Kathleen Byron: Actress who played Sister Ruth in 'Black Narcissus'
Tuesday 20 January 2009
Few actresses are so identified with one role as Kathleen Byron, who will always be remembered foremost as the passionate, wildly neurotic nun Ruth in the Powell-Pressburger masterpiece, Black Narcissus (1947). Driven mad with repression and her hopeless love for the District Commissioner (David Farrar) in a remote Himalayan convent, she piles on the lipstick and puts on a clinging red dress before trying to push Deborah Kerr to her death from the convent's bell-tower. Such displays of eroticism were rare in British films, and the effectiveness of the scene, and Byron's performance, gave her a reputation as one of the screen's great bad ladies.
Later she memorably menaced Margaret Lockwood (herself no slouch at being wicked) in Madness of the Heart (1949), but her versatility was recognised by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who cast her as a young schoolteacher in occupied Holland undermining the enemy by telling her pupils of the 1628 resistance hero Piet Hein, in The Silver Fleet (1943), as an angel in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and notably in The Small Back Room (1948), in which, as the understanding sweetheart of an alcoholic bomb-disposal expert (Farrar again), she displayed qualities of devotion and intelligence that were every bit as convincing as her malevolent nun.
She was at her best, though, when formidably resilient and strong-willed, such as in her role as the manipulative Italian promoter of a boy prodigy conductor (Jeremy Spencer) in Prelude to Fame (1950). She displayed such traits frequently in British "B" films of the Fifties, such as My Death Is a Mockery (1952), in which she was a smuggler's wife, and her prolific career also embraced television and stage (including a spell in the long-running Agatha Christie mystery The Mousetrap). Admiration for her work prompted Steven Spielberg, a Powell-Pressburger enthusiast, to cast her as the mother of the missing soldier Ryan in his ambitious war movie, Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Born in London in 1922, to parents her daughter described as "staunch working-class socialists" who later became Mayors of East Ham, she turned down her place to read languages at London University when she won an acting scholarship to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. She made her screen debut with an uncredited bit part as a model in Climbing High (1938), starring Jessie Matthews, but had her first speaking role (two lines, as a maid) in Carol Reed's The Young Mr Pitt (1942). She told the historian Brian McFarlane, "While still at drama school, I came up to London to find an agent, and I met John Gliddon, who was Deborah Kerr's agent, and he sent me to the people who were doing The Young Mr Pitt. They gave me a part and after that I used to go around saying, 'I had two lines opposite Robert Donat.' I did very little after that because of the war and I was working for Censorship."
Byron appeared in several wartime shorts for the Crown Film Unit, and in 1943 she played her first substantial film role in The Silver Fleet, the first of her four consecutive films for Powell and Pressburger. She played the angel in A Matter of Life and Death (Powell later described her role as "enchantingly grave"), the neurotic nun in Black Narcissus, and then the heroine of The Small Back Room.
"When I was offered Black Narcissus, Michael Powell sent me a telegram saying, 'We're offering you the part of Sister Ruth; the trouble is, you'll never get such a good part again!' He was more or less right." Though Byron was rumoured to have had an affair with Powell, she found him a tough director. "He used to put people down and upset them. Looking back at the way he directed, I realise that he was determined to get something from you and didn't mind how he did it. At the time, I always used to fight with him. He wanted me to overstate the madness of Sister Ruth, and I used to argue with him that the character didn't know she was mad... Deborah Kerr used to whisper to me, 'Don't argue with him, just say, 'Oh, what a marvellous idea' and then do exactly what you want to do.'"
Byron enjoyed the contrasting role given her in The Small Back Room.
"I enjoyed playing that un-neurotic character because she had a nice lot of strength. I nearly lost the part because of censorship – you couldn't have two people living together, and that was the whole thrust of the story, that he wouldn't marry her because he was not happy with himself."
Byron enhanced her shrewish reputation on screen with Madness of the Heart, in which she was pathologically jealous of Margaret Lockwood, a blind girl who has won the heart of the rich Frenchman (Paul Dupuis) at whom Byron had set her cap. When Lockwood carefully checks the position of her wine glass on the piano beside which she makes a toast to her ball guests, Byron slyly moves it so that Lockwood will knock it over and lose her confidence. In a splendid climactic sequence she leads Lockwood to a non-existent door of a chateau (actually an opening through which there is a sheer drop to the cliffs below) unaware that Lockwood has had an operation to restore her sight. "So you can see," she hisses.
A less than cordial off-set relationship with Lockwood possibly added to the effectiveness of such scenes, but her convincing villainy had its drawbacks – she later claimed that two trips to Hollywood resulted in only one role (in Young Bess) because she was perceived as an actress specialising in neurotic monsters. But she was a delightfully feisty Duchess of Devonshire in I'll Never Forget You (1951, made in the UK, where it was titled The House on the Square), a time-travel romance in which Tyrone Power's atomic physicist is transported to the 18th century and falls in love with Ann Blyth. She was also effective as a university professor's daughter whose latent passions are aroused by a sadistic killer (Laurence Harvey) in The Scarlet Thread (1951), one of several "B" movies in which she starred.
When such product began to be phased out in the Sixties, Byron became a familiar figure on television, her many appearances including roles in Emergency Ward 10, Danger Man, The Avengers, Callan, Secret Army (two episodes, as Madame Celeste Lekeu), Emmerdale Farm and Midsomer Murders. When she played a murder suspect in the show Crown Court, in which a panel had to bring in a "live" verdict, her reputation was such that the jury decided before hearing any evidence that she did it.
Her final screen role was that of old Mrs Ryan in Saving Private Ryan, and her last television role was in Stephen Poliakoff's Perfect Strangers (2001), after which ill-health forced her to turn down the role of Lauren Bacall's sister in Lars Von Trier's Dogville.
Kathleen Byron, actress: born London 11 January 1921; married 1943 Daniel Bowen (marriage dissolved), 1953 Alaric Jacob (died 1995; one son, one daughter, one stepdaughter); died Northwood, Middlesex 18 January 2009.
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