Stella Moray

Players' Theatre actress
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The Independent Online

Stella Ellen Morris (Stella Moray), actress: born Birmingham 29 July 1923; died London 6 August 2006.

Stella Moray was one of the remarkable band of artistes that clustered round the Players' Theatre, with its mission to preserve and present Victorian music hall. For some 40 years she was one of the select group who could rely on the warmest of welcomes when announced, a knowing response when they performed, and a riotous reception when they took their calls.

The qualities that combined to achieve this response were first and foremost a keenly honed sense of humour, a sense of the ridiculous, a disarming manner of slight self-deprecation ("Oh God, make me funny" being one of her invocations if she felt the tide was not with her) and the great gift for direct contact with her audience. She also brought to bear her gift for characterisation: the somewhat battle-weary lady of the night, spotting one of her clients in the audience, and thoughtfully enquiring as to whether she had given him his change (usually 9p), or the Japanese geisha giving increasingly suggestive weight to the lines "and the leaves began to fall".

Her version of the Marie Lloyd classic "My Old Man Said Follow the Van" which involved a recalcitrant birdcage and other hazards, was a truly joyous romp. In great contrast, her singing "Are We to Part Like This, Bill?" was as touching and affecting as anything from Puccini, and perhaps found its pathos in the fact that it echoed a sadness in her own private life.

Born Stella Morris in Birmingham in 1923, she was bitten by the theatre bug following childhood visits to the Alexandra Theatre to see pantomimes staged by the Salberg family. Before she could advance her hopes of a theatrical career, the Second World War intervened, and she found herself in the ATS.

The military authorities were anxious to maintain morale by providing entertainments where possible, in addition to the work of Ensa. When singing as the vocalist with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps band, she caught the ear of George Black, who, with his brother, Alfred, had already become a formidable player in the world of entertainment. He was much taken with Sergeant Morris, recruiting her for a Stars In Battledress company, and within a very short time she was touring the Middle East and beyond.

After demobilisation, Stella Moray (as she became) quickly established herself in London, and at the Players' formed a circle of friends that remained with her for the rest of her life. Hattie Jacques, in particular, was one of her closest friends, and Moray took a flat in the large house occupied by Jacques and her husband, John Le Mesurier, in Earls Court.

Moray made her West End début at the Casino Theatre (now the Prince Edward) in pantomime headed by Vic Oliver and with the juvenile Julie Andrews also making her first appearance. Nineteen forty-nine marked her first role in a musical (Belinda Fair, at The Saville). In a career which covered radio, television in its many guises, theatre and Victorian music-hall, Stella Moray was constantly in demand.

In the early Sixties she appeared in The Most Happy Fella at the Coliseum and in 1962 as Maimie Candijack in Noël Coward's Sail Away! at the Savoy, in which she also "covered" for Elaine Stritch. This was followed in 1964 by Robert and Elizabeth with John Clements at the Apollo, then Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand, at the Prince of Wales in 1966.

Moray was next seen on the West End stage in Fiddler on the Roof (1967) at Her Majesty's, and her penultimate appearance was in a piece called Bordello (1974), a musical by Julian More set in a brothel. The piece was not wildly acclaimed, and one critic gave the somewhat puzzling judgement that Moray "portrayed the Madam rather as if she was the Headmistress of Roedean". Her last engagement in a major musical came when she followed Sheila Hancock as the villainous Miss Hannigan in Annie at the Victoria Palace.

Appearances in numerous television productions, notably The Bill, Crossroads, Coronation Street and Midsomer Murders, kept Moray occupied. In April 2005 she played her last role, in the BBC series Judge John Deed.

Dominic Le Foe