Obituary: Vivienne Burgess
Saturday 04 September 1999
She was born in the last golden months before the First World War, and never losing the will to work, despite failing health, just before her death she had completed filming her last scenes in a bleak Prague cemetery for the second episode of a new BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist which will begin screening this autumn. It was a role of ill omen. After shooting began in Carlisle she fainted, cracking a rib on a coffin, but joked that at least she had not fallen in the open grave. Then she bravely followed the film crew to the Czech capital, reporting by postcard, "Prague is a fascinating city at night, but this is a tough and cold location."
One of the old school, she learned her trade the hard way, working in rep at Bristol, Stratford and Liverpool, among many others. And she was thrilled when, 10 years ago at the Cottesloe, a critic praised her "foghorn voice and baleful eyes".
She made her West End debut in 1943, aged 29, in the long-running My Sister Eileen at the Savoy, and then, except for breaks for motherhood, there followed many years in leading London and provincial productions, as well as dozens of fringe appearances at the Bush, the King's Head, Hampstead and with Monstrous Regiment.
Charles Marowitz, with whom she worked at the Roundhouse on his controversial Hedda, even wrote a play for her, Lady Bracknell, with which she toured the US West Coast. But she will be best remembered for her other solo show, about the first Queen Bess, Sunset for a Virgin Queen, written specially for her by Norman Tucker. It premiered in 1985 at the Mary Wallace in Twickenham and then toured world-wide, including at the Edinburgh and Bermuda Festivals, and at Sam Wanamaker's Globe Theatre after a "royal crossing of the Thames". The final performance took place in 1990 as part of the Richmond Festival.
With her third husband, Eddie Dorian, a film production manager, she moved to Richmond in 1981. "I've been in love with the town ever since I moved here," she told me. "On my first day I thought: oh why did you spend all those years in Chelsea and Hampstead when you could have been so much happier here?" She became a familiar figure in Richmond, speedwalking via the steep Terrace Gardens and up Water Lane, keeping fit for her demanding professional life, and winning the Veteran Gold in the Sunday Times three- mile Fun Run in her 70th year.
The German director Peter Lichtenfels sought her out in 1990 to star as Rebecca Nurse in his Leicester Haymarket revival of The Crucible. He was looking for a Devon accent, but Burgess told him, "I don't do accents - except Franglais." He let her read for it using a precise Puritan English voice, and she was rewarded with the best review of her career when Nicholas Williams in The Independent attested to her "luminous, saintly performance . . . the play's focus of unsubornable goodness".
She had made her first appearance at the National in January 1977, at the age of 62, playing the Lady in the Olivier staging of Tales from the Vienna Woods, but it was not a happy experience. She and John Gielgud sat around doing the Times crossword and feeling under-used. Better things followed with a starring role in Jim Cartwright's Bed at the Cottesloe in 1989. Later she brought her special gifts and large expressive eyes to the role of the maid Edna in Stephen Daldry's epoch-making 1992 production of An Inspector Calls, at both the Lyttelton and Olivier theatres. When Daldry transferred it to the Aldwych he was eager for Burgess to rejoin the cast. She agreed, but the constant stage "rainfall" and damp atmosphere aggravated her growing health problems and she made her final stage appearance there in 1994.
Between spells of convalescence and holidays with her actress daughter Sara van Beers in Normandy, she remained active, appearing in commercials and many television productions, including a startling contribution as an aristocratic harridan in an instalment of Poirot in 1994, and a memorable vignette as a terrified tricoteuse in the railway waiting-room, for the BBC adaptation of Zola's La Bete Humaine, screened last year as The Death Train.
"Aren't I lucky at my age?" she said. "In France I am still treated as an attractive woman. But in England, the moment the clock strikes 12 on your 60th birthday, you're swept aside. And yet you really start to live at 60."
Vivienne Burgess, actress: born Weston-super-Mare, Somerset 24 April 1914; three times married (one son, one daughter); died Richmond upon Thames, Surrey 26 August 1999.
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