Musical comedy star who triumphed as the outrageous Hortense in Sandy Wilson's musical, 'The Boy Friend'
Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30
Violetta Farjeon, the French musical comedy actress, who died last Thursday aged 91, starred in the original London production of Sandy Wilson's musical The Boy Friend (1954); as the dizzy French maid, Hortense, she brought the house down each night with her vigorously coquettish rendition of It's Nicer in Nice.
The daughter of an English father and a French concert-pianist mother, Violetta Becket-Williams was born in Kensington on September 27, 1923, but spent her childhood in a small village in the Pyrenees, before going on to study music at the Paris Conservatoire.
When the war broke out her parents were in Britain, so Violetta fled Paris and boarded the last coal ship leaving Nice for Tangiers. She eventually arrived in London during the Blitz, aged just 16. "We went straight to an air-raid shelter," she recalled in an interview given on her 90th birthday. "I had no idea about the bombardment of London. It was quite a shock."
After joining the Free French Army, she became involved in Forces entertainment. A vivacious teenager, she was determined to make a career on the stage, despite her lack of experience. "The poor soldiers had to sit through it," she said self-deprecatingly of one performance. "I was so bad. And they couldn't leave, because there was a sergeant on the door!"
In 1947, Violetta made her first professional appearance in the Late Joys Victorian music-hall shows at the Players' Theatre, where she specialised in roguish and suggestive French chansons, mostly written and directed for her by the comedienne Hattie Jacques. At the Players, she also worked alongside Peter Ustinov and Clive Dunn. In 1949, she married one of the three directors of the Players, Gervase Farjeon, son of the West End revue writer Herbert Farjeon.
It was at the Players' Theatre in 1953 that the first trial run was presented of the musical, The Boy Friend, set in the 1920s. Wilson had written the role of the outrageous Hortense specially for Violetta, who was by this stage known simply by her first name. From the moment the curtain rose with her perched on the edge of the sofa, telephone receiver in one hand and feather duster held aloft in the other, audiences took the show to their hearts. It transferred in 1954 to Wyndhams Theatre, where 2,084 performances of the show were given over the next five years.
Her rendition of It's Nicer in Nice was later described by Wilson as "a miniature Follies routine, in which Violetta skipped and cavorted round the stage in company with the boys and girls, receiving her calls at the end in a plethora of bobs and kisses which she remembered from her childhood, when a touring revue visited the village in the Pyrenees where she was living".
This dance routine was, Wilson added, "so vigorous that at many performances her vital assets often popped out of her costume and were on full display to the astonished audience".
In 1956, during the run of The Boy Friend, Violetta also appeared in a cameo role in the film, The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. "It was lovely," she recalled, "because she [Monroe] never used to turn up on the set, and we were paid by the day."
In the sequel to The Boy Friend, Divorce Me, Darling! (1965), in which she reappeared as Hortense, she had another show-stopper with the number Paradise Hotel.
In the 1960s, Violetta appeared on television in a series, Harpers West One (1961), in Somerset Maugham's The Creative Impulse (1962), and in another series, Sergeant Cork (1964). She was also seen with Brian Aherne and George Baker in the film Lancelot and Guinevere (1963).
She spoke English, French, Spanish and German fluently. In the 1970s she appeared in the BBC One series, Repondez S'il Vous Plait, teaching viewers how to speak French.
Violetta continued to appear on stage at the Players' and also in the annual Players' pantomimes, until 1998, when she was 75.
In 1990, aged 66, she nostalgically reprised her role as Hortense in The Boy Friend in Concert at the Duchess Theatre, and won a standing ovation as she high-kicked her way across the stage.
Famous for addressing her show-business colleagues affectionately as "Mon petit chou", Violetta became known throughout the entertainment industry as "Chou".
She and Gervase Farjeon separated in the 1990s, but never divorced. He died in 2001. There were no children from the marriage.