Way (1985-90).

Margaret Lockwood (1916-90)

Graduating from RADA after a modest run as a teenage theatre star, Margaret Lockwood owed much of her early film success to Carol Reed, who worked with her seven times. However, it took a move to Gaumont-British to launch her career, as Alfred Hitchcock plucked her from offerings like Owd Bob to team with Michael Redgrave in the classic thriller, The Lady Vanishes (both 1938). Her performance earned her a shot at Hollywood glory and she was paired with Shirley Temple in Susannah of the Mounties (1939). But Lockwood failed to settle in California and returned to Britain to reunite with Redgrave in Reed's AJ Cronin adaptation, The Stars Look Down (1940).

Reed also partnered her with Rex Harrison in the sparkling Launder and Gilliat-scripted thriller, Night Train to Munich (1940). But, while she would make two musical comedies with Vic Oliver, Give Us the Moon (1944) and I'll Be Your Sweetheart (1945), Lockwood's sojourn at Gainsborough would be remembered for the Leslie Arliss bodice rippers, The Man in Grey (1943) and The Wicked Lady (1945). Her cleavage caused a censorship crisis in Hollywood and so upset J. Arthur Rank that he sought to stop her playing bad girls in pictures like Bedelia (1946), Hungry Hill and Jassy (both 1947) and display the decorum that had characterised her performance as a dying pianist in Love Story (1944).

However, Lockwood disliked having to be prim and refused a reunion with Redgrave on The Browning Version and ran down her contract to sign with independent director-producer Herbert Wilcox, the husband of Anna Neagle. But a promising start with Trent's Last Case (1952) proved a false dawn and, following a sparky teaming with Dirk Bogarde in Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), Lockwood largely dropped out of films to focus on TV and stage work, including Spider's Web, which Agatha Christie wrote especially for her. Penelope Keith took the role when the BBC adapted the play in 1982, by which time the reclusive actress was best known to most viewers for the ITV crime series, Justice (1971-74), and for playing the wicked stepmother in Bryan Forbes's reworking of Cinderella, The Slipper and the Rose (1976).

Valerie Hobson (1917-98)

Born in Northern Ireland, the RADA-trained Valerie Hobson made such an early impression that she had already racked up a dozen roles in her teens before appearing in the Universal Monster movies, Bride of Frankenstein and Werewolf of London (both 1935). Returning to Britain for such flag-wavers as Q Planes and The Spy in Black (both 1939), she reaffirmed her reputation for versatility in the espionage thriller Unpublished Story (1942) and the Daphne DuMaurier melodrama, The Years Between (1946).

A still from Train of Events (1949)
A still from Train of Events (1949)

However, Hobson would be best remembered for her collaborations with Alec Guinness on Great Expectations (1946), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Card (1952). She also proved she could 'go Gainsborough', as the governess fighting her feelings for stable boy Stewart Granger in Blanche Fury (1948). This was one of several films she made for producer husband Anthony Havelock-Allan, although she also took on other assignments, including Train of Events, The Rocking Horse Winner (both 1949) and The Voice of Merrill (1952).

But the couple divorced in 1952 and, having wowed West End audiences as Anna Leonowens opposite Herbert Lom in the original British stage version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I (which was filmed in 1956), Hobson retired from performing after marrying politician John Profumo. Unfortunately, he became embroiled in the Profumo Scandal that helped undermine the Conservative Government in 1963 and Hobson had to endure the ignominy of being played by Deborah Grant in Michael Caton-Jones's Scandal (1989), which recreated her War Minister husband's involvement with showgirl Christine Keeler.

Googie Withers (1917-2011)

Given her nickname (meaning 'Little Pigeon') by her Indian nanny, Googie Withers had the fortune to be discovered as a teenager by Michael Powell, who cast her in four of his earliest films. She would reunite with him to play Dutch partisans in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1941) and The Silver Fleet (1943), by which time she had also given an eye-catching turn in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938) and played opposite three of the country's leading comic talents, Will Hay (Convict 99, 1938), George Formby (Trouble Brewing, 1939) and Arthur Askey (Back Room Boy, 1942).

Emerging as one of Ealing's most natural and versatile actresses, Withers reprised her stage role in Basil Dearden's stylised adaptation of JB Priestley's play, They Came to a City (1944), and worked with director Robert Hamer on 'The Haunted Mirror' segment in the horror anthology, Dead of Night, the Victorian murder melodrama, Pink String and Sealing Wax (both 1945), and the poetic realist saga, It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). The latter teamed her with Australian actor John McCallum and they married after co-starring in The Loves of Joanna Godden (1948).

While they became a familiar team on stage and in pictures like Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951), Derby Day (1952) and Port of Escape (1956), Withers was paired to more arresting effect with Richard Widmark in Jules Dassin's cult wrestling noir, Night and the City (1950). But, towards the decade, she followed her husband Down Under, where she scored a small-screen hit as prisoner governor Faye Boswell in Within These Walls (1974-78). The couple continued to commute, however, and Withers followed BBC roles in Anita Bruckner's Hotel du Lac (1986) and Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1987) by playing Katharine Susannah Prichard, the writer who helped pianist David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush) escape from his controlling father in Scott Hicks's Oscar-winning biopic, Shine (1996).

Jean Kent (1921-2013)

A still from Trottie True (1949)
A still from Trottie True (1949)

First on stage as a stand-in for her indisposed dancer mother, Jean Kent used the surnames Summerfield and Carr before she was signed by Gainsborough and partnered Arthur Askey in Miss London Ltd (1943) and Bees in Paradise (1944). She made her mark as Phyllis Calvert's best friend in Fanny By Gaslight (1944) and as the stripper who tussles with the Nazi informer in the wartime drama, Two Thousand Women (1944). Having lost James Mason to Margaret Lockwood in The Wicked Lady (1945), Kent formed a popular partnership with Stewart Granger in Madonna of the Seven Moons, Waterloo Road (both 1945), The Magic Bow and Caravan (both 1946). Yet, while she revelled in the minxish image reinforced in The Rake's Progress (1945) and Good-Time Girl (1948), Kent proved a feisty thriller heroine in Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948) and showed off her music-hall credentials to fine effect in Champagne Charlie (1944) and Trottie True (1949).

The calibre of the competition prevented Kent from becoming a major star, although she was not helped by producers typecasting her whenever the script read, 'a girl appears in camiknickers'. Nevertheless, she followed modest entertainments like Her Favourite Husband (1950) with two of her most memorable performances in a pair of Anthony Asquith pictures, as the murder victim in the Rashomon-like The Woman in Question (1950) and as schoolmaster Michael Redgrave's emasculatingly adulterous spouse in The Browning Version (1951).

Following Hollywood turns in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Kent had to settle for less glamorous assignments like Grip of the Strangler (1958) and Please Turn Over (1960) before deciding her future lay on stage and on television. She returned to the big screen in Shout at the Devil (1976), but her later credits were mostly for TV offerings like Steptoe and Son (1970), A Family At War (1971), Angels (1976), Lytton's Diary (1985), the Hetty Wainthropp mystery, Missing Persons (1990), and Lovejoy (1991).

Glynis Johns (b 1923)

The daughter of the Welsh character actor, Mervyn Johns, Glynis Johns appeared alongside her father in such contrasting features as The Halfway House (1944) and Helter Skelter (1949). However, she was always ready to go it alone on stage and screen and, following supporting turns in pictures as different as Under Your Hat (1940), 49th Parallel (1941) and An Ideal Husband (1947), she found fame as the husky-voiced mermaid in Miranda (1948).

Johns was in demand for much of the next decade, as she teamed with James Stewart in No Highway in the Sky (1951), Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (1955), Sean Connery in Another Time, Another Place (1958) and James Cagney in Shake Hands With the Devil (1959). However, while Hollywood kept calling, Johns remained loyal to the British cinema with her typically subtle performances in Third Time Lucky (1949), Personal Affair (1953) and The Seekers (1954).

Having guested in the Oscar-winning all-star Jules Verne adaptation, Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Johns landed two of her most beloved roles, as Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins (1964) and Lady Penelope Peasoup in the cult TV series, Batman (1967). Other small-screen credits included Cheers (1983), Murder, She Wrote (1985) and Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School (1988), in which she voiced Ms Grimwood. On film, she joined compatriot Richard Burton in Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood (1972) and cropped up in eerie offerings like Vault of Horror (1973) and Rare Chills (1978). She also enjoyed a 1990s revival as Kevin Spacey's mother in The Ref (1994) and as grandmother to Peter Gallagher and Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping (1995) and Molly Shannon in Superstar (1999).

A still from While You Were Sleeping (1995)
A still from While You Were Sleeping (1995)
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