How we met 64.: Dulcie Gray and Michael Denison

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The Independent Culture
Dulcie Gray (72) was born in Kuala Lumpur, the daughter of a lawyer. She was a teacher before training at the Webber- Douglas drama school, where she met her husband, Michael Denison (77). He decided on an acting career while at Oxford, making his London debut in Troilus and Cressida in 1938, four years before Duclie Gray's own debut in Little Foxes. Since then, they have both appeared in roughly 100 stage productions, acting together in more than two-thirds of them. Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, playing at the Globe Theatre, London, is their 27th joint West End appearance.

DULCIE GRAY: I never intended to be an actress. I'd been a schoolmistress in the jungle in Malaysia, worked my passage home to England, and got a job in a school here. I was unable to take the job as I broke my arm rather badly, and then I won a scholarship to the Webber-Douglas drama school. It was pure luck I became an actress, and pure luck I met Mikey.

When I first met him he was sitting on a low wall outside the Webber-Douglas. It was summertime and we were all eating cherries. I thought he was tremendously good-looking and I was afraid he might be rather conceited. I wasn't too keen on him and, in any case, I was still engaged to the last of my suitors back in Malaysia. There weren't many English girls out there so one was enormously chased all over the place.

We began to like each other, and became really tremendous friends. He gave me the first meal we had together - scrambled eggs - which was about all he could afford. I was thankful for anything to eat.

I was asked to act in a private theatre in Chichester. Michael came to a champagne dinner after the play and there was a seat beside him. I sat in it, and he thought I was an angel of light because he was feeling a bit shy. He forgot to say the magic words, but on 11 November 1938 - the day this play opened - we became unofficially engaged, and then we were married on 29 April, 1939.

The Monday morning after our wedding, we were in Aberdeen. We stayed with Mr and Mrs Powell, and they were wonderful to us. Their place was marvellously cheap, and we had about four meals a day. The play we were in was Hay Fever - we played brother and sister. On the first night, during my first line, my pants elastic broke, and so I had to keep one hand on my hip to try and hang on to them. When I went off, I walked crookedly, because they were right round my knees. It was fairly fearsome, I must say. The audience screamed with laughter, it nearly brought the house down. Michael only found out what the problem was afterwards.

Michael is a stayer by nature, and I'm actually rather a bolter, so it's quite incredible that we two have stayed together this long - especially as Michael was away for six of the first seven years of our marriage. He was abroad in the war, and for the last two years of it we never saw each other at all. Most of our letters didn't get through, because I was playing to the troops in Europe and Michael was in Greece.

I had quite a hideous war. Practically everyone that I'd grown up with was killed, taken prisoner of war, or had to work on the Siam railway. I was suddenly doing wonderfully well: getting flowers and being photographed everywhere. On the other hand, I was getting these awful letters saying people were being killed. I was very worried about Michael: I didn't know where he was, and it was awful not getting any letters - I just despaired.

It was quite extraordinary that we got back together again. I think our friendship was really very strong and that got us over the long gaps. It was quite difficult in a way to pick things up - I'd become a film star as well as a stage star by that time, and if you make a success, people are apt not to notice the other partner at all. But Michael was wonderfully generous about it. We'd be very odd if we went home in some of the parts we've played. It would be absurd. But if you're both in the play, you hear each other's words, and that's a tremendous help. It's very difficult to like somebody very much who is a bad actor. One of the nice things about being married is that when people see us act together, they take it personally. We have couples coming over and over again because they saw us in a play on the first night of their honeymoon or their engagement night. So when some anniversary comes round they potter down and see us - we become part of their lives.

MICHAEL DENISON: I met an

uncle of Dulcie's at my 21st birthday party, and he said: 'Oh, I've got a niece at the Webber-Douglas, you should look her up.' So I looked her up. She was tremendously slim, because she was starving, living on about sixpence a day for food.

We were shy, it was a much more inhibited age then. We saw that we each had some talent - that was the first thing we thought about each other. We were very serious about our jobs, we still are. Gradually from respect there came friendship, then came love.

About six months after we'd first met, we performed together, in a play called Parnell, about the Irish nationalist politician. Dulcie was Kitty O'Shea, and I was Charles Stewart Parnell. By this time I was head over heels in love with Dulcie, and there was an exchange in which he said, 'Do you always wear white roses?' and she said, 'They only bloom at this time of year.' To which he replied, 'I'll have them grown all year round for you.' So obviously I had to get her white roses. White roses for an impoverished drama student in March 1938 were expensive things, seven and six a bloom. I somehow scraped the barrel and got six - I couldn't give her less. I didn't say 'To Dulcie with love from Michael', I said 'To Kitty, with love from Charles Stewart'. Just before the curtain came up, she came into my room with my roses in her hand and said, 'Would you believe, I haven't seen him for years, and look what old Charlie Stewart has sent me]' That was a set back, but only a temporary one.

We had one night at the Dorchester Hotel after our wedding, and the next day we were on the sleeper to Aberdeen. Our lodgings there cost us a total of pounds 4 a week, and our joint salary was pounds 15, which was tremendous.

On that first night in Aberdeen I thought Dulcie was rigid with nerves. I couldn't understand why she was going round so oddly: she went behind a sofa which she wasn't supposed to do, she wriggled and looked wildly about her which she wasn't supposed to do. I didn't find out till afterwards that her elastic had snapped.

I must say that my war years were much safer than Dulcie's. She was working in London through the Blitz, under a continuous bombardment. The only people who fired at me with any intent were the Greek Communist guerrillas who had welcomed us as liberators three weeks before, then decided they'd had enough of liberation and wanted the country for themselves. It was horrible not getting letters. If a question is asked and the answer doesn't come for three or four months, the tone of the answer may suddenly feel quite different, because you don't hear the letter, you only see it. Dulcie said that I was a stayer, and I think I proved that to exhaustion.

I can't think of a disastrous play that we've been in. But there was a famous occasion when we had with us a friend of ours, Robert Fleming, who was immensely athletic. Any pieces of furniture that he sat on had to be strengthened because they all fell apart. We were in the middle of a tea party on stage and Dulcie leant back in a high-backed chair which had received the Fleming treatment. The chair disintegrated. She went very slowly over backwards. She was wearing a kilt, but luckily tights had just come in. Robert and I formed a barrier between her and the audience so she could get her wig back on. Mercifully, she got it on the right way round. The audience adored it. We would never blackmail a prospective employer to take both of us - we never have, we don't think that's right. But of course when we're touring it's much more fun touring together. We drive everywhere and stay in country house hotels. It can be dull on your own. We love our home to such an extent that there's practically nowhere in Britain that we won't drive back from - anywhere south of Newcastle or east of Plymouth you'll find us on the road home after the second house on Saturday.-

(Photograph omitted)

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