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.

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