Olga Lowe: Actress equally at home in variety or serious drama

 

One of an influx of South African talent into the postwar British theatre, Olga Lowe always remained somehow exotic, where her incoming contemporaries adapted themselves to differing rungs on the British class ladder.

Her career was nothing if not diverse; variety with Jessie Matthews and touring in musicals with Jess Conrad (As Long As They're Happy, 1964) in the 1960s, then three decades later, being directed by Kenneth Branagh in Uncle Vanya (Hammersmith, 1991), and being one of the Peter Hall Company at the Old Vic in 1997.

She was of Russian-Jewish ancestry, with striking black hair and often shadowed eyes; her father had been leader of the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. She maintained that she had been a teenage dancer for Carmen Miranda, and that in dance classes a classmate had been Zoe Gail, who would also find success in musical comedy in Britain.

In 1940 she auditioned for Hoopla, a charity show for which she was coached in tap dancing by Sid James, years before his comedy stardom. Following the outbreak of the Second World War Lowe fetched up in the Union Defence Force Entertainment Unit, where James was a sergeant, and assisted him in choreographing and producing shows. By the most unfortunate of coincidences she was sharing the stage with him, in The Mating Season at the Sunderland Empire, when he died in harness in 1976.

Along with Lowe and James, other members of the unit to find postwar success in Britain included the elegant actor Laurence Harvey, then known as Larry Skikne and whose talents were then restricted to dancing the jitterbug and talking in a phoney American accent, and Harry Rabinowitz, composer and musical director. Lowe made the trip to London with her husband John Tore, also a composer, whose musical Golden City was staged at the Adelphi in June 1950; he died suddenly in 1959, aged 35.

By 1946 she was in rep at the New Royal, Norwich. An early London appearance was with the Under 30 Theatre Group, also including Claire Bloom, in The Wanderer by Gavin Lambert, at Her Majesty's in 1947. Two years later she was a "feed" to Chico and Harpo Marx when they topped the bill at the London Palladium, and later that year she was a last-minute replacement in Her Excellency, a musical at the Hippodrome with Cicely Courtneidge.

Her moment as a showstopper came in the West End version of Pal Joey, at the Princes in 1954. As a reporter interviewing the eponymous ne'er-do-well, which required her to change her hair to blonde, her rendition of the parodic burlesque number "Zip" resulted in so much applause on the second night that the following scene had to be delayed. Also in the cast was Arthur Lowe, and Lionel Blair as a delivery boy. She attributed her success in Pal Joey to "a combination of ... tongue-in-cheek humour and a deadpan face". She then played one of the Grievance Committee in The Pajama Game (Coliseum, 1955), based on George Abbott's Broadway production, in which Max Wall played a knife-throwing time and motion man.

On television she did two set in Hollywood, Play Of The Week's "Boy Meets Girl" (Granada, 1957), starring Maggie Smith, and Armchair Theatre's "The Last Tycoon" (1959), from F Scott Fitzgerald's novel. In the latter strand she also played a secretary in "The Big Deal" (1961), a sour view of business practices from Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster.

If she did not become a leading lady in the West End, she became one out of town for Alexander Bridge, an impresario and occasional performer who produced scores of stage shows while on Equity's blacklist due to financial irregularities. On re-opening the Palace Theatre, in his home town of Westcliff-on-Sea in 1965, he cast her in a season including Terence Rattigan's Adventure Story, featuring sets borrowed from the Burton-Taylor Cleopatra, and a reworking of The Blue Angel, in which she wore a blonde wig for Marlene Dietrich's part.

Having made her film debut in Another Case Of Poisoning (1949), a Central Office of Information short, she was one of the German officers killed off in the raid on the Schloss Adler in Where Eagles Dare (1968). Bookending the decade, she was villainous in a now lost first-series episode of The Avengers (1961), and in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969). She was also a madame swearing vengeance after Sid James and Charles Hawtrey ran riot in Carry On Abroad (1972). Before her unfortunate Sunderland date with James she was in another comedy by The Mating Season's writer Sam Cree, Don't Tell The Wife (Grand, Blackpool, 1968), starring another of the Carry On team, Jack Douglas.

"I have always welcomed any job that seemed likely to teach me something," she remarked during her run of mid-'50s musicals. "I learned a great deal on tour, and never had any time for sitting around, waiting for 'the big chance'. It is important, of course, to try to choose what may suit you best at any particular point in your career: on the other hand, when trying to climb the ladder, there is very little that is not of use – quite apart from the financial angle!"

Hard to categorise on stage, she did an Eastbourne revival of The Sound Of Music (1973), played the accordion in Joe Orton's The Erpingham Camp (King's Head, 1979) with Peter Vaughan, and supported Ray McAnally's Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman (Belgrade, Coventry, 1984). For a Channel 4 retrospective, Seriously Seeking Sid (1992), she energetically recalled her times with James. Last year, prompted by her third husband Keith Morris, whom she had met in Westcliff days, she recalled the star's death in BBC2's The Many Faces Of Sid James. Despite Alzheimer's Disease, she enjoyed music therapy.

Gavin Gaughan

Olga Lowe, actress: born Durban 14 September 1919; married firstly John Tore (died 1959), 1959 Peter Todd (divorced 1962), 1970 Keith Morris; died 2 September 2013.

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