Anna Turner: Actress and singer whose eight-decade career took in work with Formby, Novello, Olivier, Evans and Spielberg

 

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The Independent Online

Anna Turner was the only British actress who could claim to have worked closely with Max Miller, George Formby, Ivor Novello, Lawrence Olivier, Edith Evans, Peter Ustinov and Steven Spielberg. Her role as Mrs Gilmour in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987), was one of her later film roles. However, theatre was her first love and where she thrived as a postwar West End favourite.

Her versatile stagecraft as actress and singer was shaped during 18 months of wartime repertory. Her skills later brought abundant success in the West End where Laurence Olivier described her as "a master of her craft".

"Larry and my paths first crossed when I missed out on a Broadway show," she said in 2008. She had been playing in the West End production of Frank Vosper's People Like Us in 1948 (banned for many years). Her success in the role of Cockney sparrow Ivy Underwood led to her engagement for the US production.

"My first-class passage was booked and bags packed but I was forced to abandon the trip at the last minute," she explained. The postponement was sparked by a bitter dispute between the show's producers and their fiery leading lady Margaret Sullivan. The production was delayed for months, and when Olivier heard of Anna's let-down, he telephoned her with an offer to play the role of Maisie in Daphne Laureola (1949) at Wyndham's. She joined a strong cast of Dame Edith Evans ("a terrible bully," according to Turner) and Peter Finch for a 369-show run.

Turner befriended Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh, and was shocked in 1953 when Vivien confessed to Larry of her affair with Peter Finch. "I would never have guessed," she said, "I never saw the stormy side of their marriage."

America beckoned again when, after a performance of Stage Door at The Saville Theatre in 1946, she was approached by Ben Lyon of 20th Century Fox. He offered her a seven-year film contract in Hollywood. "I couldn't accept," she said. "Fox wanted to cap my teeth and have my nose 'bobbed'!" Fox increased its offer but she stood firm.

She was born Winifred, which was shortened to Winki for her regular billing as "England's own Deanna Durbin". By 17, she had undergone two major operations which left her in pain and scarred her for life. To help recovery she was told to exercise her vocal chords. By 1938, singing lessons prompted her first professional engagements in cinemas around Manchester, as the interval entertainer.

Soon she was singing in variety in On With The Show (1939) at North Pier, Blackpool, with Frank Randle and Max Miller, then in The George Formby Show at the Opera House, Blackpool. During the early war years she performed in fund-raising charity concerts and events to raise troop morale.

In 1944 she clinched a part in Staff Dance (1944) alongside Robert Morley. He suggested Winki should be dropped and replaced with a more dignified name. From then on she was always Anna Turner. A V1 "buzz bomb" interrupted Turner on stage in Residents Only at St James's Theatre in 1944. It clipped the lightning conductor on the roof and exploded outside the stage door, bringing down plaster and dust from the ceiling, but no one was hurt and the show went on. Further West End credits included Ivor Novello's We Proudly Present (1947) with Irene Handl and Peter Ustinov's The Indifferent Shepherd (1948). The early 1950s saw her in numerous touring productions but she was lured back to London for Olivier's production of Waiting for Gillian (1954) with Googie Withers. This was followed by a 589-show run of Ronald Millar's Bachelor Borne, renamed The Bride and the Bachelor (1956) at The Duchess.

Film credits included the tense kidnapping drama Lost (1956), and starring roles in Last Man to Hang (1956) with Anthony Newley and The Good Companions (1956) with Eric Portman, Celia Johnson and Joyce Grenfell. Her most prominent early television drama was Champion Road (1958), a much-vaunted adaptation of Frank Tinsley's northern novel. It was broadcast live over eight episodes during which she had to age by 40 years.

More television credits included Sister Brinsley as the battle-axe nurse in Emergency Ward 10 (1959-61) and a wide array of appearances that included No Hiding Place, Z Cars, Maigret, Dixon of Dock Green, All Creatures Great and Small and numerous episodes of Sunday Playhouse.

Anna was devoted to her parents who were becoming frail and by the early 1970s she had slowed her stage and screen work – work that made it too tough for her to help with their care. In a surprising but understandable volte face, she embarked on a career in nursing. She qualified in 1972 and spent 10 years on the surgical wards of Charing Cross Hospital.

She returned to acting and landed the role of a nurse in Empire of the Sun. She worked into her late eighties, making commercials in the UK, Hungary and Tel Aviv. Between 2005 and 2007 she was the face of Help the Aged for an advertising campaign. A devout Christian, she never married, though she received many proposals.

STEVEN TURNER AND PAUL JORDAN

Anna Winifred Simson Turner, actress and nurse: born Rio de Janeiro 6 May 1918; died London 29 March 2014.

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