Moira Lister

Actress often cast in glacial roles


Moira Lister, actress: born Cape Town, South Africa 6 August 1923; married 1951 Vicomte D'Orthez (died 1989; two daughters); died Cape Town 27 October 2007.

Moira Lister was an accomplished actress whose regal bearing found her often cast in patrician roles, though she also had a splendid sense of humour – she was a regular on the first radio series of Hancock's Half Hour – and a versatility that ranged from acclaimed performances in Shakespearean tragedy to her award-winning display of farcical expertise in Move Over, Mrs Markham.

She was an actress whose name evoked keen anticipation of a sharply etched, value-for-money performance, and as recently as 2002 she was still commanding the stage in a sterling revival of Maugham's The Constant Wife, as the mother aghast that her daughter should react with such stoicism to her husband's infidelity. Always elegant and meticulously groomed (it is fitting that she became the wife of a Vicomte) she disliked seeing theatre audiences in jeans and sandals, and with backpacks, feeling that it showed lack of respect for the performers.

The daughter of Major James Lister and his wife, Margaret, she was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1923, and educated at the Parktown Convent of the Holy Family, Johannesburg – later she was a member of the British Catholic Stage Guild. She was given acting lessons as a child, and made her début with the University Players of Johannesburg at the age of six, playing a Prince in The Vikings of Helgeland.

In 1936 she appeared in Johannesburg with Sir Seymour Hicks in Vintage Wine, and Hicks was so impressed that he invited her to appear with him in a proposed play in the UK. They arrived on the day of Edward VIII's abdication to find the play cancelled, but Lister made her London début, aged 14, in the play Post Road at Golders Green Hippodrome, before returning to South Africa to continue her education. Further plays in South Africa included When We Are Married and The Women, then in 1944 she returned to the UK, where she had a featured role on stage in The Shop at Sly Corner and had her first film role with a small part in The Shipbuilders (1944).

A highly successful season with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon in 1945 included acclaimed portrayals of Juliet, Desdemona, Olivia in Twelfth Night and Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer. In 1947 she starred opposite Noël Coward in Present Laughter at the Haymarket, and many years later she performed a one-woman show devoted to Coward. She made her Broadway début in 1948 in the farce Don't Listen Ladies!, returning to have a string of personal successes in Rattigan's French Without Tears (1949), the revue Sauce Piquante (1950) and Ustinov's The Love of Four Colonels (1951).

On screen she made an impression with her small role in the effective thriller Wanted for Murder (1946), playing a well-groomed secretary who titivates herself before going into her boss's office to take shorthand, flirting with him unaware that he is, in fact, a notorious strangler sought by Scotland Yard. More typically glacial roles were those of a gold-digger out to fleece a naïve Welsh miner spending a weekend in London in A Run for Your Money (1950), and a shrewish wife who meets a violent end in Grand National Night (1953 – the film's US title was The Wicked Wife). Other notable films included Pool of London (1950), White Corridors (1951), Trouble in Store (1953), The Cruel Sea (1953), in which she was the wife of a sailor (Denholm Elliott), Abandon Ship (1956) with Tyrone Power, and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1965) with Rex Harrison.

In 1956 she was part of the splendid company formed by John Gielgud for a season at the Palace Theatre in London that included King Lear (in which she was a memorably forceful Regan) and Much Ado About Nothing (as Margaret). She compiled the first of several one-woman shows, People in Love, in 1958, touring Australia and South Africa, then starred in London in the hit black comedy The Gazebo (1960), which showcased her superb comic timing and flair for madcap farce (Debbie Reynolds played her role in the film version).

Other comedies in which she excelled included Any Wednesday (1965), Getting Married (1967) and notably the hilarious production of Ray Cooney's farce Move Over, Mrs Markham (1971), for which she won the Variety Club of Great Britain's Silver Heart Award as Best Stage Actress of 1971.

Her distinctive, husky voice made Lister a radio stalwart in such series as Simon and Laura and A Life of Bliss, and in South Africa her radio roles included the leading parts in Rain, The Deep Blue Sea (she had earlier played a supporting role in the film version) and The Millionairess. On television, she was a sparkling critic of record releases in Juke Box Jury, and she was a guest on such shows as Danger Man, Call My Bluff and The Avengers.

For three years, 1967-69, she starred in her own series, A Very Merry Widow. In 1971 she was the subject of This Is Your Life, and her autobiography, A Very Merry Moira, was published in 1969. She married the Vicomte d'Orthez, a French officer, in 1951 and the marriage, described by their daughter Chantal as a devoted relationship, lasted until his death in 1989. They had two daughters, Chantal and Christobel.

Lister was performing until three years ago, touring with her highly successful one-woman show about Noël Coward, and she was recently given the Naledi Award, a lifetime achievement award for her services to the theatre in South Africa.

Tom Vallance

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