Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Robson, Flora (1902-1984)


Main image of Robson, Flora (1902-1984)

An immensely distinguished character star of stage and screen: too plain for leading romantic roles, she wisely settled early into middle-aged parts, playing many a dangerous spinster (as in Poison Pen (d. Paul L. Stein, 1939), when she was still well short of forty), homely housekeeper (she was Nelly Dean in Hollywood's Wuthering Heights (US, d. William Wyler, 1939)) or regal personage.

She was, for instance, the Russian Empress Elisabeth in Catherine the Great (d. Paul Czinner, 1934), Elizabeth I in Fire Over England (d. William K. Howard, 1937), and, in an extract from this, The Lion Has Wings (d. Michael Powell, 1939), and Hollywood's The Sea Hawk (US, d. Michael Curtiz, 1940). But there was much more than this to her illustrious career.

Educated at Palmer's Green High School and RADA-Bronze Medallist, she was on the London stage by 1921, acting a vast range of classical and modern characters: she did Shakespeare at the Old Vic (1933-34), the murderous Ellen Creed in Ladies in Retirement (1940, NY) and a harrowing Mrs Alving in Ghosts (1958-59).

Her stage career is remarkable for the versatility of the leads she played, but her screen role-call is, unusually, almost of comparable quality. She is very moving as the careworn Mrs Ellis in Great Day (d. Lance Comfort, 1945), forcing Eric Portman to confront the sham of his life - and later forgiving him; is a startling Ftatateeta, "wrinkled deep in time" indeed, as her famous mistress clearly is not, in Caesar and Cleopatra (d. Gabriel Pascal, 1945) and even more so as the King's raddled ex-mistress in Saraband for Dead Lovers (d. Basil Dearden, 1948); is touching as a spinster reclaiming a lost love in Holiday Camp (d. Ken Annakin, 1947); makes an impressively unsympathetic, bossy MP in Frieda (d. Dearden, 1947); and her chainsmoking Miss Barker-Wise, another tough MP, in Guns at Batasi (d. John Guillermin, 1964) is a ripe, thoroughly known character.

The list is so full of mesmeric stuff that it is sad to note that her last film was the inane Clash of the Titans (UK/US, d. Desmond Davis, 1981), in which she plays a Stygian Witch, unrecognizable but for the distinctive voice. In Hollywood she was Oscar-nominated as Ingrid Bergman's mulatto servant in Saratoga Trunk (US, d. Sam Wood, 1945), one of her least achievements.

On TV before WW2 as Anna Christie (BBC, 1936), but she seems not to have taken the medium very seriously, contenting herself in later life with a few cameos. Created CBE in 1952, DBE in 1960; it is hard to think who might be her successor.

Biography: Flora: The Life of Dame Flora Robson by Kenneth Barrow (1981).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

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

Remarkably passionate melodrama set in a Himalayan convent

Thumbnail image of Frieda (1947)Frieda (1947)

Ealing social problem melodrama about postwar anti-German prejudice

Thumbnail image of Good-Time Girl (1948)Good-Time Girl (1948)

Gainsborough melodrama about a girl's descent into ruin

Thumbnail image of Lion Has Wings, The (1939)Lion Has Wings, The (1939)

Patriotic drama made as propaganda for British air forces

Thumbnail image of Rise of Catherine the Great, The (1934)Rise of Catherine the Great, The (1934)

Lavish epic charting the rise of Russia's great 18th Century leader

Thumbnail image of Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

Ealing's first Technicolor film, an uncharacteristic period melodrama

Thumbnail image of Two Thousand Women (1944)Two Thousand Women (1944)

Drama set in a women's internment camp during World War II

Thumbnail image of Human Jungle, The (1963-65)Human Jungle, The (1963-65)

Stylish drama starring Herbert Lom as an unorthodox psychiatrist

Related collections

Related people and organisations