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|Issue 1275||Saturday 21 November 1998|
Actress who excelled on screen in aristocratic roles and later stood loyally by her husband John Profumo
Valerie Hobson, who has died aged 81, was a leading lady in the British cinema of the Thirties and Forties and achieved a second, unsought, moment in the spotlight as the wife of John Profumo, the Tory minister at the centre of the Christine Keeler affair in 1963.
As an actress she knew, like Garbo, when to quit. She retired from show business at the age of 37 after her greatest success in 1953, as the governess in the first London production of The King and I, opposite Herbert Lom. She remarked then that she was unlikely in a lifetime to be offered as good a part and it was therefore an opportune moment for a last bow.
She married Jack Profumo in 1954, settling down to motherhood and the role of an MP's wife. Doubtless she would have continued to live quietly, but for the security scandal in 1963 that led to her husband's resignation as Secretary of State for War - because he had been having an affair with a woman also seeing a Soviet official, and had misled the House. He was forced also to resign his seat in the House, and thereafter he and his wife devoted themselves chiefly to charitable work - in her case for mentally handicapped children and for Lepra, a leprosy relief organisation.
In this role she won renewed respect and was much praised for standing loyally beside her husband and assisting in his social work in the East End of London. In 1975 she accompanied him to Buckingham Palace when he received a CBE for his work at Toynbee Hall.
Although she was one of several young actresses who scored in period roles in the late Forties - others were Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, Patricia Roc and Jean Simmons - Valerie Hobson had a certain upper-crust aloofness that set her apart from these and made her hard to cast. She was an unconvincing heroine - too prim and ladylike to seem desirable to matinée idols such as Stewart Granger, Gérard Philipe and other jeunes premiers of the day.
[They obviously didn't see her with Conrad Veidt in The Spy in Black or in Contraband. She wasn't all "prim and ladylike" in those - Steve]
Her best work was in aristocratic roles: as the prudish Edith D'Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and as the Countess in The Card (1951), adapted from the novel by Arnold Bennett. Both these films, in which her co-star was Alec Guinness, brought out the slightly smug, lecturing strain in her on-screen personality that made her an ideal Estella in the David Lean film of Great Expectations (1946), and (with due allowance for her untrained singing voice) a perfect Anna to Herbert Lom's King of Siam.
Valerie Babette Louise Hobson, the daughter of a naval captain, was born on April 14 1917 at Larne, Northern Ireland, and educated at St Augustine's Priory, London. She was stage-struck from a very young age. "I danced from the age of two," she claimed, "and I can't remember when I didn't have a hankering for the stage. At the age of nine, I couldn't wait any longer."
She and her nanny had come up from Portsmouth to London for a dental appointment and attended a Cochran audition they had read about in a theatrical paper. They were advised by the great C B himself to enrol Valerie at RADA. Her parents agreed and for a year, as a small child, she was on RADA's books before embarking on several years' ballet training. When her ballet aspirations were cut short by an attack of scarlet fever at the age of 14, she returned to RADA.
Leaving drama school the next year, she had one of those strokes of luck customarily associated with Hollywood folklore. Lunching at Claridge's with her mother, she was approached by a stranger who said he was casting for a West End show and felt that she would be well suited for a part. He proved to be Oscar Hammerstein and the show was Ball at the Savoy at Drury Lane, the theatre where she would end her career 22 years later in The King and I.
In Ball at the Savoy, she demonstrated a flair for comedy (assuming a Gracie Fields-style Lancashire lass accent) that few of her subsequent roles were able to exploit. It was a side of her talent that was to remain largely fallow; although she appeared in many comedies, for the most part she was not herself required to be funny, rather the butt of others' jokes.
Her West End success led to a series of appearances in British B pictures and "quota quickies" of the time. They included Two Hearts in Waltz Time, The Path to Glory and Badger's Green, a cricketing comedy written by R C Sherriff and produced by Anthony Havelock-Allan, who was later to become her first husband. When these films were made in 1934, Valerie Hobson was still a minor and had to be chaperoned to the studio by her old nanny.
At 18, on the strength of her work in these modest British pictures, she won a contract with Universal studios, something for which her contemporaries would have given their eye teeth. In her case, however, Tinseltown proved a disappointment. The studio had planned a version of Great Expectations and judged (correctly) that she would be excellent as Estella. In the end, however, Universal got cold feet and assigned the role to the then better known Jane Wyatt; Valerie Hobson had to wait another 12 years to play the part in the David Lean version of 1946.
She was then rushed (sometimes in a platinum wig) into a stream of unsuitable farces and chillers. Of these, only The Bride of Frankenstein (in which she played the Baron's wife) is remembered today; but she scored some success as Helena Landless in an adaptation of Dickens's uncompleted novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with Claud Rains. Her prowess as a screamer was much remarked upon, and Universal took the precaution of filing her top decibels in the studio sound library for use whenever a script called for a damsel in distress.
Valerie Hobson's brief Hollywood career came to an abrupt end with the reorganisation of Universal in the mid-Thirties following a financial crisis. Her contract was not renewed and she returned to England - where her Hollywood experience stood her in good stead. In 1937, she was cast opposite Douglas Fairbanks Jr in Jump for Glory, in which she caught the eye of Alexander Korda, who promptly signed her to a long-term contract. In the event, though, she made only two films for Korda: The Drum (1938), a tale of the North-West Frontier from a novel by A E W Mason, directed by Korda's brother Zoltan, and Q Planes (1939) with Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier. During this period, she also worked twice for Michael Powell in The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940).
In 1942, she came close to signing a second Hollywood contract. David O Selznick had expressed interest and dangled tempting parts before her in Claudia, Jane Eyre and The Keys of the Kingdom. That she did not accept was due chiefly to personal circumstances. In 1939, she had re-met and married Anthony (now Sir Anthony) Havelock-Allan, who had worked with her on Badger's Green and became her producer on This Man Is News. By 1942, with the war in full swing, she was unwilling to leave her husband in London. It was a wise decision; he was soon to become, with David Lean and Ronald Neame, one of the founders of the Cineguild production company, of which he eventually became head. Through Cineguild he provided his wife with some of her most memorable roles, including Estella in Great Expectations and the title role in Blanche Fury (1947), a period melodrama with Stewart Granger.
Havelock-Allan left Cineguild in 1947, taking Valerie Hobson with him. Together they made The Small Voice (1948), a familiar story about an ordinary family held to ransom by escaped convicts and co-starring Howard Keel in the days before his rise to fame as an MGM musical star.
Her subsequent career consisted of minor melodramas and comedies, of which only Kind Hearts and Coronets attained classic status, though more for Alec Guinness's virtuoso impersonation of eight members of the D'Ascoyne family than for her own contribution as the rather stuffy Edith.
Among her other films were The Rocking Horse Winner (1949), based on a story by D H Lawrence, Meet Me Tonight (1952), adapted from three Noël Coward playlets, and Knave of Hearts (1954), her last screen appearance.
Her marriage to Anthony Havelock-Allan, by whom she had two sons, was dissolved in 1952. By her marriage to John Profumo she had a further son, the writer David Profumo.
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