Philippa Gail

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The Independent Culture
PHILIPPA GAIL was one of the most beautiful women of her generation, and it was hardly surprising that, not long after leaving the Webber-Douglas School of Drama, she should make such an impact on Sixties television in The Troubleshooters, in which she played the much-desired Jane.

Like many blockbuster series of the Sixties and Seventies (The Plane Makers, The Brothers), although innocent enough stuff compared with current soaps and series, The Troubleshooters, with its heavy mixture of intrigue (sexual and business) and the aphrodisiac of power, held a large part of the nation in thrall for several seasons.

Gail's career could easily and profitably have concentrated on glamour roles on the small screen, but she was a highly intelligent actor and, although she made many further television appearances, ranging from the top-flight (a taut version of Barbara Vine's A Fatal Inversion) to the unintentionally risible (the unforgettable BBC shipboard saga Triangle), her most striking work was in the theatre.

Her first West End appearance was in The Fighting Cock (Duke of York's, 1966), one of Jean Anouilh's more acrid plays, with Sir John Clements in the central role of an eminent French general somewhat softening the irascibility of the character played with such brio by Rex Harrison in New York. Taking over from Sarah Badel who had played in it at Chichester, where the production originated, Gail was extremely touching in the role of the General's daughter.

In 1970 she married David Conville, then Director of the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, and many of her later appearances were in some of the most striking productions of his regime. Her expressive, wide-ranging voice, commanding eyes and sense of projection were all considerable assets on the Open Air stage.

In 1974 she played Hermia in one of the liveliest of the many different Regent's Park productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, wonderfully contrasted with Joanna McCallum's statuesquely seductive Helena. Gail was especially effective in her scenes of jealousy when a Hermia of Dresden porcelain daintiness turned on a sixpence into a fiery-tempered and windmill-limbed spitfire.

An unusual but effective Open Air choice for 1980 saw her as the potential Roman martyr Lavinia in Shaw's Androcles and the Lion. Conville's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (1984), cleverly set in the 19th century, again highlighted her comic talent amongst a strong cast (Dora Bryan as Mistress Quickly, Ronald Fraser an affably clubbable Falstaff) as Mistress Page, working with Kate O'Mara as Mistress Ford to create two strong woman in their prime, infectiously enjoying their chances to kick against the pricks, as it were, of Victorian convention.

Her final Open Air performance was as Lady Capulet - a passionate, driven portrayal which made the character emerge in stronger focus than usual - in Romeo and Juliet (1986), a comparatively early London production by Declan Donnellan, still remembered for its fire and vigour.

The position of wife to the director of the theatre is a tricky one, but Philippa Gail, with her understanding of actors and directors, was a model of how to carry it off. She was of enormous help to both Conville and Ian Talbot, the Open Air's current Director (Conville remains Chairman of the New Shakespeare Company), contributing significantly to the unique "family" ethos of the whole Open Air operation.

She had a particular talent for being unobtrusively around the theatre during technical and dress rehearsals, the waits between which can often be nervous times for directors (as can the weather). Almost without noticing, they would be drawn into conversation by Gail, who then shrewdly talked not about the production or about the theatre at all, but about Regent's Park, or gardening (at which she excelled). Afterwards, most directors would find that their butterflies had vanished.

Away from the Open Air, Gail worked often at the Orange Tree in Richmond, including a strikingly sensual Gertrude in a First Quarto Hamlet (1977). And her combined gifts were well used in the theatre's rediscovery of Henry Arthur Jones's comedy of manners The Case of Rebellious Susan (1995).

Gail also appeared in several strong productions at York in 1977, including Pygmalion (playing Eliza Doolittle) and Little Eyolf. Her Rita in Ibsen's drama of marital haunting was a performance of mesmerising power, in which her looks - which on-stage could suggest something of the quality Hitchcock found in Grace Kelly, a fascinating and enigmatic tension between an apparently cool, controlled blonde facade and hints of a more turbulent inner emotional life - became harrowed and harrowing as the Allmers' marriage begins to crack under the gnawing guilt they feel for their young son's death. Her scene with the Rat Wife, Ibsen's emblematic figure of conscience, was perhaps the most memorable in a genuinely revelatory performance.

Last year, when her beauty - despite her illness - seemed if anything further enhanced by an inner serenity, was the final season she was able to be present at Regent's Park. She coped throughout with the cancer which killed her with typical fortitude.

Philippa Gail, actress: born London 16 August 1942; married 1970 David Conville (one son); died 25 July 1999.

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