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Byron, Kathleen (1923-2009)


Main image of Byron, Kathleen (1923-2009)

Described by Michael Powell as looking "secret" and "witty", Kathleen Byron brought a mysterious sensuality to British films as rare as it was underused.

As Sister Ruth, the nun who goes mad with lust in the Himalayas in Black Narcissus (d. Powell and Pressburger, 1947), she created some uniquely erotic moments in an often genteel cinema. Powell gave her the chance to be an intelligent leading lady in The Small Back Room (d. Powell and Pressburger, 1948), and she brought real melodramatic flair to manipulative types in Madness of the Heart (d. Charles Bennett, 1949) and Prelude to Fame (d. Fergus McDonell, 1950). After a Hollywood stint for Young Bess (US, d. George Sidney, 1953), she was mostly, and maddeningly, relegated to 'B' movies, but was never less than compelling.

Trained at the Old Vic Drama School, she cared more for films than the stage, first filming a 'bit' in The Young Mr Pitt (d. Carol Reed, 1942). She also did some fine TV, including two adaptations of Henry James - Portrait of a Lady (BBC, 1968), and The Golden Bowl (BBC, 1972) - and reappeared briefly in three films in the late 1990s: Emma (UK/US, d. Douglas McGrath, 1996), Les Misérables (US, d. Bille August, 1998) and Saving Private Ryan (US, d. Steven Spielberg, 1998).

Her work in the four Powell films has made her something of a cult figure, and she appeared in a TV documentary on her career, Remembering Sister Ruth (d. Malcolm Venville, 1997).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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Thumbnail image of Black Narcissus (1947)Black Narcissus (1947)

Remarkably passionate melodrama set in a Himalayan convent

Thumbnail image of Life In Her Hands (1951)Life In Her Hands (1951)

Fascinating dramatised documentary describing a new career in nursing

Thumbnail image of Madness of the Heart (1949)Madness of the Heart (1949)

Melodrama with Margaret Lockwood as a blind nun

Thumbnail image of Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)

Romance fantasy bridging the gap between two worlds

Thumbnail image of Nothing But The Night (1972)Nothing But The Night (1972)

Creepy Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee vehicle about a mysterious orphanage

Thumbnail image of Small Back Room, The (1949)Small Back Room, The (1949)

Tense drama about an alcoholic bomb disposal expert

Thumbnail image of Emergency - Ward 10 (1957-67)Emergency - Ward 10 (1957-67)

British TV's first long-running medical drama series

Thumbnail image of Jane Austen's Emma (1996)Jane Austen's Emma (1996)

Lavish version of Austen's keenest novel

Thumbnail image of Perfect Strangers (2001)Perfect Strangers (2001)

Complex and intelligent drama about buried family secrets

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Thumbnail image of Powell, Michael (1905-1990)Powell, Michael (1905-1990)

Director, Writer, Producer