Obituary: Jean Scott

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The Independent Online
An actress whose career span-ned six decades, Jean Scott was also a distinguished teacher, notably for 16 years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art under the directorships of Sir Kenneth Barnes and John Fernald.

She was born Winifred Walkinshaw to a family, Scots in origin, which had been settled in Devon since the 18th century. Although her parents were not Catholic, they sent their daughter to an Ursuline Convent School, from where she left bent on a career in the theatre. Her reluctant father achieved a compromise: she could become an actress but first she must train as a teacher of drama. She came through all three stages of her LRAM exams with ease.

It was as a member of the Ashley Dukes Company that the career of Jean Scott - her stage name - took off. Ashley Dukes (1885-1959) became known, both in Britain and in the United States, as a dramatist and theatre critic. In the Twenties and Thirties he was also a theatre manager of distinction.

Most new plays performed in the West End between the wars were light- hearted confections, often well-written but designed to meet the needs of both the Lord Chamberlain's rigid censorship and of a public anxious to escape for a while from the bleak economic climate of the times. The Ashley Dukes Company, however, gave performances of outstanding plays which were often considered non-commercial. It was respected as a training ground for young actors, and was especially famous for its presentation of foreign plays, sometimes adapted (e.g. Lion Feuchtwanger's Jew Suss) by Dukes himself. In addition it was a cradle for modern English verse- drama, by such playwrights as T.S. Eliot, Christopher Fry and Ronald Duncan - and gave the first London performance of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.

In 1933 it acquired its own premises, the Mercury, a small, well-equipped, theatre in Notting Hill, which it shared with the Ballet Rambert, recently founded by Dukes's wife, Marie Rambert.

Scott's early career flourished in Dukes's company, with its emphasis on poetic drama, and her experience there informed her work in the theatre and in the classroom for many years to come.

Jean Scott went to Rada in 1943, working for the last 12 years of his 50-year directorship under Sir Kenneth Barnes. Here was a great meeting of minds. Under his "strict but kindly" rule, Rada had grown from small beginnings in 1905 to become a world-renowned centre of excellence.

Barnes's system was both straightforward and flexible. Students joined at any time during the academic year. They were streamed initially according to their apparent ability and, later, according to their attainment; anyone who did not come up to scratch was kept down until they made the grade, those who were judged to be want- ing in ability or in application, received a letter of dismissal.

This form of grouping gave rise to an interesting mix of students in each class: near, though not exact, contemporaries of varied experience came together in a way which would not have been possible in other circumstances. For instance, Scott might teach a class including young aspirants such as Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole and Richard Briers, although each had entered Rada at different times.

Scott maintained a happy atmosphere in her class, underpinned by firm discipline. Fun and humour had their place, but a student was given "time out" if he submerged learning in an excess of levity, to be readmitted only when he recovered his equilibrium.

Barnes was succeeded in 1955 by John Fernald. Fernald's approach was entirely different: he brought in all his new students together each September, at the beginning of the academic year. Of necessity, the intake was drastically reduced. His aim was to go for quality. Scott's experience, her adaptable nature and her great ability, enabled her to cope well with the immense differences between the two philosophies.

As a teacher she was now at the top of her profession. Teaching around 90 hours a term at Rada, she also took private pupils in voice-work and drama. She frequently completed a 12-hour working day, and took little time off for meals.

None the less, she managed to combine teaching with her two other great roles in life - those of wife and mother. In 1939 she had married James McKerrell of Hillhouse, 14th Laird of Hillhouse, a captain in the Army; their son, Charles, was born two years later. This was a time when there were few role models for the working wife. Her adaptability enabled her to manage the delicate balance between these "lives", although she used to say, "Were I unconscious, I could still do my work."

There was a chance to change this gruelling pattern when her son grew up. She then left Rada, in 1959, to concentrate not only on her home life and her private pupils but also to return to her first great love - acting. She commuted between London and her husband in Ireland, until his death in 1964. She compensated for his loss by hard work and indulging her passions for riding, tennis, bridge and reading. She had an enduring love of Ireland, and was recently awarded honorary membership of the Knights of the Golden Chain (Naidh Nask).

The conjunction Wyn (from Winifred) appeared in her name at this period; to avoid confusion with another actress of the same name, she remained registered with Equity as Jean Wyn Scott for the rest of her life.

Scott's career in the Sixties was a blend of teaching, theatre and film- work as well as television appearances in plays and various series of the day: No Hiding Place, Z Cars and Crossroads, amongst others. She also did voice-overs for television advertisements, which not only gave her experience in a new discipline but provided her with the opportunity to practise different dialects, including that of her native Devon, which she got up to scratch for Hovis.

She worked with special pleasure with Franco Zeffirelli on his 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet, one of several ventures which took her abroad. Later she was involved in the production of The Devil's Disciple which opened the new Shaw Theatre in London in 1971.

Jean Scott rated kindness above all other virtues: kindness, compassion, vulnerability and artistic sensitivity were combined in her. These gentler attributes were offset by a tenacious ambition for perfection in her work and in her private life. There was a restless, impatient side to her nature which compelled her to look forward rather than back.

She died peacefully during the afternoon of 15 May as had, 164 years before, her great actor-hero Edmund Kean.

Winifred Walkinshaw ("Jean Scott"), actress and teacher: born Plymouth, Devon 2 December 1905; married 1939 James Mc- Kerrell of Hillhouse, 14th Laird of Hillhouse (died 1964; one son); died Northwood, Middlesex 15 May 1997.

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