Obituary: Gladys Spencer

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Gladys Spencer, actress, born Ivanhoe Virginia 1894, died London 12 December 1992.

GLADYS SPENCER was one of the most loved and admired radio actresses over a span of 60 years. This deep affection and respect was shared by colleagues and audiences alike. She infected all around her with her sense of joy, fun and enthusiasm for everything she did.

She never seemed to change from the first time I encountered her in a studio some 30 years ago. She always appeared as a grande dame, perfectly dressed by the most expensive French couturier with a memorable line in small jaunty hats, and usually sporting a veil. 'It's a long time since I've kissed anyone through a veil,' said a senior actor on the last occasion that I worked with her, in her 92nd year. The kiss was, of course, in the French fashion on both cheeks.

Her mother was French and her father English and she was born in the United States.

Although most of her work was in Britain she first studied for the stage under Charles Siblot of the Comedie Francaise before entering RADA. Her bilingualism enabled her to act in French as well an English and after the fall of France she acted in French plays for French forces in this country. It also meant that throughout her career she was much in demand for roles that required an especially European quality.

Her first engagement was with Edith Evans at the Royalty Theatre, London, and she subsequently appeared in 13 West End theatres, in both plays and musical comedies.

During the Thirties she worked increasingly in radio (or on the wireless, as she would have preferred to call it) and, at the outbreak of war, she was one of that band of brilliant, dedicated artists who formed the BBC Repertory Company (the 'Rep') which entertained audiences larger than any that current television commands, with plays broadcast live from studios in Evesham and, later, in Manchester.

She loved radio and the microphone loved her. She had a beautiful, sonorous voice of great range and was at home in a variety of dialects, apart from those of Britain. Although in manner and bearing very much above the salt, she was universally known as 'Glad' and she thoroughly enjoyed mucking in. 'Parrots a speciality' was written into her radio curriculum vitae and woe betide any radio director who cast a speaking bird without first seeking her services.

Gladys Spencer had a great love of music and in later life was much in demand for walking-on roles at the Royal Opera House. Since these were usually in the higher echelons of society she tended to be placed close to up-stage centre in fine array. Thus positioned and costumed 'to be in the midst of all that gorgeous music, I feel I should be paying them rather than the other way round,' she would say.

She loved travelling and in her younger days she toured South Africa with Godfrey Tearle, Canada, Bermuda and the West Indies. Because of family ties she was a frequent visitor to the US: more than one British actor was surprised to eye this dignified elderly actress - an inveterate supporter of her friends whenever they appeared on stage - sitting in a front Broadway stall applauding enthusiastically when they might have imagined her travelling days to be over.

Even when finally confined to her London flat 'Glad' continued her travels, but these were on that journey of wonderment which lies in the imagination. As a player she had the ability to share her wonder with others and give joy.

(Photograph omitted)