OBITUARY : Margaret Vines

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Margaret Vines was an actress to whom the critic James Agate was "not prepared to deny the possibility of greatness". He called her "our shyest, most timorous neophyte" and she played one highly praised West End leading role after another in the 1920s and 1930s. A slim, wistful brunette with an engaging line and feyness, she was on the stage for 40 years; but was the first to admit that she neglected her theatrical career for the sake of the men in her life.

In an age in which great acting of the kind dispensed by Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry was still in living memory, Vines stood out not just for her looks and theatrical technique but as an actress of the highest potential.

For Agate she provided in a play called Take Two From One (Haymarket Theatre, 1931) "a short 10 minutes of unearthly radiance which took the shine out of everybody else". When he saw her again the following season in Rudolph of Austria (Arts Theatre), "she had not been on the stage five minutes before one realised that here, if she puts herself into the proper hands, is the next Viola, Cordelia, Desdemona and the whole category of faithful hearts".

Did the actress then start looking for someone to steer her career into the highest classical places? She did not. She never gave it a thought. "I'm afraid I was a complete flapper," she confessed years later. "There I was having a big success and all these wonderful parts and it never occurred to me that it would ever be any different. I was young for my age and green, and very, very fey." Having become a West End star in her twenties she "didn't realise that on the stage you've got to keep an eye to the main chance, take note of all the little jealousies and rivalries and be madly ambitious all the time".

Instead she just enjoyed herself. She married, had a daughter, ran away with another man, was divorced, had a son, and one day after the Second World War found herself facing life alone with children and a sick mother to care for. "No career, no job, no money and no man," as she put it. "And it was all my own fault," she said in 1956, when she was interviewed as a pre-war wonder who had ended up in a shop selling women's clothes and just made what she hoped was a come-back; though by then she had married for a second time.

"The shop was awful but I had to live and that was all I could find. Then a friend found me a job in a small antiques shop in Hampstead. It was very cosy and genial and I loved it and I might have gone on doing it," had her first major role for years not been offered in 1956. This was a shrivelled and inhibited spinster in Paul Osborn's Morning's At Seven (Comedy and Westminster, 1956). As this "unquiet and revengeful spirit pent up in a thin parcel of nervous fidgets" (as one senior critic put it), Vines won the Clarence Derwent Award for the best West End supporting actress of the year.

Vines was born in Portuguese East Africa in 1907, trained for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and first appeared in London at the Brixton Theatre in 1926. Between understudying Elissa Landi in The Constant Nymph and Peggy Ashcroft as Naomi in Jew Suss (Duke of York's, 1929), Vines acted in repertory at Hull and Birmingham.

Returning to the West End - and Agate's acclaim in 1931 - she found herself accused of mumbling. "It may be that Miss Vines is not a great player in embryo," thundered the critic. "At the same time she is one of the only two novices now claiming attention - the other is a youth - to whom I am not prepared to deny the possibility of greatness."

In the Kaufman-Ferber comedy Dinner at Eight (Palace Theatre, 1933), in which she made her Broadway debut before staying on in New York as Anne of Bohemia in Gordon Daviot's Richard of Bordeaux, she gave the part of Paula Jordan what Agate called

a pathos which would have been unbearable if she had not also invested her with a pinched enunciation that was intolerable. Miss Vines must at once set about to remedy this, since the fault is so excruciating as to threaten her whole career.

Vines evidently obeyed. She was "enormously improved" as the grand-daughter in Noel Coward's production of the next Kaufman-Ferber comedy, Theatre Royal (Lyric Theatre, 1934), with Marie Tempest and Laurence Olivier as other members of a famous American acting family (based on the Barrymores). The play may have rung personal bells for Vines, with its satire on the private lives of famous players who, "like fairies" as another critic put it, "are subject to laws, discipline and traditions which are as strong as those in the mortal workaday world, but different: and like fairies court disaster when they marry mortals".

The reference books are silent about her between 1934 and 1938, when she turned up in Shakespeare at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London. Her Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Marina in Pericles were both outstanding; but during the Second World War she did not act all, "not even for Ensa".

"I suppose it was my own fault that I faded right out of the theatre. For one thing I was too busy looking after my small son in the country." Apart from a 1945 season for Alec Clunes's Arts Theatre company in which her Lady Teazle triumphed with "the innocent glee of a mischievous schoolgirl" and a season at Pitlochry Theatre Festival in 1960, Vines found it "impossible to get back. Managers seemed to have forgotten me completely." She joined the BBC drama repertory company. There were occasional try-outs and television plays such as Ibsen's Pillars of Society and the series Emergency Ward Ten and film parts. She finally retired from the stage in the 1960s.

Margaret Vines, actress: born 16 January 1907; married 1927 Edward Loftus- Tottenham (one daughter; marriage dissolved; one son by Basil Sydney), second Denis Goacher (marriage dissolved); died East Grinstead, Sussex 1 March 1997.