Monday, January 26, 2009

Mentioned In Passing

Amongst the stories that made the news on screen and in print over the past couple weeks, some monumental, others barely managing to scrape above trivial, were the rapid succession of celebrity deaths. First Patrick McGoohan was gone, followed in quick succession by Ricardo Montalban, Sir John Mortimer and then Tony Hart.

Never a fan of The Prisoner and too young for Danger Man, what I always remember McGoohan for is his absolute paddy on the US nuclear submarine in Ice Station Zebra. Montalban was forever KHAAANNNN! and the closest I got to John Mortimer’s work was his adaptation of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Tony Hart though, from his days on Vision On through to Take Hart, was a big part of my childhood.

As a kiddie, if I didn’t have my head stuck in a book I’d usually be lying on the living room carpet with a pad of paper, pencils and crayons, happily whiling away the time drawing and later painting, spurred on by his boundless enthusiasm. That part of my life carried on until the three years at The Esteemed School of Art sucked all the interest out of it and I’ve rarely picked up a pencil since.

While the deaths of this quartet made headlines, it was only when I sat down with The Sunday Times’ News Review section yesterday that I discovered Kathleen Byron had passed away on the same day as Tony Hart. Having not bothered with any broadsheets earlier in the week because they were either filled with news about the economy’s further side into the toilet or the imminent inauguration, I’d missed the obituary notice and if she had been mentioned on a TV bulletin I hadn’t seen it. Still, her death should have been worth a mention.

Her name, alas, may not be instantly recognisable even though she worked steadily on stage and screen for over six decades, making one of her last film appearances in Saving Private Ryan as the mother who receives the news of her sons’ deaths. After appearing in a number of wartime shorts produced by the Crown Film Unit, her career began with a quartet of films by the legendary partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

In The Silver Fleet she played a Dutch schoolmistress, impressing upon her pupils the tale of a heroic 17th-century countryman who led a naval resistance against the Spanish. Three years later she was cast as an officious yet ultimately sympathetic angel in the classic A Matter of Life and Death, giving some latitude to Bob Trubshawe as he waits in heaven for David Niven’s Peter Carter. Finally, in The Small Back Room, released in 1949, she appeared as the devoted sweetheart of David Farrar’s alcoholic bomb-disposal expert.

Between the two Byron played what would be perhaps the defining role of her career, as Sister Ruth, opposite Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons and Farrar in the erotically charged Black Narcissus. To say too much about the tale of religious devotion and repressed sexuality in a remote Himalayan convent would give away the story. Filmed, remarkably, on a Pinewood soundstage, with location filming only going as far as a tropical garden in Kent for exterior jungle scenes, Jack Cardiff’s unparalleled cinematography and Byron’s performance created some of the most sexually intense scenes in film history.

Even though these early roles suggested that significant parts in future films should have been hers for the taking, ultimately many eluded her once the performance as Sister Ruth coupled with playing Verite Faimont, Margaret Lockwood’s romantic rival in Charles Bennett’s Madness of the Heart, led to her losing out to typecasting. If she never became as well known as her many of her contemporaries, like Kerr who had previously appeared in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, she never took a cynical view of the business.

Almost all the obituaries noted that she and the director continued their relationship off screen, picking up on a passage from Michael Powell’s Million Dollar Movie, the second part of his sterling autobiography in which he writes about Byron pulling a gun on him:

It was a revolver, a big one, US army issue, and it was loaded. A naked woman and a loaded gun are persuasive objects, and I have always thought that I deserved congratulations for talking myself out of that one.

Byron calmly dismissed the anecdote as a flight of fancy on his part, admitting that she was scared of guns and certainly far too modest to brandish one starkers. Meanwhile the obituary in The Daily Telegraph summed up her appeal by concluding:

Kathleen Byron, or simply Byron, as some friends called her, played hussies when nice girls weren't supposed to do so, when women were simply supposed to hanker after a band of gold and children miraculously born without sex playing a part in it. Her roles told the truth about human relationships before much of Britain was ready to listen and her career suffered as a result.


At 9:04 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

Oh bollocks. Tony Hart and Byron?

Bugger. :-(

At 12:00 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

Yeah, what an absolute pisser.

With Deborah Kerr passing last year, and Wendy Hiller, Kim Hunter and Moira Shearer already gone, now almost all of Powell's actresses are finally joining him.

At 11:09 pm, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

From Tony Hart to Mark Speight in a generation.

God bless the BBC.


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