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Reid, Beryl (1919-1996)


Main image of Reid, Beryl (1919-1996)

Producers, like critics, are strange people: once they have pigeonholed an artist, nothing they do later can alter their status. Thus, Beryl Reid is categorised as a merry, apple-cheeked comedienne, despite the fact that her non-comic performances displayed an uneven, yet indisputable, talent for powerful characterisation.

She started in the professional theatre in 1936, appearing in summer seasons, concert parties and Christmas pantomime where she developed a colourful gallery of comic voices, impressions and monologues. Her reputation grew with constant BBC radio exposure during the 1940s, initially in her own show, A Quarter of an Hour with Beryl Reid, and later with Variety Bandbox and Workers' Playtime.

A spot on Henry Hall's Guest Night became a career turning point when she introduced the awful, pig-tailed schoolgirl character that was formally christened 'Monica' in another radio show, Starlight Hour, in 1952. Her later appearances in stage revues created another of her great characterisations, 'Marlene', a beatnik-type teenager with a flat Brummie accent. By now a household name, television called and she provided comedy support in former radio comedian Vic Wise's sketch series Vic's Grill (BBC, 1951) and in The Benny Hill Show (BBC), a monthly programme broadcast from 1955.

Although she had a very brief appearance in the 1940 George Formby comedy Spare a Copper (d. John Paddy Carstairs), her first credited film role came in The Belles of St Trinian's (d. Frank Launder, 1954); with notable cameo appearances in the comedies The Extra Day (d. William Fairchild, 1956), Two Way Stretch (d. Robert Day, 1960), and The Dock Brief (d. James Hill, 1962).

Her first leading television role , as an unsophisticated but confident girl-about-town in the sitcom The Most Likely Girl (ITV, 1957), was a short-lived affair. However, a few years later, she had a successful broadcasting partnership with comedian Jimmy Edwards: the radio presentations of Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor (both 1962), and the six-part North-country farce Bold as Brass (BBC, 1964), developed from an earlier TV play (Man O' Brass, tx. 28/11/1963) about the domestic discord between a married couple; he dedicated to the ear-shattering euphonium and she a long-suffering listener. Shamefully, television continued to undervalue her talents: even her own series, Beryl Reid Says... Good Evening (BBC, 1968), seemed like a return to her five-shows-a-day revue work of the 1950s.

Fortunately, 1968 saw minor but satisfying roles in Star! (US), Inspector Clouseau (d. Bud Yorkin), and The Assassination Bureau Limited (d. Basil Dearden). Her greatest triumph, however, came with The Killing of Sister George (US, d. Robert Aldrich, 1968). When first asked by the Bristol Old Vic to play the lesbian radio actor in Frank Marcus' 1965 stage play, it presented a career-changing move which revealed her as a gifted dramatic actress (her performance won her the Antoinette Perry Award; the 1966 Broadway production won her a Tony). In her earlier work, Reid had made an audacious frontal attack on her audience's susceptibilities; here she seemed willing to risk a harder characterisation, involving less obvious audience identification and with a more subtle integration of humour with narrative.

The film version of Joe Orton's 1964 play Entertaining Mr Sloane (d. Douglas Hickox, 1970) gave Reid another outstanding role (as the grotesque, fluttery man-eater Kath) and appeared to consolidate her reputation as a serious actress. The demanding role of Mrs Malaprop, with her gloriously disordered vocabulary, in The Rivals (for Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 17/5/1970) seemed tailor-made; revived some years later (in a somewhat raddled version) as milady's maid Mrs Slipslop in Joseph Andrews (d. Tony Richardson, 1976).

Unfortunately, both cinema and television remained stubbornly oblivious of Reid's capabilities, squandering her talents with disposable big-screen horrors (The Beast in the Cellar, d. James Kelly, 1970; Dr Phibes Rides Again, d. Robert Fuest, 1972; Psychomania, d. Don Sharp, 1972) and end-of-the-pier TV comedy (the mercifully short-lived Alcock and Gander for ITV, 1972).

Only her sensitive performance as Connie Sachs, a former Secret Service intelligence expert dying of cancer, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC, 1979) and its sequel Smiley's People (BBC, 1982) displayed a character of note. The first brought a Best Actress BAFTA nomination while the sequel finally won her the overdue award.

Despite promising still untapped dramatic power, she was cast in later years in such parts as the endearingly eccentric Grandma Mole in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 (ITV, 1985) and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (ITV, 1987), and as Fitz's mum in the Cracker (ITV, 1993-96) story 'To Say I Love You' (tx. 11-18-25/10/1993).

She was awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honours list in 1985 and received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Comedy at the 1991 British Comedy Awards.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970)Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970)

Filmed version of Joe Orton's irreverent comedy, starring Beryl Reid

Thumbnail image of Beiderbecke Tapes, The (1987)Beiderbecke Tapes, The (1987)

Alan Plater-scripted comedy thriller about two school teachers

Thumbnail image of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Classic adaptation of John Le Carré's cold war novel

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Thumbnail image of Funny Women on TVFunny Women on TV

Comedy with a female slant

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