This week’s post is based on another recent donation, relating to a former resident of the Borough. We were given a small collection of film stills and publicity photos together with this page from an old Spotlight – type reference book on working actors.
By an odd coincidence I’ve started writing this post on July 16th, the day Elsie Wagstaff died in 1985. (She was born on July 1st 1899). At the time of her death she lived in Observatory Gardens, not too far from here.
In a 1981 Who’s who of British film actors she is described as a “small part character actress, mainly on stage. Films sporadic”. It’s true that there are only a dozen films on the list spread between 1938 and 1962 but that information only made the task of trying to match the photographs to the films more interesting.
This must be one of her early head shots.
Although I never found her in one of the standard works on the subject, Who’s Who in the Theatre, I did find a short biography in a 1954 book “Radio and television who’s who” (Yes I know there’s a short Wikipedia entry, but where’s the fun in that?). As well as details of her theatrical education it told me she was in South Africa in 1926.
This looks like a stage picture from that tour.
She had been educated at Cheltenham College and the Guildhall School of Music. She had diplomas in drama and elocution. She started in a chorus line in 1919 but her first starring role was as Sadie Thompson in a play based on the story Rain by Somerset Maugham. (Gloria Swanson took the role in a silent movie version named after the character in 1928). Her first film role was in a short comedy called Apron Fools
In this set of pictures we don’t see much of the young Elsie. This could be from one of a couple of north country comedies she appeared in.
There was one called Cotton Queen, set in Blackpool featuring Stanley Holloway but I can’t be sure this is the one.
I like this picture:
But you can tell she was making the transition from juvenile lead to character actress. The man standing next to her bears a slight resemblance to George Formby, unfortunately for him. Here is Elsie looking scornful:
Are those two about to do a song and dance routine? If any film buffs can spot the films, I’d be very grateful. Here’s another head shot.
There are are few stills in the collection on the back of which Elsie’s character is identified.
Here she’s playing a character called Aunt Hetty in Lassie from Lancashire (1938). The lead, named Marjorie Browne did a sort of imitation of Gracie Fields and her career seems to have been limited to three films of that kind (she later co-starred with Tommy Trinder and George Formby). Although Elsie was playing stern looking spinsters, her career lasted a lot longer.
Aunt Hetty is pinched by the rozzers. (Possibly)
This is a film we really should be able to identify:
The vicar, in a period costume. The girl in the wheelchair. The servant boy. And Elsie, in a really severe uniform. All the clues are there. A post war costume drama? Or is it an early television role? Elsie seems to have found some success on TV.
These are a couple of pictures I can’t help but like:
Elsie in a trance, or just sleepwalking. (See comment below – that is George Formby)
And below, giving it some on the accordion.
In the post war period she also had some success as a dramatic coach and diction director (accents seem to have been a speciality of hers). The 1954 directory credits her with discovering Geraldine McEwan, who would have been an up and coming actress at the time.
When it comes to actors of course you inevitably turn to imdb and there I was able to follow her television career fully and find her name in many shows familiar from my childhood. I can’t say I actually remember seeing the medical dram Emergency Ward 10 but I remember it being on. This looks like Elsie playing the matron.
She’s giving that plausible young man with the hat a suspicious sidelong glance. She was also in Z-Cars, Dixon of Dock Green, the Adventures of Robin Hood and adaptations of Great Expectations and the Woman in White. The most famous films she was in at this time were Bryan Forbes’s Whistle down the wind (1961) and the Albert Finney film of gritty northern life, Saturday night and Sunday morning (1960) (where her experience of north country accents would have been useful).
Here is Elsie in 1954.
And here she is as “Aunt Rosa” in something called Celia, a stage play I think.
Her final film role was in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, (as “wild one”, presumably one of the inmates of the asylum where the good doctor is practicing his body stitching arts) not one of Hammer’s best but it was nice to think of Elsie keeping company with Peter Cushing, Madeline Smith and the rest.
For a final look at a Kensington actor let’s go back to her early days.
Good glove work, Elsie.
Thanks to Maggie Tyler, who brought us these pictures, and to Open Age from where she got them. I’m always ready to take in memories of interesting people who lived in Kensington and Chelsea. If you can add any more information about the films, please let me know.