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Submitted by Roger P Mellor
November 9, 2001
Jenny Laird, actress: born Manchester 13 February 1917; married John Fernald (deceased; one daughter); died London 31 October 2001. Collectors of theatrical rarities will be particularly familiar with the name of Jenny Laird.
Although she had a busy career in the commercial theatre - and, subsequently, on both large and small screens - Laird was often to be found in the interwar and postwar years working on the London fringe, at venues such as the Q, Embassy, Little, Gate, Mercury or Lyric Hammersmith theatres, with an especially strong association with the Arts just off Leicester Square. An actress of considerable style and impeccable technique, she was always drawn to unusual or neglected plays alongside the most conventional repertoire.
Laird was born in Manchester in 1917, moving south early with her parents, and was educated at Maidstone High School, followed by London University. She had been drawn to the stage from girlhood but worked first in the fledgling world of advertising as a copy-writer, studying meanwhile with teachers such as the Central School's legendary Elsie Fogerty (who helped develop Laird's distinctively clear voice).
A first repertory appearance at the Brixton Theatre as Sydney, the agonised heroine of Clemence Dane's A Bill of Divorcement (1937) was followed by a series of good supporting roles in repertory and in the West End. She made a strong impact in the smart raillery of Comedienne (Haymarket, 1938) and was also widely noticed when she took over the part of Carol, the young actress at the centre of Robert Morley's comedy of theatrical life Goodness, How Sad! (Vaudeville, 1939), directed by Tyrone Guthrie, in which she rounds on a mean-spirited returning movie star to speak for a generation of young actors:
We're the theatre, see! You may have forgotten what it is, but I'll remind you. It's the place where you learned your job, which made an actor out of you, which sent you to Hollywood . . . there wouldn't be any pictures at all if it wasn't for the theatre.
An adventurous Alec Clunes wartime season at the Arts saw her in James Bridie's Mr Bolfry (1943) as Morag, Rose in The Recruiting Officer (1943) with Clunes and Trevor Howard, and a spirited Nora in A Doll's House (1945), especially telling in an unusually tense final confrontation with Torvald. The Ibsen was directed by her husband John Fernald, in many of whose meticulous productions she played, and of whom she was endlessly supportive during his later time as Principal of Rada.
After the war Laird's theatrical career continued to be varied, often moving between Shaftesbury Avenue appearances and "alternative" work. She was touching as the mistreated Claire Clairmont in an absorbing play on the Romantics, The Shelley Story (Mercury, 1947) and gave a wryly delightful comedy performance in a revival of Hubert Henry Davies's Edwardian comedy of manners The Mollusc (Arts, 1949).
One of her most distinguished performances came in a revival of Heartbreak House (Arts, 1950) directed by her husband in which, even amongst a stellar Shavian company including the great Walter Fitzgerald as Shotover, Laird shone as a tender, yearning Ellie Dunn, touchingly eloquent in the final act sitting together with Fitzgerald in the moonlight as flute and distant bombers together echo in the distance.
Laird stayed loyal to the Arts, returning in Chekhov - a stoic Sonya in Uncle Vanya and an edgy, unpredictable Masha in The Seagull (both 1953) - before appearing in the long West End run of the suspense play The House by the Lake (Duke of York's, 1956) with Flora Robson.
In the 1960s Laird and Fernald had enjoyable times at the Meadowbrook Theatre in Detroit where she had some rewarding roles, including Ella in John Gabriel Borkman (1967) and a capriciously imperious Arkadina in The Seagull (1968). She gave another keenly observed and unsentimental Chekhov performance as Ranevskya in The Cherry Orchard (1970) which she also played in New York (ANTA, 1970) - although always responsive to the comedy in Chekhov, she was still taken aback to see the play once billed as "The Cheery Orchard".
On returning to the UK, Laird continued her impressively varied workload in both regional theatre and in London. On television she had particularly strong roles in the suffragette series Shoulder to Shoulder (1976), playing the redoubtable Matron of Holloway, in All Creatures Great and Small (1978) and in a comparatively early episode of Inspector Morse (1987). For US television she had an enjoyable part as Baker Street's Mrs Hudson in the Sherlock Holmes drama The Masks of Death (1984).
Her film roles covered work as varied as 1939's Just William in which she played Ethel, the sister of Richmal Crompton's scapegoat, and some fine 1940s films including the Powell/Pressburger Black Narcissus (1947) shot at Pinewood but potently suggesting the Himalayas. Later movies included the unsettling Village of the Damned (1960).
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