TamTam Books News

Sunday, August 15, 2004:

Losing a parent has to be the pits. Ms. Birkin's Mom sounds really great! My best to Jane Birkin & family.

Judy Campbell

Sensitive actor who was a substantial presence in the West End for 60 years

Eric Shorter
Wednesday June 9, 2004
The Guardian

The actor Judy Campbell, who has died aged 88, made her name in May 1940 with an evocative performance of the romantic torch song, A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, that somehow caught the spirit of the moment. She went on to enjoy a 60-year stage career; indeed, she was still singing of the nightingale at the Jermyn Street Theatre last September in an entertainment that took its name from Noël Coward's Where Are The Songs We Sung?

But it was that single performance in Eric Maschwitz's New Faces revue at the Comedy Theatre that started it all. At the time, theatre-going was for adventurers - the London blackout was strict, air raids were nightly, France was about to fall, and the Nazis were marching on Paris. Defiance was in the air.

What Campbell was supposed to deliver that night was a Dorothy Parker monologue, wry, witty, feministic. But the script went missing and A Nightingale Sang In Berkely Square was hastily substituted. Campbell had never sung in public before, or supposed that she would ever be asked to; nor was there a microphone to help her. Nervously, in her long white ball gown, she delivered the song, semi-speaking in a series of husky croaks and murmurs.

The house rose to her. Coward, who, like everybody else, appreciated Campbell's vocal inadequacy but rejoiced in the theatrical atmosphere she created, took her to the Savoy Grill and remarked: "It takes talent to put over a song when you haven't got a voice."

He noted in his diary: "Had a few drinks, then went to the Savoy. Pretty bad blitz, but not so bad as Wednesday. A couple of bombs fell very near during dinner. Wall bulged a bit and door flew in. Orchestra went on playing, no one stopped eating or talking. Blitz continued. Carroll Gibbons played the piano, I sang, so did Judy Campbell and a couple of drunken Scots Canadians. On the whole, a very strange and amusing evening ... would not have missed this experience for anything."

Afterwards, Coward told Campbell, "One day, we'll act together," and, indeed, she toured the regions with him in three of his plays, before returning to the West End in 1943 to act in his Present Laughter and This Happy Breed, both at the Haymarket. She may not have had a great singing voice, but she was a sensitive and gifted actor; she knew how to play the careworn as well as the carefree, and later made something of a speciality of grandes dames.

As the critic Beverley Baxter put it, while she was "infinitely alluring" as one of the women bent on seducing Coward's Garry Essendine, in the London premiere of Present Laughter (1943), her portrayal of the world-weary wife Ethel, in This Happy Breed, was a "subtle and appealing performance", in which her body seemed "impregnated by fatigue".

Later came the statelier kinds of aristocrat, including Lady Bracknell and a duchess or two, whose august demeanour and poised hauteur never lacked grace, wit or femininity. Even a femme fatale like her Christine Mannon, in O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1967), found what a critic called "an offhand flourish" with which to dispense malice. For the most part, however, a flow of epithets about her "ravishing" features, her "radiant loveliness" or her way of expressing "the infinite variety of woman" greeted most performances.

The daughter of a theatre-owning playwright, JA Campbell, and his actor-wife Mary Fulton, Judy Campbell was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and educated at St Michael's Convent, East Grinstead. In the days when every town had its own repertory theatre, she trained at Grantham, Coventry, Brighton and Cambridge, where she acted at the Festival Theatre in Shakespeare and Shaw, before touring with the comedian Vic Oliver in Idiot's Delight, and then, in 1939, joining William Armstrong's Liverpool Playhouse.

After three successive parts in other wartime West End plays, and touring with Coward, she took over from Kay Hammond as Elvira, the ghost-wife in Blithe Spirit, playing at the Duchess Theatre. Other credits in the 1940s included the title role in Goldoni's Mine Hostess (La Locandiera), Lonsdale's Another Love Story, and Princess Louise in Royal Highness.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Campbell remained in steady demand in the West End. Coward cast her as the Hollywood fiancée of the young earl in his class-conscious comedy Relative Values (1951), and she took over from Celia Johnson as the mother in William Douglas Home's The Reluctant Debutante (1956).

She proved a witty Shavian actor in Heartbreak House (1961) and You Never Can Tell (1966). In Alan Ayckbourn's first play to reach London, Mr Whatnot (1964), Campbell's Lady Slingsby-Craddock was amusing in her graceful poise, and, as the bemused wife in the same author's Relatively Speaking (1967), she again succeeded Celia Johnson.

In the 1970s, Campbell found more dramatic scope in the classics, though it meant moving to the regions. After Judith Bliss in Coward's Hay Fever (Cambridge Theatre Company), and Lady Touchwood in Wycherley's The Double Dealer (Bristol Old Vic), came the patient Linda Loman in Death Of A Salesman, at Oxford.

At Chichester in 1983, her Grand Duchess, in Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince, brilliantly restored to theatre-goers her gifts as an august, but witty, imperialist; as did her Lady Bracknell in an otherwise best-forgotten musical version of The Importance Of Being Earnest.

Campbell crowned her theatrical career at the King's Head, Islington, in 1999 with another, if somewhat ghostly and hesitant, grande dame in Vivian Ellis's Bless The Bride. Her television credits ranged from The Chinese Prime Minister, Amphitryone 38, Old Acquaintance and Don't Listen, Ladies to When In Rome, Hadleigh, Inspector Morse and Dust To Dust.

Judy Campbell married David Birkin in 1943. He predeceased her, but she is survived by their son and two daughters, one of whom is the actor and singer Jane Birkin.

· Judy Campbell, actor, born May 31 1916; died June 6 2004

Tosh // 12:05 AM

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