Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Submitted by Nicky Smith
From: "Brief Encounters : Lesbians and Gays in British Cinema 1930-1971"
By Stephen Bourne
In her entire film career Judith Furse never really had a memorable part, except of course as Sister Briony in BN, and the depth and sincerity she managed to give that role is astonishing. At the beginning of the film, when the Reverend Mother sends Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) to a deserted palace in the Himalayas to open a school/hospital she says: "I will give you Sister Briony. You will need her strength". In the cold, remote world of the Himalayas, Sister Briony proves to be the "rock" of the group of nuns, always loyal and dependable. There is intimacy and warmth in her scenes with Sister Clodagh (always beautifully lit by cameraman Jack Cardiff) but in these scenes we never see Sister Briony's face. We are not permitted to observe how she looks at Sister Clodagh in these brief encounters.
Strikingly handsome David Farrar is cast as rough, macho Mr Dean, the cool cynical, British agent who lives nearby. He is presented as a sex object, rare for a British film at this time. Eroticized by the constant display of his legs and bare chest. Mr Dean is one of the most virile and sexiest men ever seen in the movies. [David Farrar said it was the character he was most reluctant to cast off] Former child star Sabu plays Dilip Rai, the young "General" sent to the nuns to be educated. Exotic-looking, but not ridiculed, he tells Sister Clodagh: "You don't need to count me as a man. I'm only interested in studious things." He is the opposite of Mr Dean, soft spoken, sensitive and effeminate, he is as camp a creation as great as Maria Montez in one of her Hollywood Arabian Nights adventures. We see him do "unmanly" things such as typing, and pulling out a scented peacock blue handkerchief. He describes the scent to Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) as "Black Narcissus. It comes from the Army and Navy stores in London". Sister Ruth is not impressed with Dilip Rai. She describes him as "vain. Like a peacock"
Unsurprisingly Dilip Rai is in love with Mr Dean. [Well he certainly admires him, bit "in love with"?] "Oh I do like his voice. It's so nice and loud" he tells Sister Clodagh. "I think he's lovely, don't you?" It is an innocent attraction to an older, stronger man, but old Ayah (May Hallatt), the outspoken, bawdy guardian of the palace does not approve. She conditions him to become heterosexual by forcing him to beat the native girl Kanchi (Jean Simmons). "You're going to be a great man" says Ayah. "Finish the beating and begin to be a man.!" In this scene Dilip Rai loses his innocence. He is no longer a boy, or treated like one. After Ayah leaves, Dilip Rai goves Kanchi his jewels and her head falls seductively on his shoulder. Afterwards the young couple run away. Heterosexuality has won the day !
Or has it? Later, in a very emotional scene between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean, she beaks down and tells him "You can't hold back nature and what is natural. You can't stop it interfering with you". She goes on to explain that she had to take Dilip Rai into the school, and couldn't evict the Holy Man, two disruptive influences. "I couldn't stop the wind blowing in the air, from being as clear as crystal" she continues. "I couldn't hide the mountains" This is sheer poetry and central to the film, for BN is telling us what is natural cannot be contained, or restrained. It has to flow. This is a film of extraordinary power and resonance for minority groups, especially lesbians and gays.
Today Judith Furse is remembered for playing over-bearing battle-axes, and the menacing leather-clad, freak Dr Crow in Carry On Spying (1954). However, when she commenced her film career she was often cast in kind and gentle roles and in 1957 gave a memorable performance as the sympathetic and understanding nun, Sister Briony, in Black Narcissus. The film's director, Michael Powell, later recalled that Furse came from a 'talented and attractive family' that had been 'associated with he Old Vic and the avant-garde theatre for some years'. He also described Judith Furse as a lesbian who was 'unforgettable with her huge body, commanding height and masculine voice'
Judith Furse came from a military family. The daughter of Lieutenant-General Sir William Furse, she was born at Deepcut Farm, Camberley, Surrey, in 1912. Her brother, Roger, became a celebrated stage designer and painter who occasionally worked in films. In 1948 he won an Oscar for his Art Direction and Set Decoration of Olivier's Hamlet. Their sister, Jill, died tragically young at the age of 28 in childbirth in 1944. See Note
Judith was educated at St Paul's Girl's School and was a student at the Old Vic in 1932-2. By the end of the decade she had become a respected stage actress and director and in 1939 Judith made her screen debut as Flora, Greer Garson's companion in Goodbye Mr Chips. Underneath Judith's gruffness was this softness and in most of her early films. Such as Johnny Frenchman (1944) and Helter Skelter (1949), she gave convincing performances as gentle wives and mothers. In the comedy Quiet Weekend (1946), Judith appears as the warm, friendly, maternal Mrs Ella Spender who arranges village concerts. 'I must have arranged more frightful concerts than anyone now living !' she says. Derek Farr describes her as 'Our famous producer, a sort of CB Cochran of Throppleton'.
Sadly, by the 1950s, Judith found herself being cast for her physical type rather than for her emotional qualities and, apart from Black Narcissus, she was never given a role which allowed her scope. She was cast for her immediate physical impact and, after a while, it became boring, for Judith's voice and manner did not go with this stentorian female. After Black Narcissus her roles, and her acting lacked energy. For example in the 1949 comedy Dear Mr Prohack Judith has one scene as the doyenne of the avant-garde socialist theatre. It's rather a nice part but she doesn't throw herself into it with the gusto of someone like Margaret Rutherford. Judith's holding back.
One of Judith's most overtly lesbian appearances occurred on television in 1960 when she appeared in W Somerset Maugham's The Three Fat Women of Antibes with Anne Shelton and Joan Young. Judith played the mannish member of the trio, a wonderful character called Frank who dresses in a collar and tie and plays golf ! What a pity she didn't play Sister George ! [hear, hear especially as Beryl Reid admitted being somewhat embarrassed at the scenes in the lesbian club - Nicky].
In 1966 Judith made one of her last film appearances as a villager in Sky West and Crooked but by that time she was just going through the motions. Her heart wasn't in it. In 1972 she made her last film appearance in The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie as Edna Everage's 'minder', a shocking waste of talent. In reality Judith probably didn't want to play big ladies. Like her contemporary Hattie Jacques, maybe there was a little lady, a charming romantic heroine, dying to get out. Instead she was cast for her bulk. In British films she was a gentle giant and an interesting talent was wasted.
Very little is known about Judith Furse's private life, Interestingly when her brother-in-law published an autobiography, he didn't mention her at all. When he talks about Jill Furse's illness there is one mention of 'her sister'. See Note
Judith Furse died in 1974 at the age of 62.
Note: It is often reported (as in the case above) that Judith Furse & designer Roger K. Furse were siblings of West End actress Jill Furse. This appears not to be the case. I am told that Jill Furse might well have been a distant relation but this would explain why there is no mention of Judith (or Roger K.) in the biography of Jill by her husband.