Mary Hayley Bell

Devoted wife of John Mills and author of 'Whistle Down the Wind'
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The Independent Online

Mary Hayley Bell, playwright, novelist and actress: born Shanghai, China 22 January 1911; married 1941 John Mills (Kt 1976, died 2005; one son, two daughters); died 1 December 2005.

For all their life of glamorous locations, movie-star friends, Hollywood hoop-la and grand houses, the 64-year marriage of the actor John Mills and the actress and writer Mary Hayley Bell was a relationship centred around home and family, an enduring - and very English - love-match, surviving all the vicissitudes of age until his death earlier this year.

Shortly after their marriage, Bell had abandoned her own acting career for writing; her play Duet for Two Hands (1945) became one of the great successes of post-war West End theatre and her novel Whistle Down the Wind (1958) was made into a film (starring their daughter Hayley Mills) and a stage musical.

John Mills and Mary Hayley Bell met first in 1930, when she was 19. Mills, then starting in the theatre, had joined a touring company known as the Quaints in 1929, travelling for over 15 months throughout the Far East (including a famous performance of Journey's End in Singapore when the visiting Noël Coward joined them to play Stanhope). In 1930 the Quaints played Tientsin and at a tennis party for the company given by Colonel Francis Hayley Bell, then Commissioner of Tientsin, Mills briefly met the colonel's daughter, Mary - "she was the ball-boy with flaming red hair".

As an army daughter, Mary Hayley Bell had already travelled widely. Her father was a multi-decorated veteran of both the Boer and First World Wars. He loved the East and continued as Commissioner of Tientsin until the Japanese/Chinese War when he and his family had to leave China.

Mills's career took off in the 1930s, assisted by Coward, who helped by casting him in C.B. Cochran's 1931 Revue and by 1938 he was something of a rising star, although unhappy in a difficult first marriage. As he was making an early exit alone from a party one night, he bumped into "a beautiful girl with red hair" stepping out of the lift and recognised Bell at once - "I offered to escort her down the corridor and back to the party."

Bell too had had a bad time in what Mills called "the love department". After China she had spent some time in Australia, often acting on radio, but a miserable love affair with an Australian had brought her to England to try a stage career. The affair between Bell and Mills blossomed quickly.

Just before the Second World War was declared, they had to go through the ritual of a faintly ludicrous "illicit weekend" - necessary to gain a divorce in those days. They were married in 1941, living at first in a flat in Old Barrack Yard, in Belgravia, the first of over 15 addresses over the years. Bell always created beautiful family homes, comfortable but unostentatious; the two most memorable, perhaps, were the Wick, a handsome Georgian house on Richmond Hill, and their last home, at Hills House, in the village of Denham, Buckinghamshire.

She abandoned her acting aspirations and remarkably quickly acquired a reputation as a writer, initially as a dramatist. Her first produced play was a tense war-time drama. Originally called To Stall the Grey Rat ("Good play, piss-poor title" was Coward's verdict on reading it), it opened as Men in Shadow at the Vaudeville in 1942, co-directed by Mills and Bernard Miles, with Mills also in the exacting role of Lew. It enjoyed good notices and a healthy run.

Even more successful was Duet For Two Hands at the Lyric in 1945, a suspense play full of carefully layered atmosphere set in a remote house on the Orkneys echoing to the seagulls' cries. Mills had another bravura role, full of emotional demands, as a maimed poet given the hands of a murderer in a surgical operation.

Bell never quite managed to repeat those successes. Angel, at the Strand in 1947, based on the Victorian Constance Kent murder case, was also strong on foggy, gas-lit atmosphere, but the plot became impossibly tangled in a second act which never satisfied audiences. And The Uninvited Guest (1953), structured round a man returning home from prison, did hefty business on the road but collapsed in the West End despite a cast headed by Mills (in a red wig) and Joan Greenwood. The Millses could never forget the notice which described him as "wandering about looking like a bewildered carrot".

However, Bell had considerable success in other fields. She wrote two light but surprisingly un-mawkish books about the Mills family dog (Far Morning, 1962, and Him, Her & Me, 1981). But the greatest acclaim came for her novel Whistle Down The Wind (1958), a beautifully shaped, sparely written book, economically but powerfully evoking the harsh landscape of the Lancashire farm into the barn of which an escaped convict flees. Discovered by the motherless children of the farm, the bearded fugitive is mistaken by them for Jesus. Enormously to her credit, Bell made this narrative pivot totally credible, and she also adroitly avoided over-stressed allegorical overtones.

The subsequent 1961 movie version (scripted by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall) was something of a friends and family affair, produced by Richard Attenborough, directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Hayley Mills. It was an international success and remains a fine film. Two musical adaptations of Whistle Down The Wind came along in the 1990s, the second of which, relocated to the American South, had music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The last major public appearance by the Mills family - including their son Jonathan and both actress-daughters Juliet and Hayley - was at the West End premiere of the show, at the Aldwych Theatre in 1998. On good form that night, Mary Hayley Bell enjoyed the success of the musical from the royal box. Her smile that evening seemed especially radiant, as it did, despite her Alzheimer's, on the occasion in 2001 when Mills arranged for their wedding vows to be renewed at a family ceremony in their local church at Denham.

Alan Strachan

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