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Jean Kent: Actress

Gainsborough heroine whose roles encompassed scheming wenches, good time girls and repressed middle class wives

Jean Kent will be fondly remembered for the part she played in the success of the enormously popular Gainsborough melodramas of the Forties.     

She served a long apprenticeship, becoming a favourite of audiences for her supporting roles as scheming wenches in such films as 2,000 Women (1944), The Wicked Lady (1945) and Caravan (1946), until given her own starring vehicle, Good Time Girl, in 1948 and taking her place alongside such major names as Margaret Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert.

In 1949 she starred in a Technicolored musical, Trottie True, and had the challenging role of a woman seen from five totally different points of view in The Woman in Question.   Underrated as an actress, she was splendid as the frustrated teacher’s wife, Millie Crocker-Harris, in the screen version of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version (1951), but afterwards worked more on the stage and television than in films. 

An outgoing, frank and fearless lady, she was always good value, and buoyant company into her nineties. I last met her in 2003, when she launched The Encyclopaedia of British Film, and she declared herself ready to return to work “if only someone would ask.” Over lunch a few years earlier she stated that her chances of going to Hollywood were ruined by one of her colleagues, “a silly bitch who defied management by taking poor roles in the US, after which they would not let any of us go there.”

The daughter of music hall performers, she was born Joan Summerfield in Brixton, London, in 1921. Taught to dance by her parents, she made her theatrical debut at the Theatre Royal, Bath, in 1932, and spent over a year (1934-35) at London’s Windmill Theatre, first as a dancer then as a soubrette, lying about  her age and taking the name Jean Carr, though for her screen debut in The Rocks of Valpre (1935) she was billed as Jean Summerfield.   After more stage work in revues she was in Apple Sauce (1941) at the London Palladium with Max Miller and Vera Lynn when spotted by a talent scout and offered a contract by Gainsborough, returning to the screen (as Jean Kent) with small parts in the Tommy Handley vehicle, It’s That Man Again (1943), in which she was part of a vocal trio, and with Arthur Askey in Miss London Ltd (1943), for which Val Guest wrote a cameo for her as an encyclopaedia salesgirl.  

Director Anthony Asquith then gave her a major break when he cast her as the flashy, ambitious girlfriend of Calvert in Fanny By Gaslight (1944), which was followed by notable roles the same year in Champagne Charlie, 2,000 Women, set in an internment camp, in which she had a memorable physical fight with Nazi spy Betty Jardine, and Madonna of the Seven Moons, as gypsy Stewart Granger’s jealous mistress.  She played further “doxy” roles in Waterloo Road, The Rake’s Progress and The Wicked Lady (all 1945). “I always said,” she later commented, “that if they opened a script and saw, ‘a girl appears in camiknickers’, they used to send for me.”

She was the ill-fated gypsy wife of adventurer Stewart Granger in the florid Caravan (1946), and had one of her favourite roles as the spoilt sister of Googie Withers in The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947). In 1946 she married the Austrian Jusuf Hurst, an actor in Caravan, and they bought a farm. Kent was now one of Britain’s top 10 stars, and Good Time Girl (1948) confirmed her status, though it was held from release for nearly a year due to censorship problems (a framing sequence was shot to make the tale a more cautionary one).  

It was followed by leading roles in the brisk spy story Sleeping Car to Trieste and the portmanteau film Bond Street (both 1948). Kent then starred in her personal favourite film, Trottie True (1949), one of the few movies to employ her singing and dancing talents, in the tale of a Gaiety Girl who marries into the aristocracy.    Asquith’s The Woman in Question (1950), a Rashomon-like tale of a murder victim (Kent) seen in flashback through the eyes of five people who had disparate conceptions of her, was the opportunity for a tour de force. “Asquith told me, ‘I will be quite frank with you. We originally wanted Bette Davis.’ To do five different versions of one person is very tricky – to get enough difference and for each to be near enough to the others.:

After two weak comedies, Her Favourite Husband and The Reluctant Widow (both 1950), Kent gave one of her finest performances in Asquith’s version of the masterly Rattigan play, The Browning Version. She managed to invoke some sympathy for the vicious school-master’s wife, but her performance was to be her last as star of a major film. In later years, Kent blamed her portrayal of an older woman in the film for the lack of subsequent screen offers, but it is unlikely. The British cinema was changing, and both Lockwood and Calvert were turning to the stage and television, as did Kent, who returned to the theatre in Frou Frou (1951). Subsequent roles included the Queen in a revival of The Eagle Has Two Heads (1953), a 1954 tour of South Africa in The Deep Blue Sea and a featured role in the musical Marigold at the Savoy in 1959.  

Film roles included The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) with Marilyn Monroe (“Off-screen she was a totally insignificant little blonde, but on camera she was magic”), and she had her last prominent screen role in Please Turn Over (1960) with Leslie Phillips. She returned to the screen in 1976 for a small role in Shout at the Devil with Roger Moore. On television she was a feisty Queen Elizabeth in the series Sir Francis Drake (1961-62) starring Terrence Morgan, and guest appearances included Lovejoy. In 1979 she headed the cast of a successful production of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced,  and she made her last stage appearance in Monsieur Amilcar at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1995.

On her 90th birthday she attended a screening of Caravan at the National Film Theatre, receiving a standing ovation and signing hundreds of autographs. Her husband died in 1989; her death was the result of a fall at her home in the village of Westhorpe.

Joan Mildred Summerfield (Jean Kent), actress: born London 29 June 1921; married 1946 Jusuf Ramart (died 1989); died Bury St Edmunds 30 November 2013.