Sunday, 28 December 2014

Godspeed Billie Whitelaw

Billie Whitelaw, who served as playwright Samuel Beckett's muse and appeared in films from Make Mine Mink (1960) to Hot Fuzz (2007), died on 21 December 2014 at the age of 82.

Billie Whitelaw was born on 6 June 1932 in Coventry, Warwickshire. As a little girl Miss Whitelaw stuttered, so her mother sent her to a local theatre in the hope of improving her speech. Miss Whitelaw took to acting and began appearing on radio shows. As a young girl she even played a boy on BBC Radio's Children’s Hour in the Fifties. She also appeared on the stages of various regional theatres.

She made her television debut in 1952, appearing as Martha in a BBC mini-series adaptation of The Secret Garden. Billie Whitelaw appeared frequently on British television in the Fifties. She had the recurring role of PC George Dixon's daughter Mary on Dixon of Dock Green. She also played the lead role in the TV show Time Out for Peggy. She also had recurring roles on The Pattern of Marriage, Tales of Soho, and My Pal Bob. She also guest starred on Rheingold Theatre, Terminus, The Adventures of Robin Hood, BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, ITV Play of the Week, and Armchair Mystery Theatre. She made her film debut in a small role in The Fake in 1953. In the Fifties she appeared in such films as Companions in Crime (1954), Room in the House (1955), Miracle in Soho (1957), Small Hotel (1957), Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), Gideon's Day (1958), Breakout (1959), Bobbikins (1959), The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), Hell Is a City (1960), and Make Mine Mink (1960).  Her first real success on stage on the West End came in 1959 with the play Progress in the Park.

It was in 1963 that she met playwright Samuel Beckett. It was the beginning of a long collaboration between the two. Billie Whitelaw's first appearance in a Samuel Beckett play was in his one-act production Play at the Old Vic in 1964. In 1973 she appeared in Mr. Beckett's Not I. She later appeared in his plays Footfalls, Happy Days, and Rockaby. In 1964 she joined Lord Laurence Olivier's National Theatre Company and remained with them until 1966. With the National Theatre Company she played Maggie Hobson in Hobson’s Choice,  as well as roles in The Dutch Courtesan and Trelawny of the Wells.

In the Sixties Miss Whitelaw appeared in such films as Payroll (1961), No Love for Johnnie (1961), Mr. Topaze (1961), The Devil's Agent (1962), The Comedy Man (1964), Charlie Bubbles (1967), Twisted Nerve (1968), The Adding Machine (1969), Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), and Leo the Last (1970). She continued to appear frequently on television, including such programmes as Kraft Mystery Theatre, Espionage, First Night, Thirty-Minute Theatre, Knock on Any Door, Love Story, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jackanory, and Wicked Women. She appeared in the TV movie The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In the Seventies Billie Whitelaw appeared in the films Gumshoe (1971), Eagle in a Cage (1972), Frenzy (1972), Not I (1973), Night Watch (1973), The Omen (1976), and Leopard in the Snow (1978). She provided voices for the animated film The Water Babies (1978). She guest starred on such TV series as The Sextet, Wessex Tales, Space 1999, and Supernatural (not to be confused with the later American show of the same name). She played Josephine in the mini-series Napoleon and Love and Madame DeFarge in the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities.

In the Eighties Billie Whitelaw had recurring roles on the series Private Schulz and Imaginary Friends. She guest starred on  BBC2 Playhouse and appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations Camille and The Secret Garden. She appeared in the TV movies Jamaica Inn, The Fifteen Streets, Lorna Doone, and The Krays. She appeared in the films An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1982), Slayground (1983), The Chain (1984), Murder Elite (1985), Tangiers (1985), Shadey (1985), Maurice (1987), Joyriders (1988), and The Dressmaker (1988).

In the Nineties she was a regular on the TV shows Firm Friends, Born to Run, and A Dinner of Herbs. She appeared in the mini-series Merlin (not to be confused with the later British TV series) and guest starred on The Canterbury Tales. She appeared in the TV movie The Last of the Blonde Bombshells. She appeared in the films Deadly Advice (1994), Jane Eyre (1996), The Lost Son (1999), and Quills (2000). In the Naughts she guest starred on Judge John Deed. Her last appearance was in the film Hot Fuzz in 2007.

Billie Whitelaw was one of the most remarkable actresses of the late 20th Century. She was capable of playing nearly anything. Throughout her career she played such characters as Bianca in Othello,      Joséphine de Beauharnais, and Madame DeFarge. On two separate occasions she played characters from The Secret Garden: the maidservant Martha in a Fifties adaptation of the novel and the head of servants Mrs. Medlock in an Eighties adaptation. In films she played a vast array of characters, including the sultry young housekeeper Lily in Make Mine Mink, Albert Finney's take-charge wife Lottie in Charlie Bubbles, Marie Antoinette in Start the Revolution without Me, and demoniac nanny Mrs. Baylock in The Omen. Ultimately Billie Whitelaw was a chameleon, capable of transforming herself to suit any role she chose to play. While many might remember her as Samuel Beckett's muse, her career included so many more great performances.

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