Obituary: Ronald Gow

Ronald Gow, playwright: born Heaton Moor, Lancashire 1 November 1897; married 1937 Wendy Hiller (one son, one daughter); died 27 April 1993.

ALTHOUGH our rep theatres still do valuable work (and heaven forbid that any of it should be underrated, since they are the key to any serious future stage drama in Britain may have), they were more exciting places in Annie Horniman's day. In the 1910s a young Mancunian playgoer like Ronald Gow could taste at first hand the art of playwrights like Harold Brighouse, Allan Monkhouse and Stanley Houghton, founders of what later became known as the Manchester School - and of actors like Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson.

Stage-struck not only as a spectator, but as a theatrical practitioner, Gow revered their headquarters, the Gaiety Theatre, just off Albert Square. With Horniman and her tea fortune behind it, and with the Manchester Guardian's eloquent critical support through writers like CE Montague, Allan Monkhouse, James Agate et al, it earned itself a national reputation for socially enlightened drama of the kind that did not come round again for another 40 years, when the Royal Court set up shop under George Devine in 1956.

During his upbringing near Manchester, Gow's family got to know several of those Manchester School dramatists who were always harping on some social injustice or other in plays like Hindle Wakes (Stanley Houghton), Hobson's Choice (Harold Brighouse) and Jane Clegg (St John Ervine). Gow was proud of having acted once on the same stage as Houghton.

No wonder then if, as a university graduate and a keen amateur actor, he had a go at writing plays himself, one- acters to start with, some of which were put on during the 1920s by his local amateur group, the Altrincham Garrick; and in the 1930s two of his full-length pieces even reached London. One of them took a thoroughly wholesome anti-war and anti-romantic view of the doings of Bonnie Prince Charlie. It lasted for six weeks at Swiss Cottage. Another, Gallows Glorious, evoking John Brown of the soul which went marching on, waxed indignant about slavery. It survived only two weeks in the West End and two nights in New York.

But it was a start. All Gow needed was a more urgent theme. He himself had never been a victim of the Depression or an 'angry young man', but when the unemployment figures reached 3 million he knew he had his subject. He chanced to read a popular novel, Love on the Dole, which dwelt movingly though fictitiously on the plight of a young Salford woman trying to make ends meet as the only member of her family with a job. Gow promptly dropped his own ideas and dramatised Walter Greenwood's novel. He sent the script to the Gaiety, which he had always considered 'the greatest thing that ever happened' to Manchester, and waited.

By chance one of that theatre's equally stage-struck young actresses had just been sacked. Everybody (except her) supposed it to have been the best thing that could happen to her. From leaving school Wendy Hiller had loved the place and been proud to fulfil the humblest tasks for the Manchester Repertory Theatre. Making tea, washing up, sweeping the stage, acting small parts, prompting, understudying - it didn't matter as long as she could just be there. Suddenly, though, she couldn't. She was not considered good enough. So after four devoted years they fired her.

She went home to Bramhall, Cheshire, and moped. Meanwhile Gow's script turned up, irresistibly, at the Gaiety. But its young heroine would require a Lancashire accent; and wasn't the girl they had just fired rather good at Lancashire accents? Miss Hiller was sent for.

After a year's touring as Sally Hardcastle she reached the West End in 1935, and James Agate, who knew the ways of working-class Salford better than any other London critic, declared her acting 'magnificent'. Moreover, 'the play moved me terribly, and must move anybody who still has about him that old-fashioned thing - a heart.'

If ever one play made the reputation of both the playwright and his leading lady it was Love on the Dole; and though Gow always insisted that it was also Greenwood's work, it brought him promptly to the attention of the film studios and Wendy Hiller (whom Gow married in 1937), and to Bernard Shaw's attention in the casting of Saint Joan and Eliza Doolittle at the Malvern festival of 1936 - and in the film of Pygmalion.

Was the play sentimental? Was it a true tragi-comedy? It would be nice to know, but how can we without a first- rate National Theatre production? Olivier was the last theatre manager to show much feeling for the Manchester School; and though Gow's drama, or rather Gow and Greenwood's drama, of a young woman who to keep her family from the breadline accepts a married bookmaker's proposition to provide for her and her family if she becomes his nominal housekeeper, sounds a bit tearful for a modern audience, might it not work as a period piece if well presented?

Not that it was Gow's only successful adaptation, or the only vehicle he wrote for Wendy Hiller. As Tess in his version of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1946) she was unforgettably moving. As HG Wells's Ann Veronica three years later she won more golden opinions. And in such West End productions as The Edwardians (1960), from Vita Sackville- West's novel, and A Boston Story (1968), from a Henry James story, Gow again showed his skill as adaptor. In fact the only really popular play he wrote entirely off his own bat seems to have been Ma's Bit o' Brass (1938), a regular stand-by of the northern reps.

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game