Obituary: Anona Winn

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The Independent Online

Anona Edna Winn-Wilkins (Anona Winn), actress, singer, composer, broadcaster: born Sydney 1907; MBE 1954; married 1933 Frederick Lamport (died 1935); died 2 February 1994.

ANONA WINN will be remembered by the generation who were alive in 'the golden age of radio' (before television was part of everyday life) when millions listened to her intelligent performances in Twenty Questions and Petticoat Line.

She was born in Sydney in 1907 (she was always reluctant to disclose her age), the daughter of David Winn-Wilkins and Lilian (nee Woodgate), and educated at Redland College for Girls in Sydney. She rejected her original plan to become a lawyer and studied for an operatic and concert career at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Albert Street Conservatorium, Melbourne, becoming a pupil of Dame Nellie Melba.

After journalistic work, and singing in The Merry Widow, she came to England in 1927 and appeared in The Blue Mazurka (music by Franz Lehar). That year she opened at the London Hippodrome in a musical comedy, Hit the Deck. When Ivy Tresmand, a leading lady of the time, became ill, she took over the main part. Norman Hackforth (later to become a colleague as the 'mystery voice' on Twenty Questions) met her at this period when she sang his songs. He described her as 'a pretty young Australian soprano'.

The BBC was broadcasting from Savoy Hill and Winn rapidly made her name as a radio artiste, mainly in revues with Harry S. Pepper and Doris Arnold. In 1930 she appeared at the Victoria Palace in her own variety act and in December, at the same theatre, in Chelsea Follies. One year later her name was in lights at the London Palladium and she had made over 300 broadcasts, including a popular series called Songs from the Shows, which started in April 1930.

Anona Winn had already written and composed her own songs; now she worked for films, composing the music for Little Damozel in 1932 and appearing in The Constant Nymph a year later. Radio was becoming increasingly popular and television was only an experimental service until 1936. In the basement of Broadcasting House in the tiny studio known as 'BB', the first television revue was produced in 1933 with Anona Winn backed by a chorus line of the Paramount Victoria Girls. This was on the 30-line (as opposed to today's 625-line) Baird system, using grotesque make-up with blue-black eyes and lips.

In the Thirties Winn also recorded for HMV, Decca and Columbia such songs as her own 'What More Can I Ask', a popular hit of 1934. Her stage performances included Dandini in the pantomime Cinderella and a record 20 weeks in Peter Pan in 1939. Throughout the Forties she continued her radio work in shows like Variety Bandbox, toured the music halls and variety theatres still existing at that time (including the South Pier at Blackpool in 1944).

In 1947 she added yet another facet to her career as an entertainer in Twenty Questions, a radio version of an old parlour game in which contestants had to discover the identity of a chosen object by skilful questioning. This was planned for a six-week run with Stewart Macpherson as chairman, and a panel comprising Winn, Jack Train, then famous for his broadcasts in the wartime ITMA, Richard Dimbleby and, from the second show, Daphne Padel. Norman Hackforth was the mystery voice. The show was an enormous success and ran until 1976. Winn astonished listeners with her astute questioning and remained through many changes of panel. Gilbert Harding became chairman; like many others, Winn quarrelled with him, but he atoned by sending huge quantities of flowers to her mother in a Haslemere nursing home. The team was invited to provide entertainment at the staff dance held at Windsor Castle before George VI and other members of the Royal Family.

The theatrical impresario CB Cochran heard Twenty Questions and offered Winn the part of Nanny in the Vivian Ellis / AP Herbert musical Bless the Bride which opened at the Adelphi Theatre, London, in April 1947 and introduced Georges Guetary to the British public with his hit song 'Ma Belle Marguerite'. Winn's solo was 'What Would I Be Without You, Duckie'. When Anona received the accolade of an interview with Roy Plumley in Desert Island Discs on 4 April 1951, she chose Guetary singing 'Table for Two' as well as a number from Bless the Bride to take to her desert island. Bless the Bride ran for nearly two years concurrently with broadcasts of Twenty Questions. Her next stage performance was a shorter one, a musical play by John Morley entitled May Fever, at the New Lindsey Theatre in December 1955.

By August 1962 Twenty Questions had made over 500 broadcasts, now with Kenneth Horne as chairman. It was run till 28 July 1976 when the last broadcast had Anona Winn, Isobel Barnett, Penelope Keith and James Burke on the panel with Richard Briers as the mystery voice, Cliff Michelmore as chairman and Bobby Jaye producer.

Although television had attracted many radio personalities and created new ones, Anona Winn preferred radio and (with Ian Messiter) devised a new show called Petticoat Line, first broadcast on 6 January 1965 and comprising a panel of Renee Houston, Marjorie Proops, Jill Adams and Jane Asher, chaired by Anona Winn.

This was before the women's lib movement reached its present status. An original and amusing idea at the time, an all-woman panel discussed listeners' letters dealing the problems and comments on women's views on men. Renee Houston described it as an 'off-the-cuff chat show' and started a new career at the age of 63. The women who took part in the show came from all walks of life: Dame Barbara Cartland, Baroness Summerskill, Fanny Cradock, Rachel Heyhoe, Baroness Stocks, Isobel Barnett and Beryl Reid all voiced their opinions during the 14 years' run.

By the end of the Fifties Winn had business interests outside entertainment and after the run of Petticoat Line she disappeared from the reference books. Ill-health took its toll and even those who had worked with her for years lost touch.

Anona Winn was versatile, a vocalist danceband leader (Anona Winn and her Winners), composer, songwriter and actress but will surely be remembered as 'Queen of the Panel Games'. She had many friends. Wendy Toye, producer of Bless the Bride, said, 'She was terrifically popular'. And Renee Houston wrote, 'She is a clever and brilliant lady and she does it all without trying.'

A statement that shows her true professionalism.

(Photograph omitted)