Actress and writer who, with husband Michael Denison, was a familiar figure in British films of the Forties and Fifties
Published 20/11/2011 | 05:00
Dulcie Gray, who died on Tuesday aged 95, was a star of British stage and screen for more than 50 years, often appearing with her husband, Michael Denison.
Theirs was a famously long marriage, which lasted for almost 60 years in a profession not known for stability. Between them they starred in more than 100 West End plays and, in the 1940s and 1950s, were familiar figures in British films. On screen they co-starred in My Brother Jonathan and The Glass Mountain in 1948, The Franchise Affair in 1950 and the Battle of Britain movie Angels One Five in 1952. In 1983, both were awarded the CBE.
As an actress, Gray somehow lacked individuality. Though she and Denison made a good team, it was difficult to think of her as a star in her own right, and this is doubtless why she never won meaty screen parts independently of her husband. She was sometimes compared -- and not to her advantage -- with Googie Withers, who was her contemporary and also enjoyed a long marriage to her regular co-star, John McCallum.
Acting, however, was only one of Gray's talents. She was also a prolific writer and an expert on butterflies. She wrote some two dozen murder mysteries, which found wide popularity, eight radio plays, several volumes of short stories and an autobiography, Looking Forward, Looking Back. With Denison, she wrote some thoughts on her craft for young children, An Actor and His World.
She also wrote one play, Love Affair, in which she co-starred with her husband, who also directed. Despite long theatrical experience, writing for the stage was not her forte. The play opened to a savage review from Kenneth Tynan, who fulminated that it shattered three cardinal rules: "actresses should not write plays, playwrights should not act in their own plays and directors should not appear in their own productions". And he added a fourth rule as a coda: "actors should not marry". The Denisons were mortally offended and considered legal action. Gray never wrote another play.
Her principal achievement as a writer was Butterflies on My Mind, a scholarly study of the insects written in 1978 that went on to win the Times Educational Senior Information Book Award.
Dulcie Bailey was born in Kuala Lumpur on November 20, 1915, the daughter of a judge. She was educated in England at private schools in Wallingford, Wokingham and Swanage but in her late teens returned to the East, where she began work as a journalist for the Malaya Tribune. She also wrote and broadcast songs on radio. One of them, You Tickle Me Spitless, Baby, achieved some local acclaim.
Though keen on amateur theatricals, she never intended to become an actress, thinking instead of journalism or teaching. Indeed for a time she held a teaching post in the Malayan jungle. Accepting a job at a school in England, she worked her passage home, but was unable to take up the position because she then badly broke her arm.
At a loose end, she competed initially for a painting scholarship at the Amedee Ozenfant studio at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in London. She won and spent three months there but soon found that art was not her metier. So she tried for a place at the Webber Douglas drama school and was again successful.
It was there that she met Denison, with whom she first acted six months later in a play about Charles Stewart Parnell (Dulcie Gray played his inamorata, Kitty O'Shea). Much smitten with his co-star, Denison sent her half a dozen roses (all he could afford at 7s 6d a bloom), with a note "To Kitty, from Charles Stewart". She came to his dressing room at the interval and exclaimed "Would you believe? I haven't seen him for years and look what old Charlie Stewart has sent me."
The misunderstanding, however, was overcome and in 1939 they married, spending a one-night honeymoon at the Dorchester hotel before speeding off to Aberdeen, where she made her professional debut in Hay Fever at His Majesty's Theatre.
Her West End debut came in 1942 in a lacklustre production of The Little Foxes, but this was followed in 1943 by a personal triumph in Brighton Rock as the luckless waitress Rose. It earned her a film contract with Gainsborough Pictures. Her co-star, as the mobster Pinkie, was Richard Attenborough, who also played the part in the 1947 film version.
Her performance in the play impressed Aleister Crowley, the notorious diabolist, who sent her six lines of doggerel in appreciation, ending "A young thing stole the show away/Her dulcet name is Dulcie Gray". She wrote a letter of thanks but lived to regret it when he invited her to be sacrificed as a virgin at dawn in a midsummer rite at Stonehenge. With tongue firmly in cheek, she sent her regrets on the grounds that she disliked getting up early; Crowley bothered her no more.
On screen she was never a leading lady. Her career started with supporting roles in such films as 2,000 Women and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944), They Were Sisters (1945) and Mine Own Executioner (1947). Only when she began co-starring with Denison in My Brother Jonathan (1948) did she register with film buffs. Like John McCallum and Googie Withers, Derek Farr and Muriel Pavlow, the Denisons became known as a team. But in a sense that was the problem. They were identified as Michael-Denison-and-Dulcie-Gray rather than separate players. They made a good living out of it, but at the expense of individual fame.
On television, in later life, Gray enjoyed success in soap operas and serials such as The Voysey Inheritance and Rumpole. In particular, she became identified in the 1980s with the character of Kate Harvey in the long-running nautical saga Howards' Way. It required her only to smile benignly and look bemused -- as well she might, having to cope with a plot in which Kate's daughter's ex-boyfriend marries her son's prospective mother-in-law, who is also the grandmother of her son's hoped-for stepson by the son of the man she has just married.
Gray's writing talents were reawakened when she contracted what looked like a terminal disease. She was diagnosed with cancer and given eight months to live. Novel-writing took her mind off her fate. In the end, happily, the diagnosis was proved wrong and she recovered. There was a bonus, too: she turned out to be a dab hand at thrillers, concocting some deliciously gruesome murders. From 1966, the Denisons lived in a magnificent old Georgian mansion in Buckinghamshire designed by Robert Adam, where peace and quiet proved the ideal setting for her literary efforts.
Dulcie Gray and Michael Denison, who died in 1998, had no children.