Obituary: Viola Keats

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The Independent Culture
AN ACTRESS of vigour and conviction, Viola Keats had a fertile career on both stage and screen in the Thirties and continued acting for more than 40 years. Her early films included two directed by Michael Powell, who in his autobiography wrote somewhat enigmatically of his leading ladies in The Night of the Party: "Jane Baxter was to play the juvenile lead and the other girl would be played by Viola Keats, a redhead. Both ladies were my type." Keats was indeed a redhead of aquiline sophistication and subtle attractiveness.

Born in Doune, Perthshire, in 1911, Keats was educated at the Convent of Notre Dame de Zion in Worthing and joined the Liverpool Repertory Company in 1930, making her first appearance on stage at the Liverpool Playhouse as Sarah Hurst in Noel Coward's Easy Virtue.

She played a variety of parts with the company until 1932, then studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she received the Bancroft Gold Medal in 1933. She made her first appearance on the London Stage at the Apollo Theatre as Alex Millward in The Distaff Side (1933) and the following year made her Broadway debut in the same role.

Keats entered films in 1933 with five "quota quickies" - B movies quickly made to enable cinemas to fulfil the legally required percentage of home- grown product. Three of these films - Double Wedding, Too Many Wives and Enemy of the Police - were made at Warner's Teddington Studios and were among the hundred or more titles whose negatives were alas destroyed when the studio closed and the British Film Institute refused to take more than 10 of its films for preservation.

Keats's best surviving film of this period is Michael Powell's The Night of the Party (1934), made for Gaumont-British, in which a man is shot while a bunch of society guests are playing a game of "Murder". As a police commissioner's daughter being blackmailed by a newspaper magnate who has acquired letters she wrote to a married lover and is using them to force his attentions on her, Keats breathes conviction into the sometimes stilted dialogue and makes even the denunciation "You swine!" seem natural.

The following year she was featured in another Powell film, Her Last Affaire, this time playing the victim, as a politician's wife who dies at the country inn where she has planned a rendezvous. Keats also appeared with George Arliss in The Guv'nor (1935) as a naive girl saved by a tramp- turned-bank-president from being swindled. After supporting Henry Wilcoxon and Anna Sten in a romantic drama set in Russia, A Woman Alone (1936, called Two Who Dared in the United States), Keats gave up films for over 20 years and concentrated on an active theatre career.

In London she played in Gentle Rain (1936) and in New York Once is Enough (1938). She remained in America during the Forties, appearing in Macbeth (1941, as Lady Macduff) and Murder Without Crime (1943). In 1944 she succeeded Judith Evelyn as Mrs Manningham in Angel Street, touring in the same part for over a year. She was Jean Linden in The London Tree (1948), Elizabeth Boleyn, mother of Anne, in Anne of a Thousand Days (1950) and in 1950 toured Australia with great success as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Returning to the London stage, she played in Down Came a Blackbird (1953), which opened at the Q fringe theatre and transferred to the Savoy.

When she returned to films her roles were smaller than those of a decade earlier. Her first was No Time for Tears (1957), a nursing story with Anna Neagle as Matron, and this was followed by She Didn't Say No (1958) and On the Fiddle (1961). In the adaptation of Tennessee Williams' novella The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961), which starred Vivien Leigh as a widowed actress who buys love from a gigolo, Keats was the wife of Leigh's agent. She had more substantial parts in two films about witchcraft featuring Hollywood stars - Witchcraft (1964) with Lon Chaney Jnr, and The Witches (1967) with Joan Fontaine.

Stage roles included Lavinia in The Heiress at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon (1964) and at the same theatre Leonora in Ladies in Retirement (1965) and Mrs Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer (1966). Keats played Lady Frinton in Aren't We All at the Savoy (1967) and in 1972 took over as the Abbess in Ronald Millar's Abelard and Eloise at Wyndham's, then toured in the same role. She joined the National Theatre at the Old Vic for Next of Kin (1974) and played Mrs Culver in W. Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife in Leatherhead (1975).

She spent her retirement in Brighton.

Tom Vallance

Viola Keats, actress: born Doune, Perthshire 27 March 1911; married first Harold Peterson (deceased), second William Kellner (deceased); died 5 June 1998.

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