By Michael Coveney
November 4, 2014
Renée Asherson, a vivacious and stylish actor, who has died aged 99, enjoyed a career on stage and screen spanning 65 years. She will be remembered as the French princess in Laurence Olivier’s wartime propaganda film version of Henry V, pertly trimming her garden roses while rehearsing the English words for delicate body parts.
She had made her screen debut earlier the same year, playing a small role in Carol Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944), Peter Ustinov’s script (from Eric Ambler’s story) showing how an army officer (David Niven) organised a bunch of disparate conscripts into a plausible fighting unit. She followed that with another war-time adventure, this time with more love interest, Anthony Asquith’s The Way to the Stars (1945), scripted by Terence Rattigan, in which she played John Mills’s girlfriend, with Michael Redgrave and Rosamund John as a more straightforwardly middle-class pair.
Asherson’s clarity of diction, open demeanour, bright blue eyes and retroussé nose were distinct physical hallmarks; she often seemed to combine the kittenishness of Vivien Leigh with the grace and watery-eyed gravity of Celia Johnson, as she progressed from leading Shakespearean roles at the Old Vic before the second world war to West End stardom soon after it. She played sisters to both those exemplary actors in two major productions: the London premiere, in 1949, of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, as Stella Kowalski to Leigh’s Blanche DuBois; and as the youngest of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in a 1951 revival featuring Johnson and Margaret Leighton as her siblings, as well as Diana Churchill, Harcourt Williams and Ralph Richardson.
Kenneth Tynan had already noted her pedigree as a “comely Juliet”, tormented and fragile, speaking in a “husky alto”, and as Bianca – “a syrupy puss, [who] gets her little behind well slippered” – in a raucous Taming of the Shrew led by Trevor Howard and Patricia Burke. Olivier was keen for her to join him at the Old Vic, but her career had taken a decisive turn elsewhere when she met the love of her life, the handsome film star Robert Donat, (the original Mr Chips) in a stage (and subsequent film) version of Walter Greenwood’s The Cure for Love in 1945.
She was born Renée Ascherson in London (dropping the “c” early in her acting career), the second daughter of Charles Ascherson, a businessman and bibliophile of German-Jewish extraction, and his second wife, Dorothy Wiseman. He had booked a honeymoon on the Titanic but had to cancel at the last minute due to an attack of appendicitis. Thus Renée arrived in the world, following her elder sister, Janet. Renée was scantly educated at Maltman’s Green girls’ school in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, and at finishing schools in Switzerland and France, due to ill health; she suffered from anorexia in her teenage years before deciding (to her mother’s dismay) to train for the stage, at Webber Douglas school in London.
She made her stage debut in 1935 in a small role in Romeo and Juliet, directed by John Gielgud, and soon became a fixture at the Birmingham Rep and other leading theatres, making her West End debut (while filming Henry V) in Enid Bagnold’s melodramatic backstage drama Lottie Dundass (1943) at the Vaudeville, with Ann Todd and Sybil Thorndike. When she met Donat, whose marriage had ended, they lived together in Three Kings Yard, Mayfair, behind the Savile Club, his home from home.
In John Boulting’s Festival of Britain film The Magic Box (1951), Donat played the pioneering photographer William Friese-Greene, while Asherson contributed a cameo among her peers, including Olivier, Thora Hird, Ustinov and Emlyn Williams. The couple married in 1953 when Donat completed his successful run in TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, but separated soon after; he was extremely ill with asthma, and became difficult to live with. Towards the end, Asherson unsuccessfully attempted a reconciliation. Donat died in 1958.
On stage, in 1969 Asherson appeared with Alastair Sim in Pinero’s The Magistrate, and with John Clements, Leighton and Hugh Paddick in Antony and Cleopatra, at Chichester; and as Mrs Parker in JB Priestley’s When We Are Married (with Peggy Mount and Fred Emney) at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, in 1970. Her television credits accelerated through the decades, and included an Arnold Bennett serialisation of Clayhanger (1976), the first series of Tenko (1981), and Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1989), in which she played Mrs Bartholomew. Her best TV films were Rodney Bennett’s Edwin (1984), scripted by John Mortimer, in which she played the possibly unfaithful wife of Alec Guinness’s retired high court judge; and Jack Clayton’s brilliant Memento Mori (1992), a perfect adaptation of Muriel Spark’s macabre comedy of senility, in which she sparkled in a hand-picked company of Maggie Smith, Cyril Cusack, Peter Eyre, Hird, Michael Hordern, Zoë Wanamaker, Stephanie Cole and John Wood; this was a high watermark of television drama.
Never a lead, but always a special irregular, her films included Don Sharp’s Rasputin (1966, starring Christopher Lee), Douglas Hickox’s critic-baiting Theatre of Blood (1973), Richard Attenborough’s Grey Owl (1999, with Piers Brosnan), and Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001), a spooky Henry James-inspired house haunting, starring Nicole Kidman, in which Asherson played an incredibly powerful scene, eyes glazed over, as an old medium at a seance (“Children, if you are dead, why do you stay in this house?”).
Mordant, witty and constantly sociable, Asherson spent her last years in apartments in London, and is survived by her nephew, the journalist Neal Ascherson, grandson of Renée’s father and his first wife.
ASHERSON, Renée (Dorothy Renée Ascherson)
Born: 5/19/1915, Kensington, London, England, U.K.
Died: 10/30/2014, London, England, U.K.
Renée Ascherson’s western - actress:
Grey Owl – 1999 (Carrie Belaney)