Jean Anderson was born in 1907 in Eastbourne. Her films include “Bond Street” in 1948, “White Corridors”, “The |Kidnappers” and “Robbery Under Arms”. She had two very successful television series “The Brothers” and “Tenko”. She died in 2001 at the age of 93.
“The Guardian” obituary:
Tipsy aunts, querulous matrons, fearsome matriarchs, plucky parents, condescending aristocrats, taciturn chaperones, tight-lipped nannies, crusty aunts, gossipy grandmas, suspicious wives, elderly gamblers, theatrical dames, snooty dowagers, nosy spinsters and rural snobs – Jean Anderson, who has died aged 93, had a way of giving to each a singular presence, vitality, dignity and truth.
Yet, as a character actress of her quality, she had had far fewer opportunities than a star or leading performer to establish herself in our imagination, especially in the kind of depth which the musically trained Anderson liked to plumb. In the late 1920s, it was hard for a serious-minded young actress who was not arrestingly pretty to get a training in the classics, which was the only way to get on without backstage influence.
Born in Eastbourne of a Scottish family, she grew up in Guildford. After training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, her first professional role was on a 50-week tour of Many Waters, alongside a fellow RADA student, Robert Morley. After a stint in rep at Cambridge, where the director was Peter Powell, whom she later married, she landed the part of the mother in an Irish revival by the Gate Theatre Company, Dublin, of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! which visited the West End in 1936. When the company returned to Dublin, Anderson joined it for three years as leading lady.
In the 1940s, Anderson found herself working at London’s Players Theatre Club, then in King Street, Covent Garden, now under Charing Cross Station, where so many other theatrical luminaries (notably Peter Ustinov) first got their footing in the theatre. Anderson enjoyed the atmosphere, camaraderie and hard work of the so-called Late Joys and had a gift for the kind of satirical, nostalgic material which continues to be sung in tribute to the Victorian music hall. She became so popular that during the absence of Leonard Sachs, the legendary founder and co-director with Peter Godfrey of the Players, she proved a most stirring substitute.
Whether in the West End or provinces, or with the newly subsidised National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company, she made her mark, however briefly, in plays by Rattigan or Fry, Chekhov or Ibsen, Ben Travers or EM Forster, Somerset Maugham or William Douglas Home, Jean-Jacques Bernard or Frank Wedekind – and in particular as Mme Rosamunde in Les Liaisons Dangereuses for the RSC, in which she went to Broadway (1986).
Was there a likelier Charley’s Aunt (for the same company) or a haughtier dowager in Travers’ Corkers End (at Guildford) or a funnier Dame Maud Gosport (looming but listing squiffily) in Rattigan’s send-up of actor-managers, Harlequinade? They were typical examples of her familiar character work.
Anderson’s quiet authority, vocal poise and invisible technique saw her safely through countless parts on stage, screen and television. In the 1950s and 1960s she juggled with all three mediums simultaneously, lending her dependably distinctive gallery of cousins, aunts, mothers, nurses, policewomen, social workers, teachers and officials to the big screen in A Town Like Alice, Heart of a Child, Lucky Jim, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Spare the Rod, The Inspector, Half a Sixpence, Country Dance and The Lady Van ishes, as well as to the theatre and television.
It was the small screen, however, which seemed to bring out the best in her art; perhaps because it had more scope for the kind of kindly if sometimes curt characterisation to which Anderson brought such a compelling restraint. My favourites are still the stoic Mum in The Railway Children, the awful matriarch in The Brothers, the series about a road haulage company, and the eccentric old gambler in Trainer.
In its elegance, observation, timing and emotional insight, another gem was Molly Cowper, the ageing English social snob in Julian Mitchell’s Survival of the Fittest. Herself as old as the 80-year-old character, Anderson brought out all the private suffering, loneliness, intransigence and maternal possessiveness of an old lady who refused to acknowledge reality.
Among scores of other “types” which she turned into individuals for the small screen were Jocelyn Holbrook in Tenko, the series about the experiences of European women interned by Japanese militia, Mrs Fortescue in Keeping Up Appearances, Mrs Spencer Ewell in House of Elliot, Dr Goldrup in GBH, Lady Anne in Do Not Disturb, the Dowager in Circles of Deceit, Belle in Campion, Great Aunt Anne in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, Jo March in Little Women, and Frau Buddenbrook in Buddenbrooks. Her final television role came last year in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, back at the Gate Theatre, Dublin.
Her marriage to Peter Powell ended in divorce. They had one daughter, Aude Powell, a theatre agent.
• Mary Jean Heriot Anderson, actress, born December 12 1907; died April 1 2001.
The above “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.