The miracle of Thomas Becket’s elbow and Robert Donat’s voice

12 Dec

On 29 December 1170, four knights loyal to King Henry II of England murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the city’s cathedral.

More than eight centuries later, a bone fragment believed to be from Becket’s elbow was temporarily brought from Esztergom Basilica in Hungary, where it had been kept for centuries, to the site of his assassination.

Henry II appointed Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161 because he wanted an ally in his disputes with the church. But, by the end of the decade, Becket had become overly pious, wearing a sackcloth shirt, consuming only bread and water, spurning riches and staunchly defending the faith. The poet T. S. Eliot explored that transformation in his play Murder in the Cathedral, first performed in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral on 19 June 1935.

Becket and the king clashed over the supremacy of church and state (premonitions here of the later argument between Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey) and Becket went into exile in France after being accused of treachery. In 1170, he returned to England but soon angered Henry by excommunicating the Archbishop of York, who had sided with the king against Rome. It was then that Henry is supposed to have shouted, “What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

Carrow-Psalter.jpgOn 29 December, four knights entered Canterbury Cathedral and hacked Becket to death in front of the high altar. Edward Grim, a monk, observed the attack from a hiding place and later wrote down what he saw. Two years later Becket was canonised and his shrine began attracting pilgrims from across Europe. Becket’s martyrdom is depicted in the mid-13th century Carrow Psalter, held at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1220 Becket was reburied and relics from his body, said to bring about miracles, were dispersed across Europe, with part of his elbow ending up in Esztergom. Three centuries later, during the Reformation, Henry VIII – upstaged by the cult of St Thomas – ordered his shrine to be destroyed and his remains obliterated.

On its recent journey, the fragment of Becket’s miraculous elbow was temporarily reunited with a piece of  his skull – kept at Stonyhurst College in northern England – before stopping at Rochester Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral. It was then returned to Hungary.

Donat-BecketEliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral was commissioned for the 1935 Canterbury Festival. Eliot must have read Edward Grim’s eyewitness account of the murder, since he uses some its language in his play. In 1953, the Old Vic Theatre in London invited one of Britain’s finest actors, Robert Donat, to play the part of Becket in a new production directed by Robert Helpmann. It was an enormous challenge for the ailing actor, who had long suffered from crippling bouts of asthma and who would die five years later from a brain tumour after collapsing on the set of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

On the first night, unknown to the audience, there were two oxygen tanks in the wings just in case, but they were not needed. Donat’s appearance on stage was greeted with a wild burst of cheering and, after what everyone agreed was an astonishing performance, there were twenty curtain-calls. Ironically, Becket’s opening lines include:

“They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that action is suffering
And suffering is action.”

Donat’s celebrated performance was recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios in May 1953. The original tapes were remastered and issued on CD by EMI in 2006. The recording, well worth seeking out, captures what The Daily Telegraph critic, Campbell Dixon, called “A voice of magical charm and effortless authority which only a clod could hear unmoved.”


By Philip Lee, at whose excellent blog Quintessential Ruminations this piece was originally published. We’d like to thank Philip for giving permission to re-publish his article here.

Renée Asherson (19 May 1915 – 30 October 2014)

5 Nov

41ovMfW3TYL._SY300_We are sad to report the passing of Renée Asherson, aged 99, on 30 October.

Renée was Robert Donat’s second wife. They married in 1953 and remained married, though separated, until he died in 1958. Renée never re-married.

Renée was born in London during the First World War (19 May, 1915), and studied acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Her first stage role was a walk on in John Gielgud’s Romeo and Juliet in 1935.

In 1945, she appeared as Millie Southern opposite Robert Donat in Walter Greenwood’s northern comedy, The Cure for Love. In 1947, RD and Renée appeared as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and in 1949 in RD’s film version of The Cure for Love. By now, they were a couple. Renée and RD worked together only once more, in The Magic Box in 1951.

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Robert and Renée in The Cure for Love

In 1953, after RD’s triumph on stage in Murder in the Cathedral, he and Renée were married.

After RD’s death in 1958, Renée continued to work both on stage and screen. Her last film appearance was in The Others in 2001.

Renée Asherson is perhaps best known for her exquisite performance as Princess Katherine in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V.

A stand-out in her later career came in Memento Mori in 1992, opposite Maggie Smith, Michael Hordern, Thora Hird, Cyril Cusack and Maurice Denham.

mori 2

We send our deepest sympathies to all who are mourning Renée.


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, and by the way, did I tell you guys about the Elo rating system I have been using? make sure to check it out at p4rgaming.com.

‘Lease of Life’ (1954) review

18 Feb

We are delighted to welcome a guest post from Dr Keith M Johnston, Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia and Ealing Studios expert.

In a 1954 press release promoting their forthcoming production slate, Ealing Studios heralded ‘the production of large-scale subjects, the majority of which will be in colour’.[1] This year would turn out to be the height of Ealing’s colour film production, an eclectic mix of four films including horse-racing drama The Rainbow Jacket (1954), African adventure sequel West of Zanzibar (1954), Hollywood satire The Love Lottery (1954) and Lease of Life, the Robert Donat-starring drama about a small village reverend who reassesses his life when he learns he only has a year to live. The film has particular resonance for being Donat’s penultimate film, and the only one he would make for Ealing: but it also has strong ties to the other films either side of it, most notably the reliance on a recognisable male star (Donat here, David Niven in The Love Lottery; Anthony Steel in West of Zanzibar), and the use of extensive location shooting (Epsom for The Rainbow Jacket; Lake Como for The Love Lottery; Kenya and Zanzibar for West of Zanzibar; the East Riding of Yorkshire for Lease of Life).

For modern viewers more used to the association of Ealing Studios with their succession of comedies from the late 1940s and early 1950s (the likes of The Lavender Hill Mob, 1949, or The Man in the White Suit, 1951), Lease of Life can be a challenging film: often slow-moving, episodic, and with a late narrative event that can feel out of keeping with the characters that have been built up throughout. Of course, only a third of Ealing’s output was ever purely comedic, but that is the picture of the studio that tends to dominate: alongside ideas of it as being cosy, whimsical and restrained. A safe piece of British cinema history, then: not rebellious like Gainsborough Studios, or the fantasies of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Yet as Lease of Life proves, Ealing was more than capable of offering its own ‘mild revolutions’ (to use Michael Balcon’s phrase), its own small rebellions.

Robert Donat

Adrienne Corri and Kay Walsh

At the heart of Lease of Life is a simple story, and a simple man: Reverend William Thorne (Donat) is safe and predictable, a dull but loveable figure who bores the children in his small village church of Hinton St John and barely has money to support himself, his wife Vera (Kay Walsh) and daughter Susan (Adrienne Corri). Thorne is moral, abstemious and restrained, and Donat plays him with a world-weariness that is visible in his every action, but particularly in his lined and expressive face (while it is tempting to link Donat’s appearance here to his illness, as I did in an earlier blog post, Gill has pointed out that he was made-up for the role). Unbeknown to Thorne, he is being considered for a post at Gilchester Cathedral (he is invited to give a sermon to assess his potential) and, as his doctor soon reveals, he has around a year to live. The combination of those two events leads to the clash at the heart of the film, around the role of religion in an individual’s life (it is one of few Ealing films to directly engage with the religious) and the need to be honest, that life cannot be lived in the belief that simply sticking to the rules will make you a good person: “the important thing is not just to be good, but to be good human beings.”

This sermon is the big dramatic moment in the film, occurring around the halfway point, and marking Thorne’s move towards doing the ‘right thing’. Donat makes the most of the sermon, showing Thorne’s uncertainty as he chooses to ditch his safe and prepared speech and speak from the heart instead. It is a potentially showy moment for an actor, but Donat pitches it well, understanding Thorne is not grand-standing, but being open, honest, heartfelt. The film counterpoints the performance with some comic moments of editing: one of the schoolboys in the audience is shown hiding a copy of Alias the Saint inside his hymnbook, before he becomes more interested in Thorne’s words; equally, the shocked expressions on the senior members of the Cathedral and school, and the resigned quality of Vera’s face, are a useful balance to Thorne’s eloquence.

Thorne’s revolution then has to be seen as mild: from being a pushover, he now tells one of his parishioners off for being a spoilsport when she complains about the grave digger being drunk, and then agrees to look after money for Mr Sproatley (Beckett Bould) so it is away from the gold-digging hands of the much-younger Mrs Sproatley (Vida Hope). These are hardly world-shaking rebellions, but compared to Thorne’s normal behaviour, and taking into account the small village society, they are seen (and played) as major shocks to the safe, traditional world Thorne existed at the centre of. Yet the villagers also seem satisfied that Thorne has woken up in this way: we see several parishioners pleased to see energy and passion in their reverend, not the more standard cheerful resignation.

Yet while Thorne might struggle with his rebellion (he becomes the centre of attention for newspaper reports and scandal), the film ultimately supports his belief. The attitude of the scriptwriter (Eric Ambler) and director (Charles Frend) towards female rebellion is more complex: Mrs Sproatley has taken up with a young, handsome farmhand while her husband is dying, which is obviously not the ‘right thing’; Susan Thorne wins a piano scholarship to the London School of Music and threatens to run away if her parents don’t support her, yet the film cannot decide whether to make her strong, supportive or stroppy, often combining all three characteristics in one scene; while Vera Thorne is the calm, loving mother and wife who, in the third act, steals £100 of Sproatley’s money to pay for Susan’s new life. This has the potential to be the most shocking rebellion of all, yet the film struggles to justify or explain it: Vera is stressed and worried through the film, particularly after Thorne’s sermon and Susan’s news about London, but we don’t see her snap, or really understand the reasons for her out-of-character actions. Perhaps this is because the film tries to play it as a mystery – who could have taken the £100? – but there are no real suspects or tension here. Instead, it is left to Kay Walsh’s performance to try and make the fractured character beats coherent when Vera breaks down in front of Thorne, claiming she was practising what he had preached, aiming to do the right thing to give Susan the life she deserved. Unfortunately, the film backs away from the hysteria and rebellious nature of her actions to allow Thorne to prove himself as the stronger character, and act as a male provider for both the women in his life.

His solution is a curious one and, again, links the film to wider concerns in Ealing’s other films. Thorne chooses to abandon his principles around the hyperbolic media coverage of his ‘shocking’ sermon (which, to a modern audience, doesn’t feel shocking at all) and accept a commission from a national newspaper to write opinion pieces for them. This is a very different perspective on the media industries expressed in Ealing’s Meet Mr Lucifer (1953), which mocks the television industry and the spate of 3-D filming, or The Love Lottery, where David Niven is coerced and blackmailed by shadowy corporations (with fingers in many pies, but most of them include media). Thorne’s rebellion actually pulls him further into traditional ideologies of the mass media, and it is a decision he makes not because it is ‘right’ but because otherwise he will have to reveal his wife’s criminal action.

So, the film is a complex mess of morals and actions, not all of them coherent. Visually, it can be impressive, with bursts of colour throughout (although the Eastman Colour print has not aged well, with some noticeable fading of brighter hues throughout) – the blue skies of the East Riding dominate many of the scenes, the red book cover of Alias the Saint is a beacon amid the grey stone of the cathedral, and Adrienne Corri’s auburn hair and bright clothing often place her at the centre of this colour film (there is also a nice scene where she and Kay Walsh wear the same colours, although in different clothing styles: it is a brief visual reference to the maternal bond that will, later, lead Vera to steal the money).

Lease of Life is unlikely to challenge most people’s perceptions of what an Ealing Studios film can be, although it does point to many lesser-known dramatic films within their back catalogue. It is flawed and problematic (not least in its depiction of supposedly strong women) but fascinating and rich, particularly around the collision of religion, mass media and manufactured scandal. And at its heart lie committed performances from Donat, Walsh and Corri that struggle with the material, but provide the coherence that the film might otherwise lack.


[1] ‘Ealing Studios’ Production Plans for 1954,’ Ealing Studios Cuttings File, BFI collections.

© Keith M. Johnston, all rights reserved.

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Sadly, ‘Lease of Life’ is not currently available on DVD, but we hope this situation will change, and that the BFI will consider showing it as part of their Ealing retrospective later this year.

Poetic Christmas wishes from us to you …

29 Dec

Jenny and I would like to thank everyone who has visited our fledgling site so far. We’ve been really encouraged by the all the lovely things you’ve said, and you’ll be delighted to hear we have many exciting plans for the New Year.

In the meantime, here is Robert reading one of the Christmas poems from the posthumously released album Robert Donat Reads His Favourite Poetry: When Icicles Hang from Love’s Labour’s Lost. Settle yourself in a warm and comfortable place, have a glass of something fortifying to hand, and enjoy …

More on Robert’s beautiful poetry readings very soon …

Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year.