Jill Balcon: Actress of stage, screen and radio who married the former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis
Thursday 30 July 2009
Jill Balcon acted on stage, in films and on television, and she had a striking dark-haired glamour described by the poet Stephen Spender's wife, Natasha, as "like the sort of beautiful women you only see on a Greek vase". The sculptor Jacob Epstein asked if he could make a bronze sculpture of her head.
But it was on radio that she proved most effective, for she had an exquisitely modulated and darkly seductive voice that served beautifully her passion for poetry. She was known, too (to her occasional frustration), for the fame of her father (the film mogul Sir Michael Balcon, who co-founded Gainsborough Pictures and for over 20 years was production chief at Ealing Studios), her husband (the Irish poet Cecil Day-Lewis), her son (the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis), and the better known of her husband's mistresses. "It's very chastening," she said, "to be a footnote in so many people's lives."
When she met Cecil Day-Lewis, he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He was also a married man with a famous mistress (the novelist Rosamund Lehman), and Balcon's name made the front pages when she was cited as co-respondent in Day-Lewis' divorce.
Of Baltic-Jewish descent, she was born Jill Angela Henriette Balcon in 1925 in Westminster, London. She had an unsettled childhood, later describing her father as a remote man who rarely showed affection or approval. "I was very frightened of him at times," she said. "I wasn't beaten or anything, but I was frightened of his wrath." Her mother, a former amateur actress, encouraged her early enthusiasm for poetry and music, and her ambition to go on the stage.
She was educated at Roedean, the public school near Brighton, but left at the age of 16 to join the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, an act that met with strong disapproval from her father. After training, she spent a year entertaining the troops with ENSA, then auditioned for the BBC, her mellifluous voice winning her a position as a continuity announcer in 1944. After the war, she played in repertory, and she made her film debut in 1947 in the role of Madeline Bray, a young woman prepared to marry a tyrannical patriarch in order to save her ailing father, in Alberto Cavalcanti's Nicholas Nickleby. It was a role she was hesitant to accept because it was an Ealing production under the supervision of her father, and she did not want to be known as "the boss's daughter". She later stated that he never mentioned her performance.
She appeared with Jean Kent in the controversial film about delinquency Good-Time Girl (1948), sharing with the star a scene in which they fight tooth and claw in a reform school's dormitory, still an effective sequence despite cuts. "After Good-Time Girl was filmed, the censor got his hands on it and he was an absolute bastard!" recalled the film's writer, Muriel Box. "He objected to certain scenes in it, including the one where the girls in the home – Jean Kent and Jill Balcon – had a fight. Yet you couldn't have the horrid things that had to go into the film without showing what the girl's plight was."
Balcon was also featured in Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), The Lost People (1949) and the enjoyable comedy-thriller starring Margaret Lockwood, Highly Dangerous (1950), after which she was not seen on the cinema screen for over 40 years. She concentrated instead on the stage and radio, and later television, for which her prolific work ranged from The First Churchills (1969, as Abigail Hill) and Elizabeth R (1971, as Lady Cobham), to episodes of Z Cars, The Sweeney and the long-running soap opera General Hospital, in which she had a recurring role.
Balcon was only 12 years old when she first saw Cecil Day-Lewis, who had come to Roedean to judge the school's annual verse-speaking competition. He was, she said, the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Ten years later they met when appearing on a radio programme, Time for Verse, broadcast live on Sunday evenings, and when they met again the following year at the English Festival of Spoken Voice in London, Day-Lewis asked her to dinner.
They began their affair shortly after, Balcon later stating that Day-Lewis had "charm in the original sense of the word – a kind of magical magnetism". Despite their shared love of poetry and interest in left-wing politics and progressive causes, it was a relationship forged against the odds. Day-Lewis was over twenty years older than Balcon, had been married for over 20 years, and had a long-standing mistress, Lehman, with whom he had set up a second home in London. The tempestuous Lehman slapped his face at a publishers' party, and later described Balcon as a "fawning creature who unrolled herself like a spaniel at his feet."
Day-Lewis moved into Balcon's flat in Pimlico, stating that he had never known such peace, and though the affair caused a scandal, he managed to divorce his wife and discard his mistress, and he married Balcon in 1951. Her father attended neither the wedding (at Kensington Register Office) nor the reception, though he paid for the latter. Balcon was instead given away by Charles Tennyson, grandson of the Victorian poet. Afterwards, Balcon could see her mother only through secret meetings in Hyde Park, where they would chat in her mother's car.
Balcon and Day-Lewis had two children, Tamasin (now a noted writer on food) and Daniel, and the marriage endured, despite Day-Lewis' occasional infidelities, including an affair with Jill's close friend, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard (godmother to Tamasin). Though the two remained friends, in her autobiography Howard wrote, "Now I come to one of the worst things I have ever done...". Many years later Balcon admitted that, "It still haunts me... I'm so appalled, all these years on. I think, 'how could they?' I've not gone off with my best girl-friend's man. Ever."
Nevertheless, the marriage lasted until the death of Day-Lewis in 1972, four years after his appointment as Poet Laureate. "Cecil was dazzling," Balcon said as explanation. "He had colossal magnetism. He was beautiful to look at and tremendously funny. So I was prepared to go through any kind of hell." During their marriage, the couple gave hundreds of poetry readings, both in public and on the radio, performing the work of Day-Lewis and other poets they admired, including Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.
In 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebration, the BBC's Third Programme commissioned Day-Lewis to translate Virgil's Aeneid, in which Balcon was heard as Venus. The following year, Balcon was on stage under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie at the Old Vic as Zenocrate to Donald Wolfit's Tamburlaine in Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, and as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it was on radio that she most distinguished herself, both as an actress and as a reader of poetry. Shortly before her husband's death, they recorded a programme at their home with John Gielgud and Marius Goring for Day-Lewis' television series on poetry, A Lasting Joy. It was broadcast posthumously with great success. Later, Balcon found a new partner, the military historian Antony Brett-James, with whom she lived in a thatched cottage in Hampshire, where she remained after his death in 1984.
Balcon returned to films in 1991 when the director Derek Jarman cast her as Chorus of Nobility in Edward II, followed by the role of Leopoldine Wittgenstein, the philosopher's mother, in Jarman's Wittgenstein (1993). Her last screen appearance was in An Ideal Husband (1999), in which she played Lady Bracknell in a stage performance (within the film) of The Importance of Being Earnest. She was also in demand as a reader of audio books, and in 2003 she starred on Radio 3 in a specially commissioned play by Juliet Ace, Deadheading the Roses, that also featured her son, Daniel.
She never lost her passion for poetry or her desire to promote the form, and as self-proclaimed "keeper of the flame" she continued to promote the work of her husband, editing volumes of his poetry and touring with a one-woman show based on his work.
Jill Balcon, screen and stage actress: born London 3 January 1925; married 1951 Cecil Day-Lewis (died 1972, one son, one daughter); died 18 July 2009.
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