Eleanor Summerfield

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The Independent Online

Eleanor Summerfield, actress: born London 7 March 1921; married 1947 Leonard Sachs (died 1990; two sons); died London 13 July 2001.

With her wide eyes, expressive features, blonde hair and bright personality, Eleanor Summerfield brought sparkle and vivacity to the films and shows in which she appeared. Though not a major star – her greatest personal triumphs were in theatre productions that were not big hits – she became a familiar and welcome figure in British films (she made over 40) and for many years radio listeners enjoyed her repartee and quick wit on the programme Many a Slip.

Born in London in 1921, she trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she was a gold medallist. She made her screen début with a small but telling scene in the fine thriller Take My Life (1947), in which an opera singer trying to clear her husband of a murder charge interviews the victim's best friend (Summerfield) who relates, "She was such a funny girl – kept herself to herself." She had a more substantial role (and her first screen billing) in London Belongs to Me (1948), as Myrna, a fairground worker whose voracious pursuit of a young garage mechanic (Richard Attenborough) leads to her accidental death.

The following year she had her first leading role, as the faithful girlfriend of a former boxer drawn into crime in the "B" thriller No Way Back, but her niche in films was generally in supporting roles, such as her secretary to a novelist (Alastair Sim) in the classic comedy Laughter in Paradise (1951).

Summerfield had more substantial roles in the theatre, and in 1950 scored a notable personal triumph at the Adelphi in the South African musical Golden City with book, music and lyrics by John Toré. As Mabel, a saloon owner in Cape Town in 1886, she stopped the show when, sitting on a packing case, she delivered her lovelorn lament, "What More is There to Say?", and later led the chorus girls in the lively "Gold-Digging Diggers".

Her musical skills were not alas utilised by the cinema, but on stage she would regularly perform at the Victorian music hall the Players, and in 1959 she starred with Dickie Henderson and June Laverick in another stage musical When in Rome (also at the Adelphi Theatre), though its run was brief.

On screen Summerfield was part of a strong cast (including Diana Dors, Raymond Huntley and Peter Reynolds) supporting the fading American stars George Brent and Marguerite Chapman in the thriller The Last Page (1952) and she had a moving cameo as a WRAC deserter who rescues a child from drowning in the saga of policewomen's work Street Corner (1953).

The actress was in her element as an eager reporter's assistant, always trying to beat her boyfriend to a scoop, in Final Assignment (1954). It was the sort of role for which she had a particular flair (Hollywood stars such as Glenda Farrell had made notable careers out of such parts), but the film was not a very good one. Subsequent films included It's Great To Be Young (1956), Dentist in the Chair (1960), The Millionairess (1960), The Running Man (1963) and, her last, Watcher in the Woods (1981).

Summerfield first displayed her skill as a radio wit when she took part in the panel game Many a Slip in 1964. Devised by Ian Messiter, it required its competing teams to spot the errors in a script being rattled off by the chairman, Roy Plomley. Summerfield and (Lady) Isobel Barnett comprised one team, their opponents being Richard Murdoch and Lance Percival. The actress was to be a regular on the programme for some years, and in 1968 she took part in an edition of another Messiter panel show, Just a Minute, joining Clement Freud, Andrée Melly and Derek Nimmo in trying to speak for one minute on a given subject without hesitation, repetition or deviation.

She also appeared consistently on television. In the series The World of Wooster (1956-57), she and Fabia Drake memorably brought to life P.G. Wodehouse's formidable creations Bertie Wooster's aunts Dahlia and Agatha, and other shows in which she acted included Midsomer Murders and Casualty. In 1995 she gave a hilarious performance in the Channel 4 series Jake's Progress, driving her fellow card player Grace Halliwell (Dorothy Tutin) to distraction with her inability to comprehend the rules of whist.

On stage she was in a distinguished production of Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced (1977) with Dulcie Gray as Miss Marple, and as recently as 1991 she co-starred with Joe McGann in Gillian Plowman's Crooked Wood, an adaptation of a Michael Palin screenplay, at the King's Head in Islington.

In 1947, while appearing at the Players Theatre, Summerfield met and married the music hall's founder and chairman, Leonard Sachs. They had two sons and their marriage lasted until Sachs's death in 1990.

Tom Vallance

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