Priscilla and Robert

17 Jan
1. PRISCILLA 1945 PASTEL

Priscilla, 1945 © Nicholas Shakespeare

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare, which some of you may have been enjoying in abridged form on BBC Radio 4, is the astonishing true story of a young woman’s adventures, and misadventures, in the dangerous world of Nazi-occupied France.

Priscilla’s adventures involve our very own Robert Donat. Readers of both J C Trewin and Kenneth Barrow’s biographies of Robert will find no mention of Priscilla, but amongst his late aunt’s papers, Nicholas Shakespeare found a number of passionate letters to her from Robert, written between January and May 1945.

Robert had been introduced to Priscilla by her closest friend, Gillian Sutro.

On that evening, Priscilla had never been so alluring or so alone. She stood by the Sutros’ fireplace in her Schiaperelli ivory silk dress that left her neck bare. Donat looked into her ‘mild wild eyes, like a pregnant faun’, and was, he afterwards confessed, ‘enchanted’. They talked and the other guests receded.

The Germans banned English films in Paris, but Priscilla knew who Donat was. His hold on the public imagination is hard to exaggerate, even if his name does not register today …

… An unaccompanied young woman in a humdrum job, reclining in her velvet seat, might with Donat’s assistance shrug off the anxiety of the V bombs and for ninety minutes imagine herself playing opposite a man who, in the opinion of one critic, ‘can make you feel like he is in love with somebody, which few actors can’.

The problem was that the thirty-nine-year-old Donat could not spark in himself the same emotion. In 1940, concerned for their safety, his wife Ella had taken their children to Los Angeles. On his own for four years, Donat had rarely been so unhappy as on the evening he encountered Priscilla. He telephoned her the following morning at the Sutros, shaken by what she had unloosed.

Priscilla in 1945

Priscilla in 1945 © Nicholas Shakespeare

During the war and Ella’s absence, Robert had been pondering the future of their marriage, returning to his youthful notion of The Ideal Woman. Relationships with Rosamund John and Deborah Kerr had not tempted him to divorce Ella. Priscilla might have been ‘the one’.

‘I swore I would never again take any woman seriously – and here you are beginning to nestle down snugly under my skin, bother and confound you’.

But all did not go well, despite Robert’s many adoring letters. Priscilla deserted him to write a book, and Ella returned to England.

‘Darling,’ Donat wrote to Priscilla. ‘We have come to the end of our tether and don’t like to admit it to one another. Isn’t that the truth? It is only sensible to end it now before it becomes too hurtful.’

As we know, Robert would go on to divorce Ella and later, marry Renée Asherson. It is fascinating to catch a glimpse of a part of Robert’s life previously hidden, and the excerpts from his letters to Priscilla are a delight.

The story of his aunt Priscilla’s remarkable life is beautifully and tenderly recounted by Nicholas Shakespeare. Please read the book to find out more about Priscilla and Robert, and to discover what made Priscilla and her life so extraordinary. My father served in WW2, and for him the war was a matter of good versus evil, duty and serving your country. Priscilla lived in the shades of grey where one did what one could to survive. What would I have done? And you?

15. unblemished in wedding veil

Priscilla on her wedding day, 1938 © Nicholas Shakespeare

A pin-sharp biography which unfurls like gripping fiction… wonderful, haunting, thought-provoking
- The Times

I have not read a better portrait of the moral impossibility of that time and place for people, like Priscilla, who found themselves trapped in it
- Daily Telegraph

A tantalisingly original perspective of the Second World War…Shakespeare shines a moving, intriguing light on the moral quandaries faced by ordinary civilians
- Sunday Times

9781846554834

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare is published by Harvill Secker, part of Vintage Publishing.

Nicholas Shakespeare was born in Worcester in 1957 and grew up in the Far East and Latin America. He is a prize-winning novelist and biographer and Priscilla draws on his talents in both genres.
My thanks to Nicholas Shakespeare for his co-operation and for providing images of his aunt.
As always, my thanks to Brian Donat for his help and support.
All images and text excerpts copyright © Nicholas Shakespeare 2013

Gill Fraser Lee

The Hitchcock Players: Robert Donat, The 39 Steps

1 Aug

by , Wednesday, 01 August 2012

Hitchcockian fall guy: Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, with Lucie Mannheim as “Miss Smith.”BFI

It’s always a thrill watching The 39 Steps’ Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) doing daredevil feats on the Flying Scotsman as it speeds across the Forth Bridge, kissing a Scottish crofter’s jealously guarded wife, and bringing down the house with an inane extemporized speech at a constituency meeting.

A passive ex-Canadian rancher in London, Hannay must extricate himself from a murder rap and expose a spy ring by revealing unexpected daring, physical agility, and mental resourcefulness. Wrongly suspected of murdering a Mata Hari type (Lucie Mannheim) he thought was a prostitute but had no interest in bedding, he undergoes a momentous change, partially while manhandling the blonde (Madeleine Carroll) to whom he has been handcuffed in mutual dislike. There’s a sexual charge to his roughness that the lady only half-heartedly complains about, while his wit and thoughtfulness – he helps her hang up her damp stockings on a hotel room mantelpiece – melts her icy disdain.

Robert Donat, who was 29 when filming began in January 1935, seized his moment, finding the right tone of virility and nonchalance without becoming a Bulldog Drummond or a proto-Bond. Saving his skin is his main concern, saving the nation (likely to be threatened by his adversary’s leaking of a military secret to a foreign power) of secondary importance. He is thus refreshingly unlike John Buchan’s Scots-born, pro-English South African colonial, a wealthy, anti-Semitic establishment figure who, over the course of the Hannay stories, winds up General Sir Richard Hannay, KCB, DSO, in which guise he was as much the deskbound Buchan’s alter ego as Philip Marlowe was Raymond Chandler’s.

Wrongly accused like Hannay are Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man and Cary Grant in North by Northwest, but as the Hitchcockian fall guy who falls upwards, Donat is peerless. Even the milkman admires him.

  • The 39 Steps screens at the BFI Southbank on Friday 3 August

Watch an excerpt

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© Graham Fuller, all rights reserved.

This article originally published at The Arts Desk and reproduced by kind permission of the author.

The 39 Steps Blu-Ray

29 May

2012 is all about The 39 Steps for admirers of Robert Donat’s work. On 26 June, Criterion are releasing their much anticipated Blu-Ray of Hitchcock’s classic, in which RD starred. The disc will feature:

  • New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by Alfred Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane
  • Hitchcock: The Early Years (2000), a British documentary covering the director’s prewar career
  • Original footage from British broadcaster Mike Scott’s 1966 television interview with Hitchcock
  • Complete broadcast of the 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery
  • New visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff
  • Audio excerpts from François Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock
  • Original production design drawings
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Cairns

David Cairns, you may recall, has contributed to this site. Recently, at his excellent blog Shadowplay, David treated us to a short film in celebration of Hitch’s use of hands in The 39 Steps.

As Criterion’s DVD of The 39 Steps is far and away the best restoration of a Robert Donat film currently available, we can afford to be excited. We hope to bring you more information in due course.

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In addition, the BFI Southbank are staging a major retrospective of Alfred Hitchcock’s work this year: The Genius of Hitchcock. Between August and October, they will be showing all of Hitchcock’s films, including The 39 Steps. From June onwards there are associated events. Keep an eye on the BFI’s shiny new website for more information.