Margaretta Scott

Actress who excelled in imperious roles

Margaretta Mary Scott, actress: born London 13 February 1912; married 1948 John Wooldridge (died 1958; one son, one daughter); died London 15 April 2005.

With her dark beauty and rich voice, Margaretta Scott was marked out early in her career as a classical actress of rare distinction and a rising star of British cinema. Her work undoubtedly would have continued at a consistently high level had it not been for her insistence on the simultaneous importance of family life.

She was born in 1912 in London, the daughter of the music critic Hugh Arthur Scott. In 1948, she married the composer John Wooldridge (who during the Second World War was awarded the DFC and DFM and broke the world speed record flying across the Atlantic). Her own musical sense not only equipped her to perform regularly in such pieces as Honegger's Joan of Arc or Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf under conductors ranging from Henry Wood to Malcolm Sargent but also gave her work in Shakespeare, Shaw and Wilde such stylish distinction.

At Rada she was a contemporary of Celia Johnson (a lifelong friend) and in the 1930s she particularly impressed in Shakespearean performances. They included a touchingly young Ophelia to the Hamlets of two major actors, Henry Ainsley and Godfrey Tearle (Haymarket, 1931) and a much-praised, grave Viola in Twelfth Night (New, 1932). She played four 1930s seasons at the Open Air, Regent's Park, in roles as varied as Miranda in The Tempest, another Viola (to Jack Hawkins's Orsino), Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream and a sharply witty Celia in As You Like It.

Scott joined the Old Vic Company at a memorable stage when Tyrone Guthrie became director; she made a great impact in his famous 1936 Love's Labour's Lost as a sparkling Rosaline full of quicksilver raillery, opposite Michael Redgrave's Berowne. Work in the commercial theatre included a nervy aristocrat in Emlyn Williams's whodunit A Murder Has Been Arranged (St James's, 1930), impressingly contrasting performances as Mabel and Ruth in revivals of Galsworthy's Loyalties and Justice (Garrick, 1932) and Sidney Howard's Alien Corn (Wyndham's, 1939).

Her stage success was paralleled by a swift ascent in 1930s British movies, some of them inevitably less than masterpieces (including Herbert Wilcox's 1935 Peg of Old Drury with Anna Neagle, a Restoration farrago of dubious authenticity), but she was appealing as the ingénue in the film of Ben Travers's Dirty Work (1934) and especially fine in the Alexander Korda-produced Things to Come (1936) in a double role, even in a strong cast including Ralph Richardson and Raymond Massey. She also worked for leading directors such as Carol Reed - The Girl in the News (1940), with Margaret Lockwood - and Anthony Asquith - a lovely performance in the gentle family comedy Quiet Wedding (1941) and the somewhat blowsy period piece Fanny by Gaslight (1944) alongside the Gainsborough Pictures team of Phyllis Calvert, James Mason and Stewart Granger.

Later films rarely provided Scott with good opportunities although she had a strong role, tautly played, in the undervalued Town on Trial (1956) with John Mills. A low-ebb period in British cinema saw her appearances reduced to low-budget shockers (Crescendo, 1969) or sniggeringly lubricious "sex comedies" (the nadir of which was Percy, 1971). Her many television appearances included Catherine de Medici in Elizabeth R (1971), Lady Blenkiron in The Duchess of Duke Street (1976) and the highly strung Mrs Pumphrey, owner of the pampered Pekinese Tricki Woo (she claimed for him mystery afflictions including "flopbott" and "crackerdog") in All Creatures Great and Small (1978-90), the series based on James Herriot's veterinary stories.

An ability effortlessly to convince in aristocratic roles provided much of Scott's later stage work. She appeared in several Wilde productions, including a Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (Old Vic, 1980) of dreadnought command. West End productions included a distinct oddity, William Douglas-Home's Aunt Edwina (Fortune, 1958), with Scott as an aghast matron confronted by a sex change in the family, with the eponymous relative played by the great farceur Henry Kendall in drag (and later, when Kendall was ill, by the intrepid author). The Right Honourable Gentleman (Her Majesty's, 1963) was a moth-eaten piece of ersatz Victoriana based on the Charles Dilke scandal ("Yes - we slept together. In the same bed! All three of us!!" was one treasurable line) but so full-bloodedly played by Scott, Coral Browne, Anthony Quayle and Anna Massey that it became highly enjoyable.

The same could not be said of Mistress of No Vices (Piccadilly, 1973) with Rita Tushingham as St Bernadette and Scott valiantly battling in an underlit convent of Stygian gloom to make some impression amongst the host of wimples as a narrator figure. The Understanding (Strand, 1982) was a delicate play by Angela Huth cursed by ill-luck (Scott's old friend Celia Johnson, playing opposite Ralph Richardson, died on the tour) which sadly failed at the box office. She made a splendid return to Regent's Park as the wheelchair-bound dowager in Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon (1982); the valedictory appearance was as the imperious customer at the start of Hobson's Choice (Lyric, 1984) with Leo McKern.

Scott was deeply respected in her profession, for her boundlessly generous work for many theatrical charities as well as for her stage and film appearances. Her husband had died in an accident in 1958; her children Susan and Hugh Wooldridge followed her into the theatre.

Alan Strachan

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