Obituary: Vivienne Burgess

VIVIENNE BURGESS was a busy stage and screen actress whose career spanned more than 62 years.

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."

John Thaxter

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week