Obituary: Ellen Pollock

Adam Benedick
Friday 11 April 1997 23:02

No actress ever flew the flag for Bernard Shaw with more panache than Ellen Pollock. As actress, director and drama teacher, her dedication to the great Irishman was unrivalled.

President of the Shaw Society since 1949, Pollock is believed to have played, in a career spanning 72 years, more Shavian heriones than anyone else. She directed London seasons of his plays; and it was during the London premiere of one of his lesser-known works - Far Fetched Fables (Watergate, 1950) - that she announced Shaw's death from the stage.

Her dedication to acting began by watching Sarah Bernhardt. Young Ellen was seven. After that, she knew that she herself would be an actress. Not that she had any training or encouragement.

"Everybody said I was much too tall for the stage," she recalled a few years ago, "and much too plain. Why don't you marry that nice Dr So-and- So?" her three sisters would ask.

Breaking into the stage profession wasn't easy either: "There were no agents. Each day you would toil up and down the stairs of the leading West End producers. When I came home for lunch, my mother would say, 'Have you been offered lots of jobs, dear?' "

Undaunted, she landed a part, aged 17, as a page in Romeo and Juliet at the Everyman, Hampstead. A few weeks later she shared the stage with Ellen Terry as Herod's son in an Old English Nativity play.

After a walk-on part in the West End, young Pollock spent the early 1920s touring. What fired her taste for Shaw was the Charles Macdona Players. From 1920 the Dublin-born Macdona had been sending out companies on tour from London. The Macdona Players stuck exclusively to a repertoire of Shaw, roaming Britain, Ireland, Europe, South Africa and the Far East with his plays. Pollock was nonetheless a highly versatile player in farce, tragedy, thriller, musical comedy, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Sheridan, Wilde, Dumas, Grand Guignol . . .

After West End runs in Hit the Deck (London Hippodrome, 1927) and Priestley's The Good Companions (Her Maj-esty's, 1931), came tours and the Malvern Festival, where Shaw loomed large. There, at the premiere of his so-called political extravaganza Too True to Be Good (1932) the critic James Agate recognised Pollock's talent as a comedienne who "contrived to amuse in a thin field of humour, and long after the crop had been gathered".

Of the same play, which she revived in a season at the Lyric, Hammersmith, under her own direction in 1944, Beverley Baxter declared: "Miss Pollock is gloriously vulgar and cheerful as the chambermaid masquerading as a countess."

In the intervening 12 years parts ranged from Aloysia Brollikins in Shaw's On The Rocks (Winter Garden, 1933) and Gwen Clayton in the long-running The Dominant Sex (Shaftesbury, 1935) to Lady Sneerwell in The New School for Scandal (Embassy, 1937) and Audrey in As You Like It (Open Air, 1938).

It was during the run of The Dominant Sex that the spirited young actress made a public name for herself as a jaunty motorist, plying between Rochester and the West End in a yellow and orange tourer, in which she was caught speeding, and contrived to talk (or smile) her way out of it, allegedly promising the magistrate tickets for the play.

For her Shavian season as director at Hammersmith 12 years later, Shaw sent a message through her to the audience: if they did not understand the play they were to sit through the piece again. At Hammersmith Pollock also played Candida, Z in Village Wooing and Eliza in Pygmalion. Then she exercised a bent for Grand Guignol at the Granville, Walham Green - short, arresting, blood-and-thunder plays at which spectators were expected to faint.

Five years later, at the small Irving Theatre off Leicester Square, they did. Pollock joined the young director-to-be-critic Kenneth Tynan for his last stage production. The programme included an abridged version of Titus Andronicus. St John Ambulance men were conspicuously on duty and most evenings a couple of people duly fainted, including, one night, an ambulance man.

Among Pollock's other West End productions were the thriller The Third Visitor (Duke of York's, 1949) with which she toured Germany; Shavings (St Martin's, 1951), three one- acters by Shaw in which she played Queen Elizabeth in the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, The Man of Destiny and Village Wooing; and Storks Don't Talk (Comedy).

Joining Donald Wolfit's Shakespeareans for a season at the King's, Hammersmith in 1953 brought out the tragedienne in her - Judith in The Wandering Jew, Jocasta in Oedipus, and Regan in King Lear, as well as Audrey in As You Like It, Maria in Twelfth Night, Mistress Quickly in Henry IV and Mrs Candour in The School for Scandal.

For Shaw's centenary in 1956 she directed and played the title role in Mrs Warren's Profession (Royal Court) and in 1960 staged Billy Bunter's Swiss Roll at the Victoria Palace, a matinees-only derivation of Frank Richards' Greyfriars School series. In the 1960s and 1970s she acted in the West End in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author (Mayfair, 1963), staged Coward's Fallen Angels at Malvern, and Shaw's Pygmalion at Detroit; played Madame Claude in Maugham's Lady Frederick (Vaudeville and Duke of York's, 1970) and Mrs Higgins in Pygmalion (Albery, 1974). For the National Theatre Company in 1977 she staged her own production of The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.

Whenever she sensed the need, she would appear at Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire, the shrine to Shaw, to unravel a plaque or give a reading or otherwise pay tribute to the author whom she had first met in 1932 at Malvern.

Pollock was also a notable teacher of drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and at the Webber Douglas School of Acting. Late in her stage career she appeared in television plays and series including The Forsyte Saga, in which she played Forsyte's mother-in-law. Film credits, which had begun in 1927 with Moulin Rouge, included Piccadilly (1929), The Informer (1935), The Galloping Major (1951), and Too Many Crooks (1958). In 1965 Ellen Pollock joined her sister in an antiques business in Chelsea.

Ellen Clara Pollock, actress: born Heidelberg, Germany 29 June 1903; married 1929 Captain Leslie Hancock (one son; died 1944), 1945 James Proudfoot (died 1971); died 29 March 1997.

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