On this day in history : 11th July 2005 – The death of actress and dancer Gretchen Franklin – with a career spanning over 70 years but best known to us as Ethel Skinner in the BBC soap ‘EastEnders’….
Gretchen was born on the 7th of July 1911 in Covent Garden, London, into a theatrical family…. Her father was a singer and dancer and her grandfather had been a famous music hall entertainer…. She was also the cousin of Clive Dunn….
She made her stage debut in a pantomime in Bournemouth, as a chorus girl, whilst still a teenager…. In 1929 she began dancing lessons at ‘The Theatre Girls Club’ in Soho – she was to go on to become a Tiller Girl at the London Palladium….
Gretchen married her husband, John Caswell Garth – a writer, occasional actor and the manager of an acting company – in 1934…. They were to have no children and he died of cancer in 1953; Gretchen never remarried….
Her acting career really took off during World War Two, when she was cast in the West End musical ‘Sweet and Low’…. Her film career began in the mid 1950s and she was then to go on to a long and varied television career…. Her appearances included ‘Crossroads’, ‘George and Mildred’, ‘Rising Damp’, ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and many, many more – but what we really remember Gretchen for most is her role as Ethel, best friends with Dot Cotton and Lou Beale, in ‘EastEnders’….
Ethel Mae Skinner – with her little pug dog ‘Willy’, her love to gossip (although rarely getting the facts right) and the odd tipple or two in the Queen Vic…. Ethel was one of the original characters in the soap when it first appeared on our TV screens in 1985…. She was eventually killed off in a controversial episode in July 2000 – when dying of terminal cancer she asked her life long, closest friend, Dot, to help her end her life with an overdose of morphine tablets….
Gretchen’s departure from EastEnders, at the age of 89, ended her acting career…. She died four days after her 94th birthday at her home in Barnes….
On this day in history : 7th July 1919 – The birth of Jon Pertwee – best known for his portrayal of the Third Doctor in Dr Who – and for his role as Worzel Gummidge….
Born in Chelsea, London, John Devon Roland Pertwee – ‘Jon’ – came from a theatrical family…. (The ‘h’ in his name was dropped in the 1930s after a playbill incorrectly spelt his name)…. His father, Roland Pertwee, was an actor, playwright and screenwriter – and his mother, Alice Schultz, an actress…. He was also a distant cousin of actor Bill Pertwee, known for his role as ARP Warden Hodges in the sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’….
Jon’s parents separated when he was very young and although his father remarried he was mainly raised by his paternal grandmother…. He was educated at Frensham Heights School, in Farnham, Surrey – which is where he had his first taste of the theatre, in a school stage production of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’…. He then went to Sherborne School, Dorset – after a few intermediate Schools in between, from all of which he was expelled….
Young Jon was rebellious in nature – but from an early age he had been encouraged by his family to pursue an acting career…. This was despite being told several times by his teachers that he would never be successful as an actor on account of his partial lisp….
In 1936, on finishing school, he was accepted into RADA – only to be expelled again…. His refusal to play the part of a Greek ‘wind’ – because he thought it a waste of time – coupled with his writing rude things about his tutors on the lavatory walls earned him his marching orders….
Nevertheless, at the age of 18 he was contracted to the BBC and had a varied career in the repertory theatre and music hall – mainly as a comic actor…. During WW2 he was to serve in the Royal Navy, which in turn was to help his own career after the War…. In December 1945 he joined the BBC armed forces radio comedy ‘Mediterranean Merry-Go-Round’– which went on to have a spin-off show ‘Waterlogged Spa’ in 1948…. This saw him awarded his own radio series ‘Puffney Post Office’ in 1950 – but his biggest radio success came in 1959 with ‘The Navy Lark’…. Acting alongside several others who were already – or about to become – household names, such as Lesley Philips, Ronnie Barker, Dennis Price and Michael Bates, the series ran for 18 years….
Meanwhile his stage and film career was doing well and in 1955 he had married actress Jean Marsh…. However, they divorced in 1960 and in the same year he married Ingeborg Rhoesa with whom he had two children, a daughter, Dariel and son, Sean – both of whom went on to have successful acting careers….
In 1969 Jon was approached to take over from Patrick Troughton as Dr Who…. He played the role of the Third Doctor as a suave, dapper man of action – who was rather ‘tech savvy’…. In an era influenced by James Bond he was seen to love working on his gadgets in the TARDIS – and drove a vintage yellow roadster called ‘Bessie’ – which reflected Jon’s own love of cars…. As the Third Doctor he was the first Doctor to be broadcast in colour….
In early 1974 he announced that he was stepping down from Dr Who and for a while he returned to his stage career…. Then in 1979 he took on the starring role of Worzel Gummidge in the ITV children’s sitcom based on the books by Barbara Euphan Todd…. The antics of the loveable scarecrow who could come to life ran for four series until 1981 and also starred Una Stubbs, Bill Maynard and Joan Sims…. It even made Jon a ‘popstar’ when ‘Worzel’s Song’ reached No.33 and stayed in the UK music charts for seven weeks in 1980….
Jon continued to work on stage, in film and even advertisements…. His last formal TV appearance was on Cilla Black’s ‘Surprise Surprise’ in April 1996…. On the 20th of May 1996 he died suddenly from a heart attack in his sleep at his home in Connecticut…. His sudden death came as a shock to everyone…. He was aged 76….
He was cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium – and as were his wishes, a toy Worzel Gummidge was fixed to his coffin…. Ironically his very last film appearance, made just a week before his death, was as Dr Who for an advertisement for Vodafone….
On this day in history : 29th May 1948 – The death of May Whitty, English stage and film actress – and one of the first women entertainers to be made a Dame for services to the Arts….
Born in Liverpool on the 19th of June 1865 she was christened Mary Louise Whitty but was to become known by her stage name of May Whitty…. Her father, William Alfred Whitty, was a newspaper proprietor and her grandfather was Michael James Whitty – who founded the police force and fire brigade in Liverpool and was founder of the Liverpool and Daily Post….
May made her stage debut in 1881 at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool – in the chorus of ‘Mountain Sylph’…. A year later she joined the Lyceum Company in London’s West End, which was then being managed by Henry Irving and Ellen Terry…. In 1895 she was to tour the USA for the first time, with Irving….
On the 3rd of August 1892 she married actor-manager Ben Webster and they had two children…. Their first, a son, sadly died at birth but their daughter, born in 1905, was also to become an actress – as well as a successful producer and director (Margaret Webster)….
For some 25 years May was known as one of the UK’s best leading stage actresses…. She made her first film appearance in 1914, a silent film ‘Enoch Arden’…. She did not care much for this form of acting and made only a few more of such films….
In 1918 May was made Dame Commander of the British Empire by King George for her service to the Arts and for entertaining the troops during World War One…. She was then to go on to have a run of successful hits on Broadway…. Back on home soil she was involved in the formation of Equity, when it was created in 1930 by a group of West End performers at her home in West London….
In 1937, at the age of 72, May made her Hollywood debut in the lead role of ‘Night Must Fall’ for which she received an Oscar nomination…. However, perhaps the highlight of her Hollywood career was as Miss Froy in Hitchcock’s 1938 film ‘The Lady Vanishes’….
In 1939 May moved to the States permanently…. She was often cast in heart endearing roles – and sometimes as a cantankerous old lady…. 1942 saw her second Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress in ‘Mrs Miniver’…. When once asked about her late coming Hollywood career, she replied “I’ve got everything Betty Grable has – only I’ve had it longer”….
May died of cancer at the age of 82 in Beverly Hills – shortly after completing the 1948 film ‘the Sign of the Ram’….
On this day in history : 28th May 1911 – The birth of actress, comedienne, presenter and writer Dame Thora Hird – who with a career spanning more than 70 years was to become a British institution….
Thora was born in Morecambe, Lancashire…. Her mother, Mary Mayor, had been an actress and her father Henry Hird, managed entertainment venues in Morecambe…. Thora’s first stage appearance was at just 2 months old, during a play at the Royalty Theatre, one of the venues her father managed….
On leaving school Thora worked in the local Co-op store and in 1937 she married James Scott…. The couple had a daughter in December 1938, Jeanette Scott, who was also to become a successful actress….
Thora joined the Morecambe Repertory Theatre and then made her West End debut in 1944 in the play ‘No Medals’…. She was to make several film appearances, alongside big names such as Laurence Olivier, before finding her niche in TV comedy…. We probably remember her best for sitcoms such as ‘Meet the Wife’, ‘In Loving Memory’, “Hallelujah!’ and of course as Edie Pegden in ‘Last of the Summer Wine’…. But whilst we may particularly remember her for comedy roles Thora was a versatile actress, winning a BAFTA for best actress in two of Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ monologues – and she won another BAFTA for her role in the 1999 TV film ‘Lost for Words’…. She was awarded an OBE in 1983 and made Dame Commander in 1993….
She had a heart bypass operation in 1992 and was widowed in 1994…. Suffering from severe arthritis Thora became a wheelchair user in later life…. However, this was not going to stop her from acting…. In December 1998 she played the part of Dolly’s mother in Victoria Wood’s hit TV comedy’Dinner Ladies’…. Her final acting role was for radio, ‘The Last of the Sun’ – a monologue written for her by Alan Bennett…. Thora died on the 15th of March 2003, aged 91….
On this day in history : 15th May 1909 – The birth of British actor James Mason – who was to appear in more than 80 films, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Julius Caesar….
James was born in Huddersfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire…. He was the youngest of the three sons of Mabel Hattersley and John Mason, a wealthy textile merchant…. After attending Marlborough College James was to go on to graduate from Cambridge with a degree in architecture…. It was whilst at university that he got involved with the theatre, purely for enjoyment, he never trained as an actor….
He was to make his stage debut in 1931, in a production of The Rascal in Aldershot…. He went on to join the Old Vic theatre in London, appearing in stage productions such as Henry VIII, The Importance of Being Earnest, Measure for Measure, The Tempest and Twelfth Night among others…. He became a prominent stage actor….
James made his film debut in 1935 in Late Extra…. He was to make a lot of minor ‘quota quickie’ films – as at the time in an attempt to counter American dominance a certain percentage of films shown in cinemas in the UK had to be British made…. As a result James was to become one of Britain’s major film stars of the 1940s….It was also in the late 1930s that he appeared in early television productions of plays….
Being a strong pacifist meant James was to become a conscientious objector during WW2 – which caused a long-lasting rift between him and his family…. He married his first wife, Pamela, in February 1941 and they were to have two children, a daughter, Portland, in 1948 and a son, Morgan in 1955…. Morgan is incidentally married to singer Belinda Carlisle….
James was very much an animal lover and in 1949 he and Pamela published a book ‘The Cats in our Lives’…. Mostly written and illustrated by James he tells the mostly humorous but sometimes sad tales of the cats he had known – and the occasional dog….
His first Hollywood film, Caught, came in 1949…. However, it wasn’t until 1951, when he was cast as General Rommel in The Desert Fox, that his Hollywood career was to really take off…. His contract with 20th Century Fox was for 7 years with the stipulation of making one film per year….
In 1952 he bought the Hollywood mansion that had once belonged to Buster Keaton….. Whilst carrying out renovation work he was to discover reels of Keaton’s films that had previously been thought lost…. Realising their historical importance James had them transferred on to cellulose acetate film, thus saving them….
Not everything was rosy in life for James…. In 1959 he suffered a major heart attack and continuing troubles in his personal life were a persistent blight on his happiness…. His wife was particularly fond of the Hollywood social scene and was reputedly frequently unfaithful…. However, it was eventually she who sued for divorce in 1962 accusing him of unfaithfulness…. It led to her receiving a $1 million divorce settlement….
In 1963 James made his home in Switzerland, commuting transatlantic to continue his career…. He married Australian actress Clarissa Kaye in 1971 and they were on occasion to work together…. James was to suffer a further heart attack, which proved to be fatal on the 27th of July 1984, whilst in Lausanne, Switzerland….