Stuck-up stars are nothing like this dame
Oscar-winning actress Dame Wendy Hiller insisted on being called plain Mrs Gow Donald Stanley reveals the star with her feet on the ground
THE actress Dame Wendy Hiller was once described as a kind of anti-star: one husband, one house, one family. My first encounter with Mrs Gow, as she preferred to be known in Beaconsfield, was when I was working in my garden when an elderly lady on a bicycle stopped to enquire hesitatingly if she might take some fallen crab apples.
Little did I know how imperious she could be if occasion demanded as when an official presumed to interrupt her devotions in the Parish Church to demand the removal of her car in preparation for the May Fair. One look from her and the car remained parked. Few who saw ‘Crown Matrimonial’, based on the Abdication Crisis, will forget her transformation into the formidable Queen Mary.
Born in Manchester, Wendy was sent to school in southern England to lose her northern accent to better her future chances of marriage. What resulted was the acquisition of a voice described as her greatest dramatic asset which, combined with a highly photogenic facial structure, charm, frankness, and the ability to exchange such roles as that of a flower girl in the film of ‘Pygmalion’ for a Countess in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ put her stamp on a succession of plays and films. Aged 18 she joined the Manchester Repertory Company remaining unnoticed until success as Sally Hardcastle in an adaptation for the stage of ‘Love On The Dole’ by a schoolmaster, Ronald Gow, who later became her husband. This led to parts in plays and films based on such works as those of George Bernard Shaw and Ibsen. She received an Academy Award, the OBE in 1971 and was made a Dame in 1975. Sadly, her Oscar was stolen and never recovered.
In the 1940s Wendy and her husband moved Stratton Road, Beaconsfield. As Mrs Gow domesticity took precedence over career. In return for the sight of visits by famous stage folk, her neighbours would postpone lawn mowing and children’s games until after her afternoon rest. She would then be taken to the West End by a local driver who, if held up in traffic, would find himself pressed into service to help rehearse her lines.
She supported local amateur dramatic societies and was president of the Chiltern Shakespeare Society. Ronald died in 1993 and Wendy ten years later at the age of 90. Their house, ‘Spindles’, has been demolished.
Actress Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle on the set of Pygmalion in 1938
Wendy Hiller with Laurence Olivier, above, and, right, as a leading lady