Flora Robson

Last updated

Flora Robson
DBE
Studio publicity Flora Robson.jpg
Robson in a 1940s studio publicity shot
Born
Flora McKenzie Robson

(1902-03-28)28 March 1902
Died7 July 1984(1984-07-07) (aged 82)
Alma mater Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
OccupationActress
Years active1921–1984

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. [1] Her range extended from queens to murderesses. [2] [3]

Contents

Early life

Flora McKenzie Robson was born on 28 March 1902 in South Shields, County Durham, [4] daughter of David Robson (1864-1947) and Eliza Robson (nee McKenzie; 1870-1953) both of Scottish descent. She had six siblings. [5] Many of her forebears were engineers, mostly in shipping. [6] 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. [7]

She was educated at the Palmers Green High School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, [5] where she won a bronze medal in 1921. [8]

Career

Her father discovered that Flora had a talent for recitation and, from the age of 5, she was taken around by horse and carriage to recite, and to compete in recitations. This established a pattern that remained with her. [6]

Robson made her stage debut in 1921. [9] By the 1930s she was appearing in several prominent films both in the UK and in Hollywood, alongside such stars as Laurence Olivier, Paul Muni and George Raft. Her most notable role was that of Queen Elizabeth I in both Fire Over England (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940). [10] In 1934, Robson played the Empress Elizabeth in Alexander Korda's The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934). [11] She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Angelique Buiton, a servant, in Saratoga Trunk (1945). [12] The 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). [13]

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 Good-Time Girl (1948); as a prospective Labour MP in Frieda (1947); and in the costume melodrama Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948). [14] Her other film roles included the Empress Dowager Cixi in 55 Days at Peking (1963), Miss Milchrest in Murder at the Gallop (1963), the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), and Livia in the aborted I, Claudius in 1937. [15]

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.[ citation needed ] 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, but her contract was not renewed. [9] She was told that they required a prettier actress. [16] Unable to secure any acting engagements, she gave up the stage at the age of 23, and she took up work as a welfare officer in the Nabisco shredded wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City. [9] Tyrone Guthrie, due to direct a season at the new Festival Theatre, Cambridge, asked her to join his company. [7] Her performance as the stepdaughter in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author made her the theatrical talk of Cambridge. [17] She followed with Isabella in Measure for Measure with Robert Donat, Pirandello's Naked, the title role in Iphigenia in Tauris , Varya in The Cherry Orchard , and Rebecca West in Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm . [18] [19]

In 1931, she was cast as the adulterous Abbie in Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms . [20] Her brief, shocking appearance as the doomed prostitute in James Bridie's play The Anatomist put her firmly on the road to success. [21] "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. [22]

She continued her acting career late into life, though not on the West End stage, from which she retired at the age of 67, often for American television films, including a lavish production of A Tale of Two Cities (in which she played Miss Pross). [23] She also performed for British television, including The Shrimp and the Anemone. [24] In the 1960s, she continued to act in the West End, in Ring Round the Moon , The Importance of Being Earnest and Three Sisters , among others.

She continued to act on film and television. She was last briefly seen as a Stygian Witch in the fantasy adventure Clash of the Titans in 1981. [2] 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 nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as Angelique Buiton, a Haitian maid, in Saratoga Trunk (1945). [25]

She was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1952 New Year Honours, and raised to Dame Commander (DBE) in the 1960 Birthday Honours. [26] She was also the first famous name to become president of the Brighton Little Theatre.[ citation needed ] She has a road named after her in her birthplace of South Shields.

On 4 July 1958, she received an honorary DLitt from Durham University at a congregation in Durham Castle. [27]

Personal life and death

Memorial tablet to Flora Robson in the porch of her final parish church, St Nicholas, Brighton Flora Robson tablet.jpg
Memorial tablet to Flora Robson in the porch of her final parish church, St Nicholas, Brighton

Her private life was largely focused on her large family of sisters Margaret and Shela, and her nephews and nieces[ citation needed ].

She shared a home in Wykeham Terrace, Brighton with her sisters for 8 years before she died [28] in Brighton, aged 82, in her sleep, of cancer. [9] [29] She was never married and had no children. [9] The sisters died around the same time: Shela shortly before Flora, in 1984, and Margaret on 1 February 1985.[ citation needed ]

Legacies

Dame Flora Robson Avenue, built in 1962, in Simonside, South Shields, is named after her. [30] There is a plaque on the house in Wykeham Terrace, Dyke Road, Brighton, and also one in the doorway of St Nicholas's Church, of which Flora Robson was a great supporter. [31] [32]

There is also a plaque to commemorate the opening of the Prince Charles Cinema (Leicester Square, London) by Flora Robson. [33]

In 1996, the British Film Institute erected a plaque at number 14 Marine Gardens, location of Flora Robson's other home in Brighton, where she lived from 1961 to 1976. [34]

A plaque at 40 Handside Lane in Welwyn Garden City records Flora Robson living there from 1923 to 1925. [35]

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. [5]

Robson attended the opening of the Flora Robson Playhouse in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1962, which was named in her honour. [36] The building was demolished in 1971 and the theatre company it housed relocated to the new University Theatre.[ citation needed ]

Filmography

YearTitleRoleNote
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 LiviaAlso in The Epic that Never Was
1939 Wuthering Heights Ellen Dean
Smith Mary SmithShort
Poison Pen Mary Rider
We Are Not Alone Jessica Newcome
Invisible Stripes Mrs. Taylor
1940 The Sea Hawk Queen Elizabeth I
1941 Bahama Passage Mrs. Ainsworth
1944 Two Thousand Women Miss Manningford
1945 Great Day Mrs. Liz Ellis
Saratoga Trunk Angelique Buiton (in blackface)Nominated - Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Caesar and Cleopatra Ftatateeta
Dumb Dora Discovers TobaccoShort
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
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
1959This Is the BBC
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
Eye of the Devil Countess Estell
1967 The Shuttered Room Aunt Agatha
Cry in the WindAnasthasia
1970 Fragment of Fear Lucy Dawson
1971La grande scrofa neraLa Nonna
The Beast in the Cellar Joyce Ballantyne
The Beloved Antigone
1972 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Queen of Hearts
1975 The Canterville Ghost Mrs. UmneyTV movie
1978 Les Misérables The PrioressTV movie
1980 Dominique Mrs. Davis
Gauguin the Savage Sister AllandreTV movie
A Tale of Two Cities Miss ProssTV movie
1981 Clash of the Titans A Stygian Witchfinal film role

Partial television credits

YearSeries or miniseriesRoleNote
1956 BBC Sunday-Night Theatre Lilly Mofat/Sister Agatha2 episodes
1959 World Theatre Anna Fierling1 episode
1964 The Human Jungle Headmistress1 episode
1966 David Copperfield Betsey Trotwood8 episodes
1968 BBC Play of the Month May Beringer1 episode
1974HeidiGrandmotherMiniseries, 4 episodes
1975 A Legacy Narrator5 episodes
1979 A Man Called Intrepid Sister Luke3 episodes

Theatre performances

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References

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  5. 1 2 3 "Blue plaque unveiled at former home of Hollywood star". Enfield Independent . 27 April 2010.
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  28. Daily Express newspaper (26 July 2009). "Where Dame Flora trod the floorboards". Express.co.uk. Retrieved 6 February 2024.
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  30. StreetCheck. "Interesting Information for Dame Flora Robson Avenue, South Shields, NE34 9RB Postcode". StreetCheck.
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  32. "Flora Robson white plaque". openplaques.org.
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  34. Stuff, Good. "Flora Robson film cell plaque in Brighton". www.blueplaqueplaces.co.uk.
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  36. "Dame Flora will Open Theatre Mamed After Her". The Stage. 2 August 1962.