Wednesday 13 December 2017

Simona Pakenham

Actress and writer who joined Dublin's Gate Theatre company and later chronicled Wilde's exile in France

Simona Pakenham, who died on November 17 aged 94, was an actress and writer who chronicled the English colony that established itself in Dieppe after the Napoleonic wars and also wrote an early biography of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Simona Vere Pakenham was born on September 25, 1916, the product of a short-lived marriage between her mother, Phyllis, and Captain Compton Pakenham, a kinsman of the Earl of Longford. Pakenham was a handsome officer in the Coldstream Guards but, as his daughter recalled, "disappeared out of my life before I had time to notice him".

In fact, he moved to America where he became chief music critic of The New York Times, but turned out (according to writers AA Barrett and RW Liscombe) to be "a charming fraud who told lies with consummate conviction".

At the Eastbourne boarding school Simona was instructed to tell her schoolmates that her father was a "brave soldier", though, as she recalled, she was fairly sure that she would gain more respect from her contemporaries if she told them what she herself had been told -- that he was a "bad man who had married five wives". But, as no one ever asked, she never got the chance.

Simona's mother remarried and eventually settled in London where she and her new husband lived in genteel poverty, working as interior decorators. Simona spent her childhood in the care of her maternal grandparents, first in Edinburgh, then in Dieppe where her grandfather had bought a Swiss-style chalet for his retirement.

In her memoir of her early years, Pigtails and Pernod (1961), Simona Pakenham recalled life in the large British colony which "had come to look upon Dieppe as their own property in a way which must have been surprising to its French inhabitants". The family in Dieppe included Simona's great uncle Frederick Fairbanks, who, though he had never visited America, managed, by spending his 21st birthday in the American embassy in Paris, to establish a claim to American citizenship and a job in its consular service. In Dieppe he lived in a grand consular villa and became the figurehead of the British colony, his only concession to his adopted nationality being the cultivation of a strange "American" accent.

Simona's experiences of life among the English in Dieppe would inspire her to write Sixty Miles from England (1967) in which she charted the development of a colony that established itself in the seaside resort after the Napoleonic wars. The world she described was one of petty rivalries, huge snobberies, occasional scandals, and "total indifference" to French culture, and featured a colourful cast of characters.

Simona Pakenham recalled that when Oscar Wilde turned up in the town after his release from prison (it was in Dieppe's municipal brothel that Wilde had his last taste of heterosexual coition) the English community in Dieppe was scandalised to find the notorious sodomite in their midst and the ladies felt obliged to pretend not to comprehend the nature of his "crime" (although they knew well).

Wilde, Simona noted, was shunned by most members of the expat community, an exception to the rule being the recently widowed mother of the painter Walter Sickert who had been "inconsolable, shutting herself away from the world, until Wilde forced himself into her company". Mrs Sickert had refused to see him, "but he stationed himself in the hall, refusing to go away until she gave in. When at last she admitted him, the two were closeted for an hour, and, after a time, the family were astonished to hear the sound of laughter coming from behind the door. Mrs Sickert recovered from that moment."

After leaving school Simona Pakenham trained as an actress, first at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, then at the Old Vic. Though she never met her father, she established good relations with other members of his family and, in the mid -Thirties, wrote to Edward Pakenham, the 6th Earl of Longford, who was chairman of the Gate Theatre in Dublin. She got a job with the theatre company and, while working in Dublin, met the theatre producer Noel Iliff, whom she married in 1938 and with whom she had a son.

After the outbreak of war, the couple returned to England. During the conflict they both worked for the BBC, Simona as a radio announcer and adapter of plays for broadcast. During the Fifties, her husband founded an acting company and ran several repertory theatres, including the Gateway Theatre in Edinburgh and the Library Theatre in Manchester; Simona worked in her husband's company as a leading actress (her roles included Shaw's St Joan) and costume designer.

During the war, Simona Pakenham had developed what she described as an "obsession" with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams after hearing his Symphony in F minor. In 1957 she published Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Discovery of his Music, a critical biography in which she sought to "pass on to ordinary listeners like myself some of the joy I discovered when I found out the existence of Vaughan Williams".

She later became a friend of the composer and his wife Ursula, and, shortly before his death, collaborated with him on The First Nowell, a nativity play for which she provided a libretto. The piece was due to be performed at the Theatre Royal a few days before Christmas 1958 as a charity fundraiser. Vaughan Williams had orchestrated about two-thirds of the music by the time he died in August that year and the rest was completed by his longtime assistant Roy Douglas in time for the scheduled premiere.

From then on Simona Pakenham combined her acting career with writing. The Absence of the Emperor: London-Paris 1814-15 (1968) described life in Paris during the brief return of the Bourbon monarchy. Cheltenham (1971) was a history of a town she had come to know through her son.

After Noel Iliff died in 1984, Simona Pakenham remarried a cousin, Kenneth Middleton, and embarked on a new career as a tour guide based in London. In later life she and her husband moved to Oxfordshire. In 2008 she appeared in two documentary films made to mark the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams' death. Simona Pakenham's husband predeceased her. She is survived by her son.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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