Muriel Pavlow obituary in “The Guardian” in 2019
Although her father was a Russian émigré and her mother was Swiss-French, Muriel Pavlow, who has died aged 97, will be remembered as a quintessential British heroine on stage and screen. This meant being well spoken and standing by her man through thick and thin, particularly in the staid England of the 1950s. Not only did she fulfil these requirements admirably, but she established herself as a compelling presence.
As a J Arthur Rank contract player, Pavlow waited bravely for pilots Alec Guinness in Malta Story (1953) and Kenneth More in Reach for the Sky (1956) to return safely from missions during the second world war, and was the steadfast nurse who loves accident-prone Simon Sparrow (Dirk Bogarde), the medical student in Doctor in the House (1954) – the first in the popular series – and Doctor at Large (1957). In the theatre, Pavlow was generally a “nice gel” in well-made West End productions, often touring the UK and beyond.
Muriel was born in Lewisham, south-east London, to Boris Pavlov, a salesman, and his wife, Germaine. They changed their name to Pavlow to sound more British. She grew up in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, and went to school locally. She started acting at an early age and her first, brief, film appearance came at the age of 13 in the Gracie Fields morale-boosting musical Sing As We Go! (1934). Having co-starred three years later in Hansel and Gretel, a pioneer BBC television broadcast, she was able to claim, when in her 90s, that she had made the earliest TV appearance of anyone living.
This was followed by her being cast as a young girl in Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus (1938), with John Gielgud and Marie Tempest at the Queen’s theatre, London. “I was 17 or 18 and still playing children,” Pavlow recalled. “I was afraid I was going to play children for the rest of my career, until John Gielgud said to me while we were waiting in the wings, ‘I read a very good play today by John Van Druten and I said to Binkie [Beaumont, the theatre impresario], “You ought to cast Muriel as the girl.” It’s all right, it’s not a child, it’s an ingenue role!’”
The play was Old Acquaintance (1941), starring Edith Evans, at the Apollo. The Spectator critic at the time wrote: “This magnificent woman [Evans] is supported by a cast which has apparently been specially selected to stand up to her talent … A polished performance is given by Muriel Pavlow, who surmounts with astonishing skill even such lines as ‘God! How I dislike sherry!’”
While appearing in the play in the evenings, Pavlow was shooting Quiet Wedding (1941) during the day. However, the role in the latter was a small one, as a teenage bridesmaid. Directed by Anthony Asquith, the romantic comedy starred Margaret Lockwood and Derek Farr, whom Pavlow married in 1947, and with whom she often starred.
She had to wait until after the war, during which she joined the Wrens, to play adult roles. Her postwar career began with Terence Rattigan’s drawing-room comedy While the Sun Shines (1945), opposite Hubert Greggat the Globe, and in the spy film Night Train to Dublin (1946), as an Austrian helping secret agent Robert Newton track down a Nazi spy. Although, for purposes of the plot, they go through a mock marriage and share a flat, their relationship is rigorously chaste until the happy ending.
In 1947, after playing Ophelia to John Byron’s Hamlet on TV, Pavlow appeared as the sweet, musical daughter of shady antiques dealer Oscar Homolka in the blackmail thriller The Shop at Sly Corner. With Farr as her fiance, Pavlow had nothing much more to do than pretend to play the violin in long shot.
It was only in the 50s, with her Rank contract, that Pavlow’s film career blossomed with It Started in Paradise (1952), a piece of Technicolor froth about rival dress designers, which gave new meaning to the word “catwalk”. But, according to the New York Times critic, in contrast to the scheming Jane Hylton, “pretty Miss Pavlow is as straight and as neat as a well-stitched seam”.
Her next leading role was as a Maltese girl, working in the British war operations room, in love with Guinness’s RAF pilot in Malta Story (1953). Her hair darker than usual, and with what passed for a Maltese accent, she managed to reveal more emotion than hitherto.
More to Pavlow’s satisfaction was her sojourn with the Shakespeare Memorial theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon for the well-received 1954 season during which she played Cressida to Laurence Harvey’s Troilus in Glen Byam Shaw’s production, as well as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Bianca in both The Taming of the Shrew and Othello.
Then it was back to British pictures with Doctor in the House. “It was my first experience of being in a smash-hit movie, and it was a very sweet experience,” Pavlow remembered. At the end of Doctor at Large, after three bungling amorous adventures, Bogarde seems to settle for Pavlow, now also a doctor.
She showed some fighting spirit and even some flesh in a bathing scene with her soldier boyfriend John Gregson in Conflict of Wings (1954), a likable sub-Ealing film about a rural Norfolk community which Pavlow leads in opposing the RAF’s plan to use a nearby bird sanctuary for target practice.
In the inspiring biopic Reach for the Sky (1956), Pavlow was Thelma, the supportive wife of the pilot Douglas Bader (Kenneth More). She meets him after he has had both his legs amputated, and is adapting to the artificial ones. One of the key scenes involves him taking a turn on the dance floor with her. Fearing he has been shot down by German aircraft, Thelma greets the news that he is alive and has been made a prisoner of war with: “I knew in my heart they’d never get him.”
In Rooney (1958), set in Dublin, Pavlow is a single woman secretly in love with a happy-go-lucky dustman (Gregson). She tells him: “I’m 28, but I feel 50.” Pavlow was actually 37 and nearing the end of her film career.
Having left Rank, Pavlow appeared in Murder She Said (1961), the first of four Miss Marple whodunnits starring Margaret Rutherford. In it, Pavlow played dictatorial James Robertson Justice’s long-suffering daughter. It was to be her last film, apart for her cameo in Stephen Poliakoff’s starry Glorious 39 (2009).
She and Farr had a long and happy marriage until his death in 1986. After this, she was semi-retired, occasionally popping up in television series such as The Bill (1993), The Rector’s Wife (1994) and House of Cards (1995).
She is survived by three nieces and two nephews.
• Muriel Lilian Pavlow, actor, born 27 June 1921; died 19 January 2019