Googie Withers: Actress who found success on stage and screen over nine decades

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The Independent Online

Marriage to the Australian actor-manager John McCallum often took Googie Withers on antipodean tours, especially in her middle years. Her career otherwise might have blazed even more strongly in the UK.

She was versatile from the start. A child of the Raj, born into an army family in Karachi (her name was a childhood diminutive of Georgette), her early theatrical leanings were nurtured at the Italia Conti School in London and at the Buddy Bradley School of Dancing. It was as a dancer she began, at the Victoria Palace in The Windmill Men (1929) followed by a spell in the chorus in Nice Going On (Strand, 1933).

An appearance at the tiny Gate Theatre in the revue This World of Ours (1935) attracted a good deal of notice, and gradually rewarding opportunities began to come her way.

JB Priestley's Utopian drama They Came to a City (Globe, 1943), an attempt to break away from the West End naturalism, was not a long-running hit but Withers' touching performance as Alice Foster marked her as a rising talent. For the next two years she performed for the troops at home and abroad, returning to the London stage and a success in replacing Kay Hammond as Noël Coward's capricious Amanda in a Private Lives revival (Apollo, 1945) – she and the film star Hugh Sinclair (replacing John Clements) were pronounced "both excellent" by Coward in his Diaries.

By way of contrast, her next major hit was a gruellingly demanding role opposite Michael Redgrave in Clifford Odets' Winter Journey (originally titled The Country Girl; St James's 1952) playing Georgie Elgin, the wife of a once-successful leading actor with alcohol problems who is trying for a Broadway comeback under an ambitious young director . Rehearsals with Sam Wanamaker (also playing the director) were exciting – Redgrave was happy to experiment and improvise and Withers, too, felt exhilarated by these then unusual working methods. Even when the two men fell out during the run, she was able to maintain the play's equilibrium; her scene with Redgrave when Elgin breaks down in his dressing-room was beautifully judged by both actors. She worked well with Redgrave again in the Broadway production of Graham Greene's The Complaisant Lover (Ethel Barrymore, New York, 1961).

With stardom in the West End and British movies – her films include the hospital drama White Corridors and It Always Rains on Sunday, which remains one of the most individual films of its period – Withers spent some time in the 1950s touring Australia (her husband managed the JC Williamson theatre group for some time) with London hits including The Deep Blue Sea (she had replaced Peggy Ashcroft as Rattigan's suicidal heroine in London previously).

Back in England she made her first excursion into the classics with a Stratford season (1958). Her performances included a sensual Gertrude opposite Michael Redgrave's Hamlet (she was nine years younger than her stage son), and they also had a good time together in a larky production of Much Ado About Nothing.

Eugene Ionesco took her to the Royal Court for George Devine's production of Exit the King (1963) as the Queen to Alec Guinness's Berenger and Eileen Atkins as a loyal skivvy. This was a rum evening, gamely acted by all three, but the main effect of watching Guinness's spectral intimation of mortality was to make one regret even more that he'd never played – as once was mooted – in Waiting for Godot.

After another Australian period, including a Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard (1967) for the Melbourne Theatre, she joined a starry revival of Shaw's extended matrimonial debate, Getting Married (Strand, 1967) as the mysterious Mrs George, rising formidably to the challenge of her long, ecstatic speech towards the close.

Her main British opportunities thereafter were at the Chichester Festival Theatre. She was an unlikely Judith in Coward's Hay Fever (1987), lacking the character's rampant self-delusion, but she was at her very best in a first-rate Peter Dews production of Maugham's The Circle (Chichester and Haymarket, 1976). Her Lady Kitty, with unconvincingly henna'd hair, rouge and her gallantly pathetic clinging to her youth, was both very funny and, especially in the crucial scene with her daughter-in-law, deeply touching. Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden (1982) did not sit too happily when removed from the protective cocoon of the proscenium arch; its aphorist, even mandarin, style seemed to wither on exposure to the tricky Chichester space. Withers, playing the imperious Mrs St Magham, had her best stints opposite Dorothy Tutin's beautifully restrained Miss Madrigal.

Later work included the compassionate prison governor in the long-running 1970s TV series Within These Walls. She was also impishly splendid as the blind, enigmatic Leda whose visit to her Irish cousins so disrupts the household in the TV version of Molly Keane's Time After Time with John Gielgud.

Well cast as the gorgon of snobbery, Lady Tylnley, in the premier of the Fanny Burney rediscovery of A Busy Day, she had bad luck rehearsing for the Bristol Old Vic production (1999) and was unable to transfer to the West End with the production the following year because of illness.

She returned to the West End, to her favourite Haymarket, in Peter Hall's starry revival of Lady Windermere's Fan (2002). It was an oddly uneasy production, although she was in a powerful cast including both daughter and granddaughter of her old stage partner in the shapes of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, as well as her own partner from a long and happy marriage, John McCallum, and it also suffered from a particularly edgy first night.

As the run progressed, however, Withers – opulently gowned as the Duchess of Berwick – settled into a stylishly impressive performance. Like some redoubtable dreadnought, sailing imperiously through society drawing-rooms and delivering her Wildean thrusts with assured aplomb and honey-coated malice, she gave a magnificent display of high-comedy style and technique.

Georgette Lizette (Googie) Withers, actress: born Karachi 12 March 1917; married 1948 John McCallum (died 2010; one son, two daughters); died Sydney 15 July 2011.

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