Jean Elspeth Mackenzie (1911 - 1999)

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About Jean Elspeth Mackenzie

<Daily Telegraph, May 5, 1999>

<Elspeth March>

ELSPETH MARCH, the actress who has died aged 88, was a colonel's daughter and it showed: her stage presence was formidable; she spoke with admirable clarity; and she excelled in conveying suppressed emotion.

She was much in demand to play empresses and queens, duchesses and dowagers, governesses and strong-willed widows. Yet, while her assurance and rectitude could be relied upon to bring any social occasion to order, Elspeth March also possessed a talent for comedy.

This made her particularly effective in Bernard Shaw's plays. More surprisingly, perhaps, she also won acclaim as Widow Quin in John Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World". She first played this part in the West End in 1939, repeating it at the Mercury Theatre nine years later, and triumphed with it when appearing with Irish Players in New York in 1958.

Notwithstanding her power on stage, Elspeth March seemed curiously unassertive in promoting her career. Indeed, in the public mind she was probably best known for having been married to the film actor Stewart ("Jimmy") Granger between 1938 and 1948.

It was a testing period. "The trouble with Jimmy," she observed in 1969, "is that he was very spoilt as a child and never learned that you can't go through life stamping your foot and getting what you want. And he's never learned to control his temper."

She was born Elspeth Mackenzie on March 5 1911 and educated at Sherborne School for Girls and Ivy House, Wimbledon, before training for the stage under Elsie Fogerty at the Central School.

She made her first professional appearance at the Westminster Theatre in 1932 as the woman passenger in James Bridie's "Jonah and the Whale". The next year, as understudy in Alfred Sangster's "The Brontes," she played Emily several times.

Between 1934 and 1937 Elspeth March was fortunate o spend three seasons with Barry Jackson's Birmingham Repertory Theatre, then in one of its most remarkable phases. Her parts included the title role in Bernard Shaw's "St. Joan", and Elizabeth in "The Barrets of Wimpole Street". It was at this period that she met Stewart Granger, who was also in the company.

During the Birmingham Repertory's annual visit to the Malvern Festival, she appeared in a series of Shaw plays – among others, as Mrs Higgins in "Pygmalion", as Fanny in "Fanny's First Play", as Orinthia in "The Apple Cart" and as Hypathia in "Misalliance."

In 1937 she created the title role in "The Millionairess", which received its first performance in Shaw's presence on his 81st birthday. Elspeth March also gained good notices as Lady Teazle in "The School for Scandal", Trafalgar Gower in "Trelawney of the Wells" and the Princess in "Lady Precious Stream."

But in 1940 she left the stage and for the next four years served as a driver for the American Red Cross.

She returned to the West End in 1945, as a murderous surgeon's "brooding and boding" elderly sister in Mary Hayley Bell's "Duet for Two Hands". Her performance was much admired by James Agate. She then brilliantly conveyed the Governess's repressed feelings in a stage version of Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw."

In 1947 Elspeth March delighted Noel Coward with her acting in "Peace In Our Time"; she played a novelist whose son has been killed in the Battle of Britain. The next year, in quite another vein, she brought stillness and authority to The Chorus in Euripides's "Medea."

The Daily Telegraph's W.A. Darlington thought her glamour and talent wasted in Reginald Denham and Mary Orr's "The Platinum Set" (1950), a supposedly scathing indictment of New York society. In 1951 she was at her best as a scary chief nurse to Vivien Leigh's kittenish Cleopatra in Laurence Olivier's staging of Bernard Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra". In 1957, after spells in rep at Windsor and at Bromley, she went to New York with the Irish Players.

Back in the West End in 1959, Elspeth March was Ma Larkin in H.E. Bates's "The Darling Buds of May". In 1964 she enjoyed a long run as Maud Lowder in an adaptation of Henry James's "The Wings of a Dove". Branching out again in 1968, she was a blowzy dancing teacher in Leonard Bernstein's musical "On The Town". Then in 1970 she played the Abbess of Argenteuil in "Abelard and Heloise".

Her performance in Ronald Millar's "Parents' Day" (1972) as a Tory battleaxe contemptuous of modern educational methods, put critics in mind of what an excellent Lady Bracknell she might make. She never played that part, but she did make the best of the opportunity to appear horrified by modern sexual mores in "Snap" (1974). As the Grand Duchess in "Anastasia" (1976) she lacked for nothing in hauteur.

Elspeth March made her debut at the National Theatre in 1977 as Mrs Huxtable in "The Madras House", and in the next year played the Grandmother in Horvath's "Don Juan Comes Home From The War". Her last West End performance was in the thriller "Underground", in 1983.

She appeared in a number of films, including "Quo Vadis" and "Goodbye Mr Chips". On television she was seen in "Rebecca" and "The Good Companions". In 1963 she auditioned for the role of Mrs Dale in the radio serial "The Dales", but (according to a BBC spokesman) "when we got in touch with her by telephone she said she would not be available."

Elspeth March and Stewart Granger had a son and a daughter. She remained fond of her errant husband after their divorce, and would set aside a room for him when ever he visited London. In 1981 she helped nurse him after a lung operation. He died in 1993.

END.

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