Robson in a 1940s studio publicity shot
Flora McKenzie Robson
28 March 1902
|Died||7 July 1984 (aged 82)|
|Alma mater||Royal Academy of Dramatic Art|
Dame Flora McKenzie Robson DBE (28 March 1902 – 7 July 1984) was an English actress and star of the theatrical stage and cinema, particularly renowned for her performances in plays demanding dramatic and emotional intensity. Her range extended from queens to murderesses.
Flora McKenzie Robson was born on 28 March 1902 in South Shields, County Durham, of Scottish descent to a family of six siblings. Many of her forebears were engineers, mostly in shipping. Her father was a ship's engineer who moved from Wallsend near Newcastle to Palmers Green in 1907 and Southgate in 1910, both in north London, and later to Welwyn Garden City.
Her father discovered that Flora had a talent for recitation and, from the age of 5, she was taken around by horse and carriage to recite, and to compete in recitations. This established a pattern that remained with her.
Robson made her stage debut in 1921. By the 1930s she was appearing in several prominent films both in the UK and in Hollywood, alongside such stars as Laurence Olivier, Paul Muni and George Raft. Her most notable role was that of Queen Elizabeth I in both Fire Over England (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940). In 1934, Robson played the Empress Elizabeth in Alexander Korda's Catherine the Great (1934). She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Angelique Buiton, a servant, in Saratoga Trunk (1945). The same year, audiences in the U.K. and the U.S. watched her hypnotic performance as Ftatateeta, the nursemaid and royal confidante and murderess-upon-command to Vivien Leigh's Queen Cleopatra in the screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).
After the Second World War, demonstrating her range, she appeared in Holiday Camp (1947), the first of a series of films which featured the very ordinary Huggett family; as Sister Philippa in Black Narcissus (1947); as a magistrate in Good-Time Girl (1948); as a prospective Labour MP in Frieda (1947); and in the costume melodrama Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948). Her other film roles included the Empress Dowager Cixi in 55 Days at Peking (1963), Miss Milchrest in Murder at the Gallop (1963), the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), and Livia in the aborted I, Claudius in 1937.
She struggled to find a footing in the theatre after she graduated from RADA with a bronze medal since she lacked the conventional good looks which were then an absolute requisite for actresses in dramatic roles. After touring in minor parts with Ben Greet's Shakespeare company she may have played small parts for two seasons in the new repertory company at Oxford, but her contract was not renewed. She was told that they required a prettier actress. Unable to secure any acting engagements, she gave up the stage at the age of 23, and she took up work as a welfare officer in the Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City. Tyrone Guthrie, due to direct a season at the new Festival Theatre, Cambridge, asked her to join his company. Her performance as the stepdaughter in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author made her the theatrical talk of Cambridge. She followed with Isabella in Measure for Measure with Robert Donat, Pirandello's Naked, the title role in Iphigenia in Tauris, Varya in The Cherry Orchard, and Rebecca West in Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm.
In 1931, she was cast as the adulterous Abbie in Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms. Her brief, shocking appearance as the doomed prostitute in James Bridie's play The Anatomist put her firmly on the road to success. "If you are not moved by this girl's performance, then you are immovable" the Observer critic wrote. This success would lead to her famous 1933 season as leading lady at the Old Vic.
She continued her acting career late into life, though not on the West End stage, from which she retired at the age of 67, often for American television films, including a lavish production of A Tale of Two Cities (in which she played Miss Pross). She also performed for British television, including The Shrimp and the Anemone. In the 1960s, she continued to act in the West End, in Ring Round the Moon, The Importance of Being Earnest and Three Sisters, among others.
She continued to act on film and television. She was last briefly seen as a Stygian Witch in the fantasy adventure Clash of the Titans in 1981. Both the BBC and ITV made special programs to celebrate her 80th birthday in 1982, and the BBC ran a short season of her best films.
She was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1952 New Year Honours, and raised to Dame Commander (DBE) in the 1960 Birthday Honours. She was also the first famous name to become president of the Brighton Little Theatre.
Her private life was largely focused on her large family of sisters, nephews and nieces, who used the home in Wykeham Terrace, Brighton, which she shared with sisters, Margaret and Shela.
She died in Brighton, aged 82, in her sleep, of cancer. She was never married and had no children. The two sisters, with whom she shared her life and home, died around the same time: Shela shortly before Flora, in 1984, and Margaret on 1 February 1985.
Dame Flora Robson Avenue, built in 1962, in Simonside, South Shields, is named after her. There is a plaque on the house in Wykeham Terrace, Dyke Road, Brighton, and also one in the doorway of St. Nicholas's Church, of which Flora Robson was a great supporter.
There is also a plaque to commemorate the opening of the Prince Charles Theatre (Leicester Square, London) by Flora Robson.
A plaque at 40 Handside Lane in Welwyn Garden City records Flora Robson living there from 1923 to 1925.
A blue plaque sponsored by Southgate District Civic Trust and Robson's former school Palmers Green High School was unveiled at her family home from 1910 to 1921, The Lawe, 65, The Mall, Southgate, on 25 April 2010.
Robson attended the opening of the Flora Robson Playhouse in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1962, which was named in her honour. The building was demolished in 1971 and the theatre company it housed relocated to the new University Theatre.
|1931||A Gentleman of Paris||Uncredited|
|1932||Dance Pretty Lady||Mrs. Raeburn|
|1933||One Precious Year||Julia Skene|
|1934||The Rise of Catherine the Great||Empress Elisabeth|
|The Private Life of Don Juan||Undetermined Role||(scenes deleted)|
|1937||Fire Over England||Queen Elizabeth I of England|
|Farewell Again||Lucy Blair|
|1939||Wuthering Heights||Ellen Dean|
|Poison Pen||Mary Rider|
|We Are Not Alone||Jessica Newcome|
|Invisible Stripes||Mrs. Taylor|
|1940||The Sea Hawk||Queen Elizabeth|
|1941||Bahama Passage||Mrs. Ainsworth|
|1944||Two Thousand Women||Miss Manningford|
|1945||Great Day||Mrs. Liz Ellis|
|Saratoga Trunk||Angelique Buiton||Nominated - Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress|
|Caesar and Cleopatra||Ftatateeta|
|Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco||Short|
|1946||The Years Between||Nanny|
|1947||Black Narcissus||Sister Philippa|
|Holiday Camp||Esther Harman|
|1948||Good-Time Girl||Miss Thorpe|
|Saraband for Dead Lovers||Countess Platen|
|1952||The Tall Headlines||Mary Rackham|
|1953||Malta Story||Melita Gonzar|
|1954||Romeo and Juliet||Nurse|
|1957||High Tide at Noon||Donna MacKenzie|
|No Time for Tears||Sister Birch|
|1958||The Gypsy and the Gentleman||Mrs. Haggard|
|Innocent Sinners||Olivia Chesney|
|1959||This Is the BBC|
|1963||55 Days at Peking||Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi|
|Murder at the Gallop||Miss Milchrest|
|1964||Guns at Batasi||Miss Barker-Wise|
|1965||Young Cassidy||Mrs. Cassidy|
|Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines||Mother Superior|
|1966||7 Women||Miss Binns|
|1967||Eye of the Devil||Countess Estell|
|The Shuttered Room||Aunt Agatha|
|Cry in the Wind||Anasthasia|
|1970||Fragment of Fear||Lucy Dawson|
|1971||La grande scrofa nera||La Nonna|
|The Beast in the Cellar||Joyce Ballantyne|
|1972||Alice's Adventures in Wonderland||Queen of Hearts|
|1975||The Canterville Ghost||Mrs. Umney||TV movie|
|1978||Les Misérables||The Prioress||TV movie|
|Gauguin the Savage||Sister Allandre||TV movie|
|A Tale of Two Cities||Miss Pross||TV movie|
|1981||Clash of the Titans||A Stygian Witch||(final film role)|
|Year||Series or miniseries||Role||Note|
|1956||BBC Sunday-Night Theatre||Lilly Mofat/Sister Agatha||2 episodes|
|1959||World Theatre||Anna Fierling||1 episode|
|1964||The Human Jungle||Headmistress||1 episode|
|1966||David Copperfield||Betsey Trotwood||8 episodes|
|1968||BBC Play of the Month||May Beringer||1 episode|
|1974||Heidi||Grandmother||Miniseries, 4 episodes|
|1975||A Legacy||Narrator||5 episodes|
|1979||A Man Called Intrepid||Sister Luke||3 episodes|
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