Jennifer Hilary: Actress who found early success in the West End and on Broadway

Beauty, it can transpire, may be a decidedly mixed blessing for an actress. Jennifer Hilary was strikingly beautiful, blonde and luminous when young – Milly Theale, the trustingly innocent American heiress fluttering her dying wings in the cage of her Venetian palazzo in Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, was a role perfectly suited to her ethereal quality – but after a crowded early career which saw her play in her twenties a series of leading roles in the West End and on Broadway, her career became less busy with the testing parts which her talent deserved.

Hilary's gracefulness was to some extent moulded by her education at Elmhurst Ballet, School near her Surrey home (born in Frimley, Hilary spent some early childhood years in Cairo, where her father worked in the aircraft industry). Switching her ambitions to the theatre after growing too tall for a viable ballet career, she was an outstanding student at Rada, where she won the Bancroft Gold Medal in 1961.

Various repertory companies wooed her immediately following graduation; Hilary chose Liverpool Playhouse, then enjoying a vintage period, and she had a rewarding run of challenging roles including a tremulous Nina, with a crucial hint of the steel that might be her salvation, in The Seagull, Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal and Cicely, in her hands a young English rosebud (not without some thorns), in The Importance of Being Earnest (all 1961).

Subsequently, at another leading regional theatre of the time, Birmingham Rep, she played Miranda in The Tempest, the icily virtuous Lucile in Giraudoux's Duel of Angels and a Cressida tumbling into a troubled sensuality in Troilus and Cressida (all 1962).

This work led to her Broadway début in a high-gloss cast led by Coral Browne and Keith Michell in Jean Anouilh's The Rehearsal (Royale, New York, 1963) in which she made a considerable impact with her enforced pathos as the virginal but poor governess Lucile, casually seduced by an aristocrat.

Equally impressive was the West End début in Christopher Taylor's sensitive version of The Wings of the Dove (Haymarket, 1964) in which, replacing Susannah York, she gave a deeply affecting performance as the exploited heroine, delicate and blanched in her white dress. This Milly beautifully evoked James's sacrificial dove.

The leading producer Michael Codron was sure enough of Hilary's talent to risk casting her in the demanding leading role of a new West End play, James Saunders's A Scent of Flowers (Duke of York's, 1964) alongside a cast of West End-established co-stars, including Phyllis Calvert, and other new talent, such as Ian McKellen as Hilary's brother. The play traced, posthumously, the events leading to a young woman's suicide. As Zoe, wistfully watching her own funeral, against Timothy O'Brien's trailblazing setting of abstract, soaring steel structures, Hilary sailed over the many hurdles of an emotionally challenging role.

Sir Michael Redgrave included Hilary as part of the stellar cast for the opening production of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Turgenev's A Month in the Country (Guildford, 1965). Ingrid Bergman played Natalya, the bored wife of a country estate, with Redgrave, also directing a favourite play, playing Rakitin the family friend, and Hilary as the young ward, Vera, with whom the household's handsome tutor falls in love, much to Natalya's displeasure. The great jealousy scene, switching like a rollercoaster between comedy and pathos, was handled with acute perception by both actresses.

Hilary could not be part of the production's West End transfer, having committed previously to play the wife, Sasha, in Chekhov's Ivanov on Broadway (Shubert, New York, 1966) although Sir John Gielgud's production (he also played a somewhat mature Ivanov) failed to repeat its London success.

But back in the West End, Hilary found herself in a copper-bottomed hit, as the duplicitous and ditsy 1960s dolly-bird Ginny in Alan Ayckbourn's first major success Relatively Speaking (Duke of York's, 1967). She and the young Richard Briers made a delightful and charming pairing. Their adroit comedy playing cleverly disguised the mainly expository function of their long first duologue; and they went on to hold their own opposite the star wattage of Celia Johnson and Michael Hordern as the elder couple.

Returning to New York, Hilary starred in Samuel Taylor's featherweight romantic comedy Avanti! (Booth, New York, 1968) playing Alison, a young Englishwoman in Italy who becomes involved with a handsome but suspect local charmer.

A sharp, often bilious, family comedy, Dennis Cannan's Dear Daddy (Ambassador's, 1976) saw Hilary return to London opposite Nigel Patrick (who had directed her in Relatively Speaking) as the paterfamilias. An appearance in J.B. Priestley's time-play, I Have Been Here Before at the Old Vic, was hampered by a flat-footed production, but she had better luck in an astringent comedy by Dennis Potter, Sufficient Carbohydrate (Hampstead and Albery, 1983).

As she matured, Hilary found rewarding roles often thinner on the ground, although the director/designer Philip Prowse, who always knew style when he saw it, astutely cast her in two Oscar Wilde ventures, as Mrs Alloby in A Woman of No importance (RSC, Barbican) and as the Duchess of Berwick in Lady Windermere's Fan (Albery).

Prowse also gave Hilary the opportunity for one of her most impressive performances, as the matriarch of the Marryot family, moving through the years from the late Victoria era to the end of the 1920s, in his 1999 reappraisal of Noël Coward's Cavalcade for the Citizens' Theatre Company in Glasgow. Despite the lack of crowds for the big set-pieces, Hilary's silent, shell-shocked scene on Armistice night was especially remarkable, with a raw, visceral power which mesmerised the house.

Hilary worked extensively in television, appearing in plays (Michael Frayn's Alphabetical Order among them) and with featured roles in many major series including Pie in the Sky and Midsomer Murders. Films included Peter Glenville's pedestrian Becket (1964) and Anthony Mann's action movie of the Norwegian resistance The Heroes of Telemark (1965), to which her slightly Nordic looks were well suited.

In her later years, between acting jobs, Hilary enterprisingly developed a flourishing second career as a specialist flower arranger. She was commissioned regularly to devise striking arrangements for first nights and other landmark occasions. Particularly memorable was her work for the memorial service held for the actor Michael Williams in 2001, when she transformed the porch pillars and the interior of St Paul's, Covent Garden, to evoke the glorious garden of the country home of Williams and his wife Judi Dench.

Alan Strachan

Jennifer Mary Hilary, actress: born Frimley, Surrey 14 December 1942; died London 6 August 2008.

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