Film: Her face didn't fit

Judy Campbell's film career stretches back 60 years. But this talented British actress has always felt like an outsider.
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Film made a star of Judy Campbell, put her up on the screen with David Niven, Trevor Howard and Clive Brook. But it also robbed her of her eyebrows, and a sizeable chunk of self-esteem.

So, if you ask her about her movie career, she's a little diffident, a bit surprised that of her 70 or so years of performance that her life has seen so far, it's this part you want to know about. She'd rather, I suspect, talk about her trademark song, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square", which made her the toast of London in 1940. Or about her long personal and professional association with Noel Coward (a billboard photo of the playwright and his muse is tucked discreetly beside the sofa of her London home).

Most of all, she'd like to talk about her current role. At the age of 83, she is lending her luminous presence to a revival of the Vivian Ellis musical Bless the Bride. With lofty cheekbones, sentimental smile, swoop of blizzard-white hair, and more deportment skills than all the finishing schools in Switzerland, she exudes a warm, winning elegance from the pub theatre's tiny stage.

But for someone who regards herself as very much a theatre actress, cinema has been hugely important in Campbell's life. After training in Rep, the success of the West End revue New Faces brought her to the attention of producers such as Alexander Korda and Michael Balcon. Her debut was in Saloon Bar (1940), a film adaptation of a West End whodunnit, in which she pulled pints as a hard-as-nails barmaid called Doris. "That was easy, because we were just photographing the play. I had wonderful melodramatic Cockney lines to say, like `I've seen a broken bottle pushed in a man's face and I've laughed, see?'"

It was during her first picture under contract, Convoy (1940), that the difficulties began. The writer-director Pen Tennyson - grandson of the poet - had envisaged the film with an all-male cast, but was forced to reconstruct it around a love-plot between a woman-with-a-past (Campbell) and her estranged husband (Clive Brook).

Brook was a friend of the family (he had bathed the young Judy as a baby), and Tennyson's dissatisfactions were bearable. But the tyrannical make-up artist made the new star's life a misery. He got her into the make-up chair, whipped out his razor and shaved off both her eyebrows. He told her that her lower lip was too big and would need building up with thick black make-up. Then there was her nose. He would have to draw a line down the middle of it to give it more shape. Had she considered plastic surgery? And then there was the gap in her teeth - plugged first with candle wax ("I could hardly speak and I kept swallowing it," she recalls), and later with a dental bridge. The Tannoy system at Ealing, where Convoy was filmed, regularly carried carried announcements that Mrs Campbell's teeth had been found at the bottom of a soup-plate in the studio canteen.

"Nobody ever explained what we were aiming at, pictorially, and I just felt cribbed, cabined and confined. I felt that they all thought I was a stage actress and was going to overdo it, so I tried frightfully hard to keep a stiff upper-lip - literally. The relief of leaving that film studio, driving to the Comedy Theatre where New Faces was playing amid falling bombs, and getting out on the stage to sing "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" was immense."

The 1948 film Bonnie Prince Charlie put her name in lights with David Niven. "He taught me never to talk between takes if the microphone was live. Anything you said could be heard in the sound box, and they got very well paid for any titbits they could sell to the newspapers. Just be careful about giving away details about a date, or saying something unguarded like `she's a fascinating bitch'."

The film she retains the most affection for, however, is Green for Danger (1946), an atmospheric thriller set in an English cottage hospital, starring Alistair Sim as a Scotland Yard inspector. Like Casablanca, it's a film which demonstrates that genre conventions and stock characters sometimes produce the best of cinema's pale magic. "I enjoyed it so much more" says Campbell, "because they explained what they were trying to achieve."

Perhaps the greatest irony of Judy Campbell's uneasy relationship with the pictures is that she is part of a cross-Channel cinematic dynasty. Her parents opened Grantham's first cinema. Her children are Andrew Birkin, screenwriter of The Name of the Rose, and Jane Birkin, the actress and honorary Frenchwoman who scandalised her mother country (but not her mother) when she gasped her way through Je t'aime with her husband Serge Gainsbourg. A generation down, there's Birkin's daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Despite her family's closeness to the medium, Campbell's attitude remains ambivalent. "The cinema world wanted to keep its secrets, like cooks who don't pass on their recipes. There was a complicity between people involved in film, and somehow, I was outside it."

`Bless the Bride' is at the King's Head, London N1 (0171-226 1916)