Barbara Kelly

Actress star of 'What's My Line?'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Barbara Kelly, actress and broadcaster: born Vancouver, British Columbia 5 October 1924; married 1942 Bernard Braden (died 1993; two daughters, and one son deceased); died London 15 January 2007.

It was almost a national obligation in the 1950s to switch on your television set at eight o'clock on a Sunday night and tune in to What's My Line? Television - in those days there was only one channel - was still trying to prove itself against the radio and the cinema, and it needed a shot in the arm.

This it received far beyond its expectations with the appearance of one of the panellists, a vivacious and witty Canadian, born in Vancouver in 1924, named Barbara Kelly, who in 1949 had come to England with her husband, Bernard Braden, to try to achieve success on stage, whether live or behind a microphone.

For Braden the breakthrough for him came that year when he appeared as "Mitch" in the London version of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Vivien Leigh. For Kelly it was in 1950 when she brightened up the nation's television screens sitting alongside Eamonn Andrews, as panellist chairman, and her fellow panellists Jerry Desmonde, Marghanita Laski and Ted Kavanagh on What's My Line?

Within weeks, the impressive, if difficult, form of Gilbert Harding was on the team, and it was the curmudgeonly stubbornness of Harding and the irreverent humour of Kelly that made the programme click as it was to do for decades.

Kelly was from West Vancouver, the Pacific Coast city's snooty suburb, and Braden, born in 1916, recalled in his memoir The Kindness of Strangers (1990) that he had first met her before Christmas 1940 as part of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation drive to recruit someone suitable to play the Virgin Mary in the first production of the York and Chester mysteries.

With long curly locks of blonde hair, a precocious nature and a remarkable ability to read before a microphone, she was an instant hit and soon joined the CBC's radio rep company while working as a fashion model. Braden and Kelly were married on 13 April 1942, and thus, in theatrical terms, were to begin a joint apprenticeship that was to take them to Toronto, where a lot of work was done for little money, then to London, where a much wider range of opportunities opened.

Braden and Kelly both later recalled that their apprenticeship in Toronto, working on stage and on the CBC, gave them a head start because television and radio were more technically advanced there than in the UK, given the powerful influence on the Canadian media emanating from New York City just 450 miles away. "We were getting the training, just not getting paid for it," said Braden in an interview years later: "We set out in 1949, originally for a year, to London. New York was a rat race and we were expecting a baby at the time."

So, to England, where the Bradens had many radio connections to smooth their arrival. Kelly soon landed a role in The Male Animal and burst through to public attention in other ways. In those days, Braden recalled, it was forbidden to mention commercial products while appearing in any capacity on the BBC. Kelly, not one to be held back when in the grip of loquacity, got propelled in a big way into the public eye on a programme called Picture Page. Asked the difference between broadcasting in the UK as opposed to Canada, she immediately snapped back that in Canada this type of programme would be sponsored by about 10 companies, examples of which she proceeded to rattle off - to the dismay of the producer but the delight of the listeners. The popular press had fun with the story and made wide use of Kelly's good looks.

What's My Line? gave Kelly national exposure and this was reinforced further when Braden managed to convince the BBC to run a domestic situation comedy - given that they both had Canadian accents, he hoped it would safely cross class and regional boundaries and have a national appeal. Thus began a series of programmes, first on radio then on television, initially titled An Evening with the Bradens, followed by Breakfast with the Bradens, Bedtime with the Bradens and Between Times with the Bradens, among many others.

The various series were to run throughout the 1950s. Braden dabbled in films and also branched out into investigative consumer journalism with The Braden Beat, which ran from 1962 to 1968, while Barbara took roles in a series of largely forgotten "B" pictures, such as The Desert Hawk (1950), A Tale of Five Cities (1951), Glad Tidings (1952), Love in Pawn (1953) and The Flying Fontaines (1959).

By the 1970s and with Braden having got sacked by the BBC for daring to advertise a popular margarine on commercial television while still in the BBC's employ, Kelly began to wind down the popular TV work in favour of a commercial enterprise called Prime Performers, supplying speakers to such clients as Cunard Lines. Braden himself set up a conference organisation that would book conferences, not only the venues but with all the latest presentational gadgetry, including the latest in slide, film and audiovisual techniques.

After Braden's death in 1993, and 25 years of Prime Performers, Kelly in 2000 set up a new company, Speakerpower, "specialising in personal training for everyone who has to speak in public", and using as trainers such broadcasting stalwarts as Margaret Howard, Jan Leeming and David Jacobs. The journalist Simon Hoggart attended one session with Speakerpower and described it as "terrifying".

Kelly, by her own admission, did not actually like the stage, and the stress of appearing before audiences always made her want to throw up. Braden even went so far as to say she never enjoyed acting, despite her ability to light up a room or a studio with her bright personality: "At home, I never saw the lady I saw on TV. She would come home and relax and be herself, no longer the public person I had only seen hours before."

In 1988, Braden recounted having appeared at a wedding where there were a lot of VIPs and press photographers, none of whom seemed to recognise them. His wife said: "You know, I think we've entered a new phase in our lives. We've moved into another category; we now belong to the EFVIPs - the Elderly Former Very Important Persons."

Frank Gray

Comments