Dinah Sheridan: Actress whose elegance and warmth made her a memorable leading lady

 

Dinah Sheridan, who retired from the screen after scoring her greatest triumph as the wife of a vintage car enthusiast in Genevieve (1953), had been a leading lady in British films, many of them "B" movies in which she proved a welcome presence, for nearly 20 years. As well as having a striking beauty, she had a faintly patrician air of elegant assurance and commonsense, plus an inherent warmth that served her well when she returned to films to play the understanding mother in The Railway Children (1971).

Born Dinah Mec (pronounced "mess") in London in 1920, she was the daughter of professional photographers, a Russian father and German mother. She studied drama at the Italia Conti School, and made her first stage appearance at the age of 12 in Where the Rainbow Ends at the Holborn Empire, having chosen her surname from a telephone directory.

In 1936 she was the first actress to appear on television, in the programme Picture Page, broadcast from Alexandra Palace. The same year she was leading lady to the comedian Richard Hayward in her first film, Irish and Proud of It (1936), a modest comedy co-written and directed by Donovan Pedelty (later to become editor of the popular film magazine, Picturegoer) and she had an unbilled role as a dancer in As You Like It (1936), one of Laurence Olivier's early films.

Pedelty, whose Crusade Films made a string of "quota quickies", gave her a starring role with Jimmy Hanley in Landslide (1936), in which a group of performers are trapped in a theatre overnight with a killer among them, and she was a drama company's cashier in Pedelty's Behind Your Back (1937). Other early roles included a tycoon's daughter who marries her father's chauffeur in Father Steps Out (1937), and a daughter whose henpecked father rebels in Merely Mr Hawkins (1938). She gained further experience acting in repertory.

With the outbreak of the Second World War Sheridan was conscripted as an ambulance driver. She returned to films in the propaganda movie about a stoic British family, Salute John Citizen (1942), which co-starred her again with Jimmy Hanley, who had been invalided out of the army. She and Hanley married the same year.

She was leading lady to George Formby in Get Cracking (1943) and was paired with Hanley in 29 Acacia Avenue. Based on a stage farce, it was released in 1945, nearly two years after being shot; J Arthur Rank thought the scenes in which Sheridan and Hanley are trying to sleep together would be a bad example for young people.

The pair were also together in For You Alone (1945) and the stark but gripping thriller, Murder in Reverse (1945). "We were cast as a team," Sheridan told the historian Brian McFarlane, "until I started having the children while Jimmy kept on working."

She returned with a series of "B" movies directed by Maclean Rogers, including Calling Paul Temple (1948), one of the better films to feature the detective. Rogers also directed Dark Secret (1949), a limp mystery in which she played a young bride convinced she is possessed by the spirit of a murdered woman, and one of her most popular films of the period, The Story of Shirley Yorke (1949), as a society girl exploited by a handsome bounder (Derek Farr). "It gave me my first meaty romantic lead," she recalled.

She then joined the cast of The Huggetts Abroad (1949), the third film to feature the popular family. "I replaced Jane Hylton, who was ill. Jimmy rang me from Islington Studios to tell me I was starting work the next day. It meant quick arrangements for two small children, and my hair had to be lopped off considerably."

She played Paul Temple's sensible wife Steve again in Paul Temple Triumphs (1950), then starred in two "B" films which were above average: No Trace (1950), in which she was secretary to a writer (Hugh Sinclair) who believes he has committed the perfect murder, and Blackout (1950), helping a blind man who witnessed a killing.

Then came the fortuitous situation that took her out of the "B" movie cycle. "Someone had dropped out or been fired from Where No Vultures Fly. I still don't know who it was, the whole thing was so rushed. A sudden offer on the telephone; I made arrangements for my children and flew over to Kenya within two weeks."

The film's schedule was increased by two months when the producers realised it was a better film than expected, and more animal shots were taken. "I think it was the first film not to disguise the animals with back projection; we were actually with them. It was the Royal Film of 1951, and it led to four major films."

In The Sound Barrier (1952), her scenes with John Justin, as her test pilot husband, were credited with giving the film some needed warmth. "I didn't mind being secondary to Ann Todd," she said. "What I wanted was to be directed by David Lean, who was wonderful with actors."

In The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953), Sheridan was the girlfriend of Sullivan, played by Maurice Evans, who asked Sheridan to play opposite him on Broadway in the play Dial M for Murder. Sheridan refused because of her children, and instead starred with Dirk Bogarde in Appointment in London (1953), a story of the pressures faced by wartime flyers in Bomber Command. She described Bogarde as "Marvellous – a brilliant film actor."

When she met Henry Cornelius, who was going to produce and direct Genevieve, Sheridan recalled that she squeezed into a restaurant window seat while waiting to meet him. "When he came in he said in a loud voice, 'I see you're sitting with your back to the light because you know you're too old for this part.' Not a charming start. He was not a character I would have enjoyed working for again."

It was the writer William Rose who secured her the part. "They didn't want Kenneth More, they wanted Guy Middleton; they wanted Dirk Bogarde instead of John Gregson, Claire Bloom instead of me and I can't remember who they wanted instead of Kay Kendall. But we got on so well together, and it worked."

The film was a huge hit, and is acknowledged as a British comedy classic. Though Kendall has the scene-stealing role, and plays it beautifully, Sheridan is splendid as the wife of a vintage car enthusiast who enters the London to Brighton race and gets involved in an increasingly desperate rivalry with his friend.

Sheridan's marriage to Hanley had ended after 11 years (they had a son and a daughter), and at this peak point in her career she married again, to John Davis, Managing Director of the Rank Organisation, and retired from the screen. One of the roles she missed was that of leading lady to Danny Kaye in The Court Jester. Soon there were rumours that the union was a stormy one, and Sheridan had a nervous breakdown that resulted in a stay in a psychiatric clinic. The marriage ended in 1965 and Sheridan returned to the stage in the play Let's All Go Down the Strand.

It was 18 years after Genevieve that she returned to the screen, in The Railway Children (1971), another perennial favourite. "Lionel Jeffries phoned and asked me if I had read The Railway Children or seen it on television. I had read it years ago and we arranged to meet for lunch. I had my fingers crossed under the table hoping he would make a firm offer, and on the set later he confessed that he had had his fingers crossed hoping I would agree to do it. We made the film in Yorkshire, and it was the most joyous time I've ever had in making a film."

Sheridan made one more film, taking a cameo role in the Agatha Christie adaptation, The Mirror Crack'd (1980). She continued to be active on stage in such plays as Move Over, Mrs Markham (1972), A Murder is Announced (1977 and Present Laughter (1981). On television, she played Nigel Havers' mother in the series Don't Wait Up (1983-90). In 1986 she married the actor John Merivale, a former lover of Vivien Leigh. He died in 1990 and in 1992 she married the television producer Aubrey Ison, who died in 2007.

Dinah Mec (Dinah Sheridan), actress: born Hampstead, London 17 September 1920; married 1942 Jimmy Hanley (divorced 1953; one son, one daughter and one daughter deceased), 1954 John Davis (divorced 1963), 1986 John Merivale (died 1990), 1992 Aubrey Ison (died 2007); died Northwood, London 25 November 2012.

News
i100
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Financial Accountants, Cardiff, £250 p/day

£180 - £250 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountants - Key Banking...

Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

£200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Real Staffing - Leeds - £18k+

£18000 - £27000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Sales - Trainee Recruitment Co...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices