Barbara Murray: Former Rank starlet best known for 'The Power Game' on television but who also worked with Peter Hall on stage
Monday 02 June 2014
An enticing presence, all misty eyes and pale beauty, Barbara Murray was a blossomy Rank starlet who made a smooth and successful transition from decorative roles in films to become a television and theatrical draw for two decades. Her beauty seemed to strengthen in middle age, as did the regality that placed her firmly as a lady of a certain era, but there was a delicious mischievousness in her grand voice which ensured there was always more to the characters she played than just elegance and sophistication.
Her greatest success on television was as the socialite wife of Patrick Wymark's ruthless tycoon John Wilder in ATV's The Power Game (1965-69), a part she worked hard at, and with good results. "I wasn't happy with the character at the start," she commented during the show's first series, when she was helping to pull in over 10 million viewers a week. "I felt it was written by men, for men, and the women weren't real, weren't complete." A sense of humour was one of the main qualities she added to the mix: she was always a witty player, be it in Oscar Wilde or Ray Cooney.
Born Barbara Ann Murray in London in 1929, she was sent to boarding school in Huntingdonshire to allow her theatrical parents to tour the country with their dancing act. She accompanied them on stage when she could but developed a passion for acting, and when sent to a dance school she sneaked instead into the drama classes. She then worked briefly as a photographic model before auditioning for the Rank Organisation's charm school. At 17 she landed a £10-a-week five-year contract.
Her break came while assisting in screen tests at Ealing Studios for roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). She read in Joan Greenwood's part and bewitched the film's star, Dennis Price, and its director, Robert Hamer, who then shot a test of her and talked her thought her strengths and weaknesses. Hamer introduced her to Henry Cornelius, who cast her in the adorable Passport to Pimlico (1949). Cornelius was an intimidating perfectionist but the film was a surprise hit, a charming get well card for an austere, war-weary Britain.
Diligently, she juggled her Rank commitments with stage work, joining the repertory company at Newcastle Playhouse in 1949. She was given meatier stage roles, and refused Rank's offer of a juicier contract in 1952. Instead she starred in the debut production of the reopened Royal Court, The Bridge of Denmark Hill (1952), making her West End debut two years later in No Other Verdict at the Duchess. She married the actor John Justin, and for the next few years only acted when family commitments allowed. She was well-suited to traditional West End fare but also played Stella in the original production of Harold Pinter's The Collection for the RSC at the Aldwych in 1962.
She and Justin had three children, but divorced in 1964. The same year she married Bill Holmes, who gave up acting to teach, and, reassured by a regular wage coming in, she returned to acting full-time. Very quickly she built up a wealth of television appearances, mostly in single plays, and she remained a regular on the West End stage, especially in thrillers: she was particularly praised as the blind heroine of Wait Until Dark at the Duchess in 1967.
After The Power Game she was a television star and was rarely seen in films again, although she was a good sport in the ever-so-rude Up Pompeii (1971), and the well-above-average horror Tales From the Crypt (1972). Instead, on television she took over from Nyree Dawn Porter as the accident-prone Deirdre in Never A Cross Word (1970), a typically charming Donald Churchill comedy series, and had her own sitcom, His and Hers (1972). She was very at home as part of an illustrious cast for The Pallisers (1974), a handsome dramatisation of Trollope (currently enjoying a surprise repeat on BBC2), but ended her television career with a real peach of a part, as the diva mother of a theatrical dynasty in the Twenties saga The Bretts (1987-89).
Co-created by Rosemary Anne Sisson, one of television's finest period storytellers, the series was nostalgic in the writing and also in the making, being one of the last blasts of theatrically conducted studio drama, a form that ideally suited its world of natty dialogue and ensemble playing. Murray did make a few brief appearances on television after The Bretts before making her last bow theatrically in a reunion with Sir Peter Hall, nearly 30 years after he directed her in The Collection, in a tour of An Ideal Husband (2001).
She then quietly retired to Spain, contentedly ending a career that had begun during the golden age of British film-making and ended with the end of the golden age of British television. Although both her marriages ended in divorce, she once remarked: "I'm a lucky woman. In all my life I've loved two men, and I married them both."
Barbara Ann Murray, actress: born London 27 September 1929; married 1952 John Justin (marriage dissolved; three daughters), 1964 Bill Holmes (marriage dissolved); died 20 May 2014.
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