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Zetterling, Mai (1925-1994)

Actor, Director, Writer

Main image of Zetterling, Mai (1925-1994)

After an impoverished childhood and training at the Royal Dramatic Theatre School, Stockholm, Mai Zetterling made film and stage debuts in her mid teens. Her starring role in Frenzy (Hets, Sweden, 1944) brought her to the attention of British filmmakers and she came to England to play Frieda (1947), Basil Dearden's version of the stage play about the problems of a RAF officer's German bride in dealing with postwar prejudice in his home town.

Rank put her under contract but didn't find anything very rewarding for the fragile-looking blonde to do: she had fair chances in two displaced-persons dramas, Portrait from Life (d. Terence Fisher, 1948) and The Lost People (d. Bernard Knowles, 1949), looked decorative as Jack Watling's seducer in Quartet ('The Facts of Life' segment, d. Ralph Smart, 1948), but could do nothing - no one could have - with The Bad Lord Byron (d. David MacDonald) and The Romantic Age (d. Edmond T.Gréville, 1949). She co-starred with Hollywood's Richard Widmark in A Prize of Gold (d. Mark Robson, 1955) and Tyrone Power in Seven Waves Away (d. Richard Sale, 1956), and, in Hollywood, with Danny Kaye in Knock on Wood (US, 1954).

But, of the rest, only the Welsh-set comedy, Only Two Can Play (d. Sidney Gilliat, 1961), as the object of Peter Sellers's illicit passion, gave her anything worthwhile during her starring career. As a character player, she was better served by the grandmother role in the US-made The Witches (d. Nicolas Roeg, 1989) and by Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda (1990), but by then she was more interested in directing, scoring a considerable success with the Swedish Night Games (Nattlek, 1966) and Scrubbers (1982), for HandMade, about young female offenders sent to Borstal. Her other directorial work was made elsewhere than Britain. She married/divorced (1) Tutte (Samuel) Lemkow and (2) writer David Hughes, with whom she co-wrote the screenplay of the short film The Wargame (1962) she directed.

Autobiography: All Those Tomorrows (1985)

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Frieda (1947)Frieda (1947)

Ealing social problem melodrama about postwar anti-German prejudice

Thumbnail image of Hidden Agenda (1990)Hidden Agenda (1990)

Tough, Belfast-set thriller about the British army's 'shoot to kill' policy

Thumbnail image of Scrubbers (1982)Scrubbers (1982)

A female answer to Scum (by the same author), set in a women's borstal

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Thumbnail image of Women and FilmWomen and Film

Women on both sides of the camera

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