Dame Anna Neagle, DBE

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Florence Marjorie Robertson

Birthdate: (81)
Death: June 3, 1986 (81)
Immediate Family:

Wife of Herbert Wilcox

Managed by: Michael Lawrence Rhodes
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Dame Anna Neagle, DBE

<The Times, June 4, 1986>


Actress in the polished English tradition

Dame Anna Neagle, the actress, who died yesterday at the age of 81, was a star who retained the common touch. She played heroines of musical comedy and historical figures from Nell Gwynn to Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale with an unaffected sincerity that made her one of the popular performers of her time, both on stage and in the cinema.

She did not pretend to any great range or depth but within her limits was never less than polished and professional.

Born Marjorie Robertson at Forest Gate, London, on October 20, 1904, she was the daughter of a Merchant Navy captain (Neagle was her mother's maiden name). She studied dancing as a child and apart from a series of matinees when she was 13, made her stage debut in the chorus of two Charlot revues during 1925.

She graduated through cabaret, the Drury Lane chorus of "Rose Marie" (where she was a "stand-by" before her promotion), and "The Desert Song", and eventually two London Pavilion revues as one of "Mr Cochran's Young Ladies."

She was then primarily a dancer; but in 1930 as Anna Neagle, she began a film career and became Jack Buchanan's juvenile lead in the tour of a musical comedy, "Stand Up and Sing"; after this had opened at the London Hippodrome in the spring of 1931, she did not miss a single performance (604 in all).

Later he stage and film careers moved together. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, she had the "English rose" kind of good looks; she photographed well, and from "Goodnight Vienna" (1932) her screen future was assured. Eleven years later she married Herbert Wilcox, who directed her in all her major films, and it was a most happy partnership.

One of their earliest pictures was Noel Coward's "Bitter Sweet" in 1933. Just after she had made "Nell Gwynn", with its amiable romanticism, she suddenly found herself, at 10 days' notice, as Rosalind in Regent's Park.

Though she had never acted in Shakespeare, or for years even read the plays, she managed to get through, under Robert Atkins's guidance and with a cast that included Jack Hawkins and Margaretta Scott and John Drinkwater. Olivia in "Twelfth Night" followed: another performance remembered for its simple directness. But for a long time in the 1930s she was predominantly a film actress, moving from "Peg of Old Drury" (Peg Woffington), Nell Gwynn's natural successor, to "Victoria the Great", her most famous picture, which ran for a year in London.

It delighted her that her next part, in which she believed equally, was Peter Pan on the stage of the Palladium (1937); almost across the road she could see posters of herself as the aged Queen. She returned to the screen and to Victoria in "Sixty Glorious Years", which she made in colour.

Moving to Hollywood (but still directed by Wilcox), she played one of her most quietly veracious parts, Nurse Edith Cavell, followed by three brisk song-and-dance pictures, including "No, No, Nanette".

In an England at war she appeared as Amy Johnson in the film "They Flew Alone". She returned to the stage in 1945 as Emma Woodhouse in a rather tepid version of Jane Austen's novel "Emma". It remained her favourite part.

Back then to the cinema and what was known as the "London series". With such titles as "I Live in Grosvenor Square", "The Courtneys of Curzon Street", "Spring in Park Lane", "Maytime in Mayfair" they offered unashamed romanticism as an antidote to postwar austerity. Her leading man was Michael Wilding and in the late 1940s the pair of them were among the British cinema's biggest box-office draws.

She had stronger material in "Odette", the story of the gallant agent in Occupied France who for two years after arrest was in enemy hands, and in 1951 played Florence Nightingale in "The Lady with a Lamp". In the mid 1950s she starred in film versions of two Ivor Novello musicals "Lilacs in the Spring" and "King's Rhaphsody", on each occasion with an unlikely leading man in Errol Flynn.

In Coronation year, 1953, she acted at the Palace Theatre in a musical, "The Glorious Days", that allowed her to appear on the same evening as Nell Gwynn, Queen Victoria, and two musical comedy stars, one from the 1920s, one modern. Though it was not as she said, a "critics' show", she gave her usual capable performance.

In the 1960s she had to face the crisis of her life, because of the failure of her husband's film company, they were in acute financial straits for more than three years, with most of their possessions gone. The solution came in a musical play, "Charlie Girl" produced at the Adelphi Theatre just before Christmas, 1965.

On the night of the premiere Herbert Wilcox was very ill in hospital. But he made a good recovery. And despite terrible notices, "Charlie Girl" in which Anna Neagle played a former Cochran Young Lady who married into the peerage, ran for five years, 2,047 performances, and toured later in Australia and New Zealand.

During its run she was created DBE in the Birthday Honours of 1970 (she had been made CBE in 1952).

In 1973 she was asked to appear in a revival of "No, No, Nanette" at Drury Lane, the theatre where nearly 50 years earlier she had been a chorus stand-by in "Rose Marie". Again her sense of occasion did not fail her.

When, too, in 1975, she took over from Celia Johnson in William Douglas-Home's play, "The Dame of Sark", she gave to the part calm courage her own gentle personal quality.

Herbert Wilcox died in 1977 but Dame Anna showed no signs of retiring. In that year she was in "Most Gracious Lady" a show devised for the Queen's Silver Jubilee, and in 1978 toured as Henry Higgins's mother in a revival of "My Fair Lady".

In 1982 she was in the pantomime "Cinderella" at Richmond and gave her last stage performance as the fairy godmother, also in a production of "Cinderella", which opened at the London Palladium at Christmas.


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Dame Anna Neagle, DBE's Timeline

October 20, 1904
June 3, 1986
Age 81