HEATHER SEARS was a beautiful, intelligent and gifted actress with taste. The four virtues rarely come together. And she might have been a star, filling theatres and cinemas with her beguiling presence, never mind the brains, the talent or the taste, if she had not also been such a human being. It made no sense to her to try to raise a family and pursue an acting career at the same time. So the acting became increasingly spasmodic as the family grew; and that was no doubt wise of her maternally. But artistically?
Would she have risen to the top of her profession had she given up everything for art's sake? That is the only question that can interest any serious student of acting; and the answer is probably not because her talent seemed to place her at the top from the word go.
Some players are born great; others achieve greatness; and some have greatness thrust upon them. Sears struck most of us all of a heap from the start. She never seemed to have to strive. She had the looks, the charm, the personality, the warmth and, as we saw in the film Room at the Top (1958), the sense of irony to make a dullish, drippy, well-bred symbol of virginity as real and interesting as the much more sensually arresting role in the same film, played by the much more experienced Simone Signoret, as the rival object of Laurence Harvey's social ambition and sexual fancy.
Would her acting have got much better had she practised it more assiduously? It wasn't just in films that she first enchanted us. At the Royal Court in its heyday she was the third Alison in Look Back In Anger (to Richard Pasco's wrathful Jimmy and Alan Bates' Cliff). At the same theatre she made an admirable and typically warming Agnes in Giraudoux's one-acter The Apollo de Bellac (again with Pasco and Bates), and in a Sunday night try-out, directed by John Dexter, of Michael Hastings's Yes - And After, she also showed herself to be a player in whom a strong future could be foreseen.
She seemed to be well on the road towards it in Julien Green's South (Lyric, Hammersmith), in which she nearly brought off the impossibly challenging part of a devoted girl who finally understood what had been happening to her beloved when he faced up to his homosexuality; and by then the world had seen her as Joan Crawford's adopted deaf-mute daughter in The Story of Esther Costello (1957), and as Miriam Lievers in the film Sons and Lovers (1960).
So there was no doubt of it. Sears was a serious and compelling actress, but motherhood and family life intervened and in the next decade, though she worked in the film studios from time to time, she acted on the stage notably only twice. At Chichester she was the kitchenmaid in Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, bringing up a child she had rescued from cruelty until its mother came to claim it; and in the West End she was the scattier of the two wives in Ayckbourn's How The Other Half Loves (1970).
Not much of a record for an actress in her mid-thirties; but in the 1970s she more than made up for it when she felt free to return to the stage, even if the artistic atonement took place in that relatively unfashionable sector of the theatre - provincial rep.
You had to go to the Leicester Haymarket, one of the better-funded houses, to see her in Sophocles, Shakespeare, Farquhar, Goldsmith, Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Ibsen, Rattigan and Pinter. Just the kind of names you might expect to find in any serious-minded National Theatre's repertoire - though she would have looked in vain for most of them on the South Bank - and just the place to prove herself the dedicated player we had suspected her to be 20 years earlier. Leicester was only an hour and a bit non-stop from St Pancras and her acting was always worth the journey, never more so than in 1979 in Ibsen's Little Eyolf.
As the possessive, passionate wife of a man overwhelmed by guilt over the drowning of their crippled son, the actress conveyed with stillness and understatement all the pain and fear for the future of a marriage drained of warmth but sealed by cold duty. It was acting of a quality only Ibsen could provoke with his feeling for feminine character, and which only this actress in her renewed dedication to her art could, as a mother herself, deliver with such stirring, unaffected, emotional candour.
It made you feel she had indeed been born great.
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