Judy Campbell - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Judy Campbell

Actress of glamour and longevity

Tall, with her elegant carriage and swan-like neck and voice of smoky allure, Judy Campbell epitomised much of the glamour of a sleek West End between the wars and into the following decades.

Judy Mary Gamble (Judy Campbell), actress: born Grantham, Lincolnshire 31 May 1916; married 1943 Lt-Cdr David Birkin (died 1991; one son, two daughters); died London 6 June 2004.

Tall, with her elegant carriage and swan-like neck and voice of smoky allure, Judy Campbell epitomised much of the glamour of a sleek West End between the wars and into the following decades. Most famous for her haunting rendition of Eric Maschwitz's standard "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" (which she introduced in a wartime revue) and for her association with Noël Coward, this witty and intelligent actress was equally successful in Shaw, O'Neill and Arthur Miller.

Campbell seemed destined for a stage career. She was born Judy Gamble, in 1916, into a theatrical family: her mother was briefly a Gaiety Girl and her father, J.A. Campbell, as he styled himself, was an actor-dramatist (his daughter too subsequently took occasionally to the typewriter) who for several years successfully ran the Theatre Royal in Grantham. It was there that she made her professional début, aged 19 in the high comedy (a field in which she always shone) of Frederick Lonsdale's The Last of Mrs Cheyney (1935).

It was often later assumed that she was catapulted to instant early West End success, but in fact Campbell served a rigorous apprenticeship in the repertory-theatre world so flourishing in the 1930s (Liverpool and Coventry as well as a demanding Cambridge season of Shakespeare and Shaw) before some less than dazzling London opportunities.

Campbell's big break came, as she liked to explain, by accident. When she was cast in the revue New Faces (Comedy, 1940), originally her solo spot was planned, somewhat vaguely, to be a monologue written by Dorothy Parker. This failed to arrive as scheduled and so at such short notice she had little time to be nervous of her unplanned musical début when performing the substituted "A Nightingale Sang", standing quite still in a foamy white dress in a single spotlight; her intimate, almost sprechgesang, delivery captivated wartime audiences for the show's long run.

One of those entranced was Noël Coward, also a dab hand at making the most of a number with limited vocal resources ("It takes talent," he said to Campbell, "to put over a song when you haven't got a voice"). In 1942-43 she created the contrasted roles of the ambitious vamp Joanna in his Present Laughter and the dolefully adenoidal Ethel in his family chronicle This Happy Breed on tour and subsequently at the Haymarket.

Well aware that despite his fondness for many of his leading ladies Coward was not interested in women "in that way", as he put it, Campbell was understandably startled when, during their love scene in Present Laughter on tour one night in a particularly freezing wartime theatre, she felt her co-star's hands slip inside her dress to cup her breasts. Any thoughts of leading Coward into new paths of dalliance were dispelled when he subsequently apologised, explaining that his hands had been so cold it was the only way he could think of to warm them.

After a string of mostly lacklustre West End roles, usually in forgettable comedies - with the striking exceptions of her feisty Mirandolina in a version of Goldoni's La Locandiera (Arts, 1944) or her mischievously glinting Elvira (replacing Kay Hammond) in Coward's Blithe Spirit (Duchess, 1943) - it was Coward who provided Campbell's next rewarding role. The Hollywood star Miranda Frayle, prospective fiancée of an earl in Relative Values (Savoy, 1951) may have been another "outsider" role, a variation of Present Laughter's Joanna, but, cleverly seizing on the character's fictionalisation of her origins, Campbell was hilarious in her progressively outrageously embroidered picture of an upbringing as a cockney guttersnipe.

By now happily married to a distinguished naval lieutenant-commander (who later took up farming) and settled in Chelsea with a young family, Campbell was content to put her career somewhat on the back burner. She returned on occasion to the theatre, most rewardingly in the frivol of Book of the Month (Cambridge, 1954) or as the daffy mother coping with the problems of "The Season" in William Douglas-Home's The Reluctant Debutante (Cambridge, 1956), in which she replaced Celia Johnson.

Later she chose work which could give her more stretching roles than most of her West End career had provided. She was in captivatingly imperious form as Hesione Hushabye in a first-rate Oxford Playhouse revival of Heartbreak House (also Wyndham's, 1961) and, with immense good spirits, she survived to make considerable impact amid the utterly misguided first London production of an Alan Ayckbourn play as the dotty Lady Slingsby-Craddock in Mr Whatnot (Arts, 1964). Another Shaw saw her as a fine, redoubtable Mrs Clandon opposite Sir Ralph Richardson's William in You Never Can Tell (Haymarket, 1964), while a return to the adventurous arena of the Arts gave her an unusual chance to take on a huge, meaty role as Christine in the Eugene O'Neill epic reworking of the House of Atreus in Mourning Becomes Electra (1967).

Ayckbourn's first West End success, Relatively Speaking (Duke of York's, 1967), had an ideal role for Campbell (again taking over from Celia Johnson) as Sheila, the seemingly scatty, abstracted Home Counties wife in a household with more than one secret. She was also wonderfully cast as the Venus-flytrap hothouse bloom of Judith Bliss, the monstre sacrée actress-mother in Coward's Hay Fever (Cambridge Theatre Company, 1971), swooping on prospective suitors and weekend guests alike with cascading theatrical panache. A return to the Oxford Playhouse surprised many when she gave a moving, touchingly and truthfully detailed performance as Linda Loman in Miller's Death of a Salesman (1975).

Campbell continued to work regularly through the 1980s and 1990s. Her Chichester appearances were, sadly, in mediocre productions although her regal Grand Duchess, dripping with velvets and jewels in Peter Rice's sumptuous costumes (Campbell wore period costumes with particular flair), in Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince (1983) opposite a subdued Omar Sharif had a welcome comedic edge. Never one to demand the trappings of stardom, she was quite happy to share the communal dressing-room with its single, less-than-inviting lavatory at the King's Head in Islington for a fringe revival of Vivian Ellis's Bless the Bride (1999), in which she sang (or, rather, half-talked and half-sang) "This is My Lovely Day".

At the age of 85 Campbell made her National Theatre début as Grandmère, a compellingly spectral, lace-gowned presence in Harold Pinter's version of Proust as Remembrance of Things Past (2001). She was still driving, somewhat alarmingly, if less so than her close friend and Chelsea neighbour Constance Cummings who gave up the wheel slightly earlier; to their families' relief most of their regularly intrepid theatre visits in their later years were on the no 19 bus. And in 2003 she made a final stage appearance (having recently finished work on the remake of The Forsyte Saga for television), accompanied by the pianist Stefan Bednarczyk, in a compilation named (after a Coward song) Where Are the Songs We Sung? (Jermyn Street Theatre, 2003). Inevitably its highlight, sung still in her inimitable voice, its distinctive timbre only slightly touched by the years, was "A Nightingale Sang".

During her best years, a time when British cinema provided few interesting chances for women, films rarely gave Campbell worthwhile roles. Often cast in pallid "love-interest" parts - Clementine Walkinshaw in the garish Technicolor Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) was especially dim - she sparkled whenever possible, most enjoyably perhaps in the black comedy Green for Danger (1946). She also had a supporting but sharply telling part opposite Peter Sellers in There's a Girl in My Soup (1970).

On television Campbell played countless grandes dames or dowagers, regularly guesting on such series as Bergerac or Inspector Morse. She had some rich roles in later years; she was memorable as Saki's basilisk Aunt Augusta in a version of Shredni Vashtar (1981), in icily imperious control as Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1985) and, in perhaps her most popular small-screen part, a redoubtable Dowager Duchess of Broughton in the BBC series Nanny (1982-83).

A woman of stylish verve, self-deprecating humour and charismatic charm, Campbell was devoted to her husband and family. She remained immensely proud of the achievements of her children, including the actress-singer Jane Birkin and the film-maker and writer Andrew Birkin, and grandchildren, including the actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon. Jane's colourful life and her success with Serge Gainsbourg on " Je t'aime . . . moi non plus", a song sensation worlds away from "A Nightingale Sang", fazed her not at all; she used to describe the family as "like the Redgraves, except we all have different names".

Alan Strachan

Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig is believed to be donning skies as 007 for the first time
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
News
i100
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Programme Test Manager

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Full time German Supply Teacher...

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week