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About Hermione Baddeley
<The Times, August 22, 1986>
Mistress of revue who never lost talent for straight acting
Hermione Baddeley, actress, who died on August 19 at the age of 79, began her career as a girl of precocious dramatic power, in her early teens, and went on to be an unexampled artist in the flowering intimate revue. There, she was irrepressible, with a virtuosity never richer than in the Herbert Farjeon productions at the Little Theatre during the late 1930s.
She knew everything about rapid make-up and the use of properties. Though she held to the Farjeon texts, in later years she could be unpredictable. A partner, Henry Kendall, recalled that again and again he had to stand shaking with laughter, his back to the audience, hoping for some cue that would return him to the script. Though she often acted in films, Hermione Baddeley was happiest in the theatre, developing from what Basil Dean described as a small child, dark and thin, with large eyes set in an impish face, to the ample and exuberant "Totie", rarely the same in consecutive scenes. Yet, mistress of revue though she was, and in her heyday so socially fashionable that someone adapted to her Kipling's line, "I am Town; I am all that ever went with evening dress," she longed to become again the straight actress that she was originally.
Born in Shropshire on November 13, 1906, youngest of four sisters - of whom her immediate senior was the very successful actress, Angela Baddeley - she was educated privately and at an early age joined the Margaret Morris School of Dancing. Then she travelled for three years with the Arts League of Service.
She had a few small parts in Lndon before her overwhelming success, under Basil Dean's management, as the disorderly slum waif in Charles McEvoy's "The Likes of 'er" (1923). In this she had the celebrated scene where, as a curative exercise, the girl is encouraged to smash a pile of china plates. Presently for Dean, also at the St Martin's (1924), she was the murderous young half-caste in Galsworthy's "The Forest".
When everyone was seeing her as the dramatic actress of the future, she defected to revue: "The Punch Bowl" (Duke of York's, 1924), "The Co-Optimists" (1925), and four productions by Cochran. Other things also: she was in a medley of comedies, farces and musicals from which the only valuable part to emerge was Sara in Bridie's "Tobias and the Angel" (Westminster, 1932).
After a long run in "The Greeks Had a Word for it" (1934), with her sister Angela, revue largely possessed her: Beverley Nichols's "Floodlight" (Saville, 1937), and especially in the Farjeon shows at the Little (1938-40). Off stage she was now intensely involved in the West End social round.
In "Nine Sharp" and "The Little Revue", Herbert Farjeon's wit was matched exactly to her bravura in such characters as the valetudinarian wintering at Torquay, a windmill girl in "Voila les Non-stop Nudes", and an agitated ballerina. When she was ill, Farjeon had to engage, briefly, five understudies to cover her parts.
So it went on:partnership with the more astringent Hermione Gingold in "Rise Above It" (Comedy 1941); her work in Leslie Henson's "The Gaities" (Winter Garden, 1945) after a long period with him abroad, entertaining the troops for ENSA; and, in 1948, Alan Melville's "A La Carte" (Savoy).
Occasionally, before this, she had contrived to return to the straight theatre, as the warm-hearted Ida Arnold in a version of "Brighton Rock" (1943) and a double role in "Grand National Night" (1946). During 1949, she and Gingold amused themselves briskly in the revived "Fallen Angels", behaviour which the author, Noel Coward, seeing in Plymouth thought intolerable but to which, when it did well in London, he gave a polite blessing.
Hermione Baddeley found nothing important in various plays of the 1950s, but in 1953 she had her last revue triumph, a production called in Hammersmith "At the Lyric", and at the St Martin's "Going To Town". Here, a housewife, television-bemused, she could cope with domestic affairs only during a "technical hitch".
On her New York debut in 1961, she was the mother in "A Taste of Honey"; at the Spoleto Festival, Italy (1962) and on Broadway (1963) critics praised her moving creation of Flora Goforth, blend of bitter sadness and high comedy, in Tennessee Williams's "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore".
She came back to London in 1966 to take over the radio actress in "The Killing of Sister George", transferred to her mascot theatre, the St Martin's. She had two other testing London parts: the appalling Mrs Peachum of "The Threepenny Opera" (1972), and the mother in a revived and far too verbose piece, "Mother Adam" (1973), at Hampstead.
Later, she worked generally in Hollywood and for American television, but in 1982 she was on Broadway in Anthony Shaffer's play "Whodunnit".
She had made her film debut in "Guns of Loos" in 1928, and thought he cinema came second to her stage career she was often effective in character parts, exploiting her gift for comedy and making a speciality of cheery, lower-class women. During the 1940s and early 1950s she was in such films as "Kipps", "Brighton Rock" (repeating her stage role as Ida), "Passport to Pimlico", "Quartet", and "Scrooge".
She was nominated for an Oscar in 1959 for her portrayal as Elspeth, the actress friend of Simone Signoret, in "Room at the Top". It was a comparatively small part which she made vivid. She was the housekeeper, Ellen, in "Mary Poppins", and later films included "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" and "The Black Windmill". She became a familiar face on American television through her appearances in popular comedy shows like "Bewitched" and "Maude".
Her home during the last twenty years or so of her life was in Los Angeles, but she used to re-visit England at least once a year.
Both her marriages, to the Hon David Tennant and, later, to Captain J.H. Wills, MC, were dissolved. There was one son and one daughter from her first marriage. Her autobiography, "The Unsinkable Hermione Baddeley" (1984), was generously warm-hearted and cheerfully vague about dates.