Conversations Around My (Dead) Mother

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Several trunks sit forlorn in my attic, each overflowing to their brim with theatre programs, articles from newspapers and magazines, photos from films, plays and newspapers and a ton of press cuttings. These are all that is left today of my mother who died several years ago in her 76th year.

Every now and then, and always prompted by guilt,  I slip up the ladder to pull out something at random. This is in the hope that a cohesive plan of action as to what should be done with all this memorabilia will pop into my head. And every time, without fail, I dissolve into an emotional muddle. I am unable to make meaningful sense of all the stuff, the only tangible remnants of the life that from its start was clearly one hell of a ride.

Thrown together by the fates as mother and daughter, my duty now is to assemble a tribute for posterity to this woman's life, a life so well led. What is needed is a monument to her sterling and highly unusual achievements. It is, above all,  also a tribute to our mother-daugher relationship, always unfathomable to others, complex in the extreme, defying all reason but passionate to the last. 

As I take each item out of the box, I can clearly hear her distinctive voice springing back to life with humour, encouragement and sometimes also with criticism, mild scorn and disapproval but always with consummate, perfect maternal love. In her larger-than-life life, there was the actress, her work, and those she loved and who loved her. The facts are easy enough to establish. Less obvious are the post-vital 'conversations' that those facts and memorabilia give rise to.

This, then, is her tribute, her very own 'memor.MA.bil.ia', woven with absolute affection  as a record of our continuing conversation which, unlike her, will never die.

Her autograph, on sale on Ebay in June 2009


From The Trunk:

Several family photo albums, school reports, deeds, wills

Life played early tricks on Hart when in 1934 a family-owned mansion, Cranfield Court, one that any future movie star would most certainly have loved to dwell in, became - along with the sad and more humble fortunes of people the world over - the victim of The Depression as well as of successive and harshly punitive death duties

Her father, James George Hart came from a Protestant family of Harts (from Great Barford in Bedfordshire for centuries) and Bushbys who, between them, from the middle of the 19th century had built row after row of substantial houses in the county town of Bedford. Streets-ful on roads such as Shakespeare, Kimbolton, Waterloo and more. 

However, James George who had been on General Smith-Dorrien’s staff at The Second Battle of Ypres (and was 'mentioned in despatches' for rescuing horses) was chronically chlorine gassed, non-plussed, depressed and soon prone to alcohol. The London production of 'Warhorse' succeeds well in bringing  much of the horrors of that time to a new 21st century audience.

'Gassed' by the artist John Singer Sergeant

When the American Armed Forcs were looking for an airbase near London before World War Two, her father sold Cranfield while drunk for a sum of money that was less than one tenth of the agreed sum and also less than that received subsequently for the sale of the main house staircase to a wealthy collector in the U.S. The overly large and spooky mansion was soon demolished and is today the home to Cranfield University where nearby the aerodrome sock still flies. 

When J.G. Hart, living in Elvaston Place in SW7  (the neighborhood that his daughter would come to live in and love later on) died in London not long after the War, the young actress was in a mess and strapped with massive debts she had not incurred.  Left with a heap of deeds to 100 houses but also with strictly rent-controlled tenancies and massive, pitiful rents, huge costs and unsustainable death duties meant nearly all had to go.  

Eleanor, nee O’Rourke, her mother had always been a keen part-time actress herself  (though of the strictly amateur kind, perhaps it was this that gave Hart her phobia of ‘The Ams’?) and relentlessly pushed the very young Diane into the theatre. Her mother was number 7 in a Catholic family of 12 surviving children born to Mary Anne Kane and John Joseph O’Rourke.

Born on 20th July, 1926, Hart was educated privately at convents and at Abbots' Hill School, Kings Langley, and was pushed because of her obvious thespian ways into ‘elocution lessons’ which at the time were the closest thing to drama classes. She took part in all manner of school plays when Hart herself would rather have parsed Latin prose. Then privately educated at home by an Oxford don, she matriculated at the precocious age of 14 and from then was sometimes known to break into spontaneous bursts of oral Latin, whether the occasion demanded it or not. The son of this don, Michael  Richards, was her first puppy love boyfriend and he ended up becoming a Catholic priest, causing the lady (who was an actress by that time) to wonder for the rest of her life  whether or not it was something she personally had or had not done.

The War

From The Trunk:

J.G. Hart, WWI service record, pension

During the first half of the Second World War the young Hart, who was just 13 when it was declared, lived with her mother and father at their 37 Elvaston Place, South Kensington apartment. They must have been among the very few who moved back to London from the countryside, Bedfordshire in their case, for the war. This was because Hart was studying at RADA in London. After a bit of a wobbly that the war might, indeed, prove more serious than they hoped, they moved back home again to Bedford where Hart's mother joined the WRENS locally and the young actress started working for the BBC in Bedford.

It was to be the only occasion in her life when "working for the BBC", though, meant not acting. Her remit was to organize the local schedule for the BBC Orchestra, as well as to make sure they got their due share from the wartime petrol ration for transportation to and from performances. This job did not last long, though, and not because she was not supremely efficient. Rather she was spotted by BBC radio producers who saw her act locally and said that she should be acting instead of wasting her time with an orchestra. The producers had caught some of her performances of the time with the local BBC Amateur Players. They suggested that she should take herself back to London to work as a sound engineer while doing everything she could to allow her talent to catch other producers' eyes. They did not know that musically she was tone deaf. All they knew was that she could act her socks off and that she was capable and very very pretty.

Hart's younger daughter, Katie, remembers the family lore that during the War,  'Grandma Hart' would always wave her finger in the air just after her morning coffee in their London home. This was to check which way the wind was blowing and, apparently, which way therefore the German bombs might fall. At this time, Katie adds, they would always go to either the Caprice or the Ritz for lunch, regardless of expense. The strict old Irish Catholic that her mother was allowed for the possibility that, if they were going to die tomorrow in a Nazi bombing raid, they might as well have the time of their lives before going to heaven.  All the while, her mother was scouring London socially for casting directors and entertaining them to tea and scones in some of the city's finest hotels in an endeavour to get them do something with her daughter's acting talent. 

Hart  then did her 'war bit' as soon as she was old enough by joining up to ENSA (as they used to say, 'Every Night Something Awful', though whether the comment was from the actors or their audience is not clear). Her acting work for this involved several daily performances in military camps and hospitals with a whole host of people who, post-War, would become famous names and faces. And 'Grandma' always went too. This was, she swore, to protect her 'Darling Diane' from becoming prey of the officers. 

It was her mother who then saw a small ad in ‘The Stage’ for a ‘feed’ to Pat Aza in a Variety show at London's Finsbury Empire theatre,  prompting Hart with the promise of that crucial showbiz ‘break’ to leave R.A.D.A. prematurely. Later on, she apocryphally stated that Sir Kenneth Barnes, then Dean of the Academy, had said her voice was unsuitable for the stage. Research shows that this was not in fact the case, but that rather Hart could no longer wait to get on the stage straight away.


From The Trunk:

A substantial stack of theatre programmes; reviews by national theatre critics, good and great; publicity stills 

And so it was that this young convent-educated girl ended up on, before her debut on the The West End in variety at the Finsbury Empire. After this followed a six-month tour of the Moss Empire circuit around the UK working with George Robey, Victor Oliver and Vera Lynn amongst others. 

In 1944, Hart then won a role in ‘Daughter Janie’ at The Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue (this also featured the actor Peter Lawrence). It was hardly a straightforward audition. Upon entering, she begged, pleaded and cajoled with the producers to let her stay there for at least five minutes – whether they really wanted her for the part or not – because otherwise her mother “Would kill her”. She did get the part, to rave critical reviews, as well as the 'doodlebugs', V-1 flying bombs, and other real-life horrors of appearing on a London stage during intensive bombing by the Germans. Then came a part in the original 1947 production with Nora Swinburne of ‘Miranda’ at The Embassy Theatre and then, probably the most life-turning role she ever played, that of ‘Bessie’, the Maid, in William Douglas Home’s ‘The Chiltern Hundreds’. That was the role and the show that soon took her to New York’s Broadway.

From 'The Times' 27 August 1947

When recalling the great playwrights of London stage of the '40s and '50s , the name of Terrence Rattigan arises effortlessly. It was in his ‘Who is Sylvia’ (see below) in 1951 that Hart played no less than three lead roles, one in each act. Then, not long after this - and with short notice - Hart was asked in 1952 to take the lead opposite Robert Morley and David Tomlinson in the original stage version of Nancy Mitford’s ‘The Little Hut’. Directed by Peter Brook, the play’s cast also included a young man by the name of Roger Moore who was the understudy for the role of ‘Man Friday’.  

The Times, Oct 25, 1950

In case any reader here wonders why an actress of Hart’s stature did not translate more substantially across to America, she did. The films she made continued to create a following among U.S. fans until very recently, presumably because all the fans are now themselves dead. The offers prompted by her West End and Broadway success came thick and fast, including one with a bumper contract from the film director Otto Preminger signing her up for 20th Century Fox. It was a contract, though, that fate would not have her complete because the legendary Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont, producer of ‘The Little Hut’ would quite simply not release Hart from her theatrical engagement with him.

In the high throes of her artistic career in the 1960s, Hart decided that being a successful performer alone was not enough. She decided to translate the Victorien Sardou work, ‘Divorce a la Carte’ and to get it produced at the Arts Theatre with John Justin as the male lead. What Hart did not know, however, was that the lead female role was one that had been created initially by Sarah Bernhardt. After she was told this by an actress friend just before opening night, Hart got her first ever case of paralyzing stage fright. At the end of a nevertheless very accomplished performance that ran without a hitch, she swore she remembered nothing of the play or the reactions except the rousing audience applause at the curtain.

There comes a time in every successful actress’ life that an appearance in Agatha Christie's ‘The Mousetrap’ becomes inevitable and Diane, as a friend of Sir Peter Saunders was no exception. A crime narrative, though, did not necessarily sit well for someone of her comic timing. She found, to her horror, that she was getting laughs from her final scream, the one that brings the curtain down on the first act. It was during this same engagement that a stage manager hid Hart’s younger daughter (who was four at the time) in the upstage fireplace during the performance. Hart nearly collapsed when she came on and saw her there, imagining that the little girl would come out on stage with sweet cries of “Mummy!”. Mercifully, that didn’t happen. 

Highlights for her personally, not as an actress but for the social and personal pleasure in her work, came from her stage appearance with one of her best friends, Margaret Lockwood (with whom she appeared in ‘The Wicked Lady’) in ‘Every Other Evening’. She was a dedicated Oscar Wilde aficionado and so also relished her role in ‘A Woman of No Importance’ as Lady Stutfield, at The Vaudeville in the Strand which she was to come to consider ‘home’.   

Hart played the lead for two years (she would joke that “it paid the kids’ school fees!”) in ‘The Man Most Likely To’ opposite Leslie Phillips who also directed the production. One of Hart’s longest theatre runs was in the 1974 production of ‘Move Over Mrs. Markham’ with at the Vaudeville theatre once more. The cast bonded as friends as well as actors and featured Dame Cicely Courtneidge, Tony Britton (Fern's father), Moira Lister, and Terence Alexander.  

In the end, though, a career comedy actress’s lot is not an enviable one in that Hart was invariably so typecast that she was rarely offered more substantial, serious roles. If you have the rare ability and natural timing to make people roll around the aisles with laughter, casting directors and producers are not likely to ask you - as a performer - to do anything else. A rare break, then, was her work in the 1970s for the Royal Court in Sloane Square. Here she worked with Bill Gaskill, in two new plays ‘Cheek’ (1970) and ‘Morality’ in the ‘Theatre Upstairs’.  

One of the last national tours she did was with Jack Hulbert, Derek Bond and Deborah Watling (Jack Watling’s daughter) in ‘Not in Front of the Parents’. This provided the last occasion to travel and stay in her beloved ‘theatrical digs’ which she loved near the major provincial theatres before the show settled into Richmond Theatre. 

'The Pleasure Principle’ in 1989 (45 years after her first professional appearance in 1944) with Marcus Gilbert at Hampstead London’s New End Theatre, was one of Hart’s last enduring stage engagements. She had as she got older become increasginly tired of the farcical work she was being offered - and which most audiences at the time seemed to crave and so happily decided she would rather spend her all her time on her inventions and her friends. After this, she did relent only once in the '90s and rehearsed for one final play that caught her fancy in which she had to play a room. Yes, a room. While the initial idea seemed thrilling, the final script itself was less so and eventually she bowed out for the first time ever in her exceptionally long stage career.


From The Trunk:

Several photos, A. E. Matthews in black tie (for dinner) with Diane Hart crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth 1, one pair pure silk white long evening gloves, one Time Magazine review, letters home to Mrs. James George Hart, the actress' mother

On 4th October 1949 at the age of 23, Diane Hart made her Broadway debut in the role of ‘Bessie’ at The Booth Theatre on New York’s West 45th St. The show 'Yes, M'Lord' was a re-titled production of ‘The Chiltern Hundreds’ in which she had appeared in The West End. The play which was produced by theatrical impressarios, the Messrs. Shubert (Lee and J.J.), together with Linnit & Dunfee Ltd. ran for 87 performances until just before Christmas, Dec 18, 1949. 

The author was the surprisingly radical Eton and Oxford-educated playwright, William Douglas Home who came from a ‘blue-blooded’ family as the son of the 13th Earl of Home (pronounced ‘Hume’). William's eldest brother was British Prime Minister, Sir Alec (1963-4), a Conservative, who became the 14th Earl. 

Over a period of forty years, William Douglas-Home wrote more than 40 plays, since his first was performed in 1926 (the year Diane Hart was born) for his schoolmates at Eton College when he was 14. He was also significant politically in himself fighting three wartime by-elections as an Independent and was also the subject of a Second World War court martial for his refusal to bome Le Havre, the French port.  

Douglas-Home’s play ‘The Reluctant Debutante’ was twice made into a movie, the second time as ‘What A Girl Wants’(2003) with Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth, and Kelly Preston. This featured much of the same autobiographical material as the Broadway play in which Ms. Hart appeared. For American audiences, the play became ‘Yes, M’Lord’. The original title had referred to an old-fashioned British parliamentary procedure which allows the indirect resignation of an MP through the application “to take the The Chiltern Hundreds'. This allows a sitting politician who wants to give up his seat to be disqualified intentionally from an electoral seat because direct resignation is not allowed. A recent example of this was in June 2007 when it was allegedly used by the then Prime Minister to replace an MP who had fallen out of his favour.

The main character is a hereditary peer who renounces his title to run for a parliamentary seat in the House of Commons. Alec Douglas-Home had been one of the first peers to do just that after the passing of the 1963 Peerage Act 1963. That Act has been brought about by a successful campaign to renounce his own inherited title, by Viscount Anthony “Tony” Wedgwood Benn, the British socialist politician and the current President of the Stop the War Coalition.

The play's narrative revolved around the tale of a young man who returns home from the army in the topsy-turvy, post-War world to stand for his family's parliamentary seat. Playing Bessie, the maid, to A. E. Matthews' Earl of Lister, events unfold as the family butler and son find themselves running as candidates as the Conservative (the butler) and the Socialist  (the aristocrat). The Time magazine review stated that the veteran actor was "brilliantly unemphatic, expertly throwing away a great many lines that the author refused to". 

“Matty” as A. E. Matthews was always fondly called by those who knew him, was a Bridlington, Yorkshire-born (22 Nov 1869) character actor often cast either as a rascal or an old curmudgeon. In real life his traits tended to a great deal of the former and little of the latter. His career spanned an incomparable eight decades for which he was awarded an O.B.E. During the First World War, he had toured in plays usually playig an urbane leading man with Dame Marie Tempest. Towards the end of his life, he appeared in such films asCarry On Admiral’, ‘Doctor At Large’ and ‘Around The World in 80 Days’. By the time he opened that night in New York with Diane Hart in ‘Yes, M, Lord’, he was 80 years old. 

When A.E. Matthews died on 25 July 1960 at the age of 90, he was still working as an actor and his extensive career was featured by Eamonn Andrews in an edition of ‘This Is Your Life’. 

Some of the rascal and political influence from ‘Matty’ in her early stage career must have rubbed off on Ms. Hart from ‘Matty’, a flavour of which can be seen in an incident at the age of 89. He squatted outside his own London home for days to protest against the local council’s installation of a particular streetlight that he felt was out of line with the Georgian beauty of his home. A knock-on creative result of this was an episode of  ‘The Goon Show’ written by Spike Milligan, which featured ‘Matty’ himself in a cameo and was televised on 17 March 1958. 

With Diane Hart in the same Broadway production was a very young Elaine Stritch (below in a publicity shot of the period) cast in the role of ‘June Farrell’. Hart and Stritch were friends for decades from this period and saw a great deal of each other and particularly when the former was starring in the odd play or two at The Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand, while Ms. Stritch was living across the road in The Savoy.

Today, Ms. Stritch (above, in an early Broadway publicity shot)  is known as a winner of several Tony awards and has just been nominated for an Emmy, but not in 1949. She had broken away from the confines of a strict Roman Catholic, Irish/Welsh Detroit family and had headed East to New York to study at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research under Erwin Piscator. Fellow students at the time were Marlon Brando and Bea Arthur. She first appeared on the stage in 1944 and then made her Broadway debut in the revue ‘Angel in the Wings’. To British audiences, though, she is perhaps best known as the star with Donald Sinden of London Weekend Television’s ‘Two’s Company’ and for playing Alec Baldwin's mother in '30 Rock'.

Ms. Stritch is on recordexpressing admiration for A. E. Matthews’ talent and recalls the paucity of her role in which her best line was ‘Hi’ given with such verve and irrepressible talented that it was noted particularly by the legendary critic George Jean Nathan, paramour of actress Lilian Gish. (Nathan’s character was the basis for the waspish theatre critic in the film, ‘All About Eve’ with Marilyn Monroe). Nathan wrote of  Ms. Stritch that she “last night made her entrances on and her exits off stage as if propelled by a movie-lot wind machine.’

Elaine Stritch recalls the day [AUDIO] that A. E.  Matthews duped her and Diane Hart into play a trick on theatrical impresario Lee Shubert.


From The Trunk:

Film posters - 'Happy Go Lovely' and others

Hart's leap on to screens came early on. During the war when she had still barely cut her teeth on the stage. She was signed for a small part in 1944 in 'The Ghosts of Berkeley Square for the British National Film Corporation. Then, significantly for her both personally and professionally, she was offered a part in 1945 in Margaret Lockwood's 'The Wicked Lady' as one of her bridesmaid's. One of the other bridesmaid's in this was a young Hylda Lawrence who became the wife of British film director, Lewis Gilbert. 'Maggie', though, as she was always known was one of Hart's lifelong friends, as indeed was her daughter, Julia, who among other roles was famous for her interpretation of 'Peter Pan'. 

Her next role, and by this time her parts were getting larger all the time, was in a glossy British produced film at the Pinewood Studios, 'Happy Go Lovely' with David Niven, Caesar Romero and Vera Ellen. Also in this was Hart's future husband, Kenneth MacLeod, who snagged himself a part in the chorus of the Scottish dancing scenes. But the two barely nodded at each other then. Every single day for the 15 week shoot, Hart shared Niven's car to the studio and back from Central London, laughing all the way. At the cast party on the last day of the shoot, Niven made a speech saying that his happiest - and funniest - moments during work for the whole film had been the road trip back and forth to the studio with Diane Hart. This was, he added solemnly, because he absolutely forbade her to talk for the whole 50 minute trip both ways.

Her film career is made up of starring roles in 14 feature films and her work in them must, now, be allowed to speak for itself.


From The Trunk:

Pictures of Ted Ray, pictures of Alexandra Palace

For her earliest work at BBC Radio, Hart was to spend all day in the depths of Broadcasting House in Langham Place, W1, as a 'Junior Programme Engineer' and 'Sound Effects Boy'. No one bothered with the courtesy of gender differentiation in employment in those days. She was still only barely out of school and had to perform her tasks as a Sound Engineer. This role required setting up and playing the required gramophone records and making all the 'noises off' effect that any drama going out over the air required. Her favourite was the sound of a closing train door, created by Hart in the running of an ashtray along the studio's radiator. 

Her job as engineer was to "play Hitler back to the Germans". This meant that, she was provided with the Fuhrer's speeches and it was her job to put these back out over the airwaves, to Germany not to UK audiences, in a non-ending barrage. Hart is on record as always saying of this time that 'she played a huge part in the winning of the war by demoralizing the entire German army who were battered by the constant Hitler onslaught". It was only many years later that she discovered that what she had been doing in reality was not playing the speeches, but jamming the airwaves from discovery by the Luftwaffe and so protecting the safety of RAF crews. Her wartime radio career came to grinding halt one day when she overslept. She missed the start of the broadcast, broke a record as it was playing in the middle of transmission and was let go.

This was under the direction of the legendary Val Gielgud, brother of the actor Sir John, who was at the helm of BBC radio production at the time. Hart fell into his disfavour when her noise of a braying donkey instead of the cry of a baby at a crucial time in a Nativity play was found very unamusing. Nevertheless, the comic timing was sufficiently funny that she was then moved up from sound effects to tiny roles in Gielgud plays. After VE day, Hart stayed working for Gielgud and the BBC at Alexandra Palace until her film and theatre career made time for radio engagements too limited. However, in the 195os, she was thrilled to be asked to play the role of Ted Ray's wife for the fourth season of 'Ray's a Life'.


From The Trunk:

Several television reviews

It has always been said that Hart avoided the medium of television apart from sporadic plays for the BBC. This was deliberate on her part because she felt it was very much the domain of her husband, Kenneth MacLeod (ITV Rediffusion, Westward later TV South West), and she did not want to invade his professional territory. She was in any case working flat out acting in the theatre, movies and when she could on the radio. In later years, however, she did not regret that her career had not been more involved in television, always feeling that her comic skills were more suitable to the live audience response in a theatre which relied on her timing and not on that of an editor, not matter how brilliant, in a studio. She was, though, to become a pioneer in closed circuit television in the early 1960s when the Hilton Hotel group dabbled with internal entertainment for its clientele and Hart was to be found hosting the show.

Love and Romance

From The Trunk:

Endless photos of husband, press cuttings of husband, bundles of beribboned letters

The only love of Hart’s life was Kenneth MacLeod, who was then a young repertory actor (at the time dating Patricia Roc apparently, so he said) when she met him in the early 50s. Married for 12 years, they had two children and only finally legally divorced a great many years later. 

Theirs was a passionate, tempestuous (on her part), electric relationship so enduring that, long after they separated, they somehow or other managed to put up with each other sufficiently to spend Christmas ‘en famille’ with their respective partners and their children’s families.

She was never truly the same once they split up and she would reminisce well into her 70s about the ‘coup de foudre’ she felt from the initial attraction. They had met during the shooting of the David Niven, Cesar Romero, Vera Ellen film, ‘Happy Go Lovely’ in which she was the Juvenile Lead and he a Scottish dancer in the background scenes. It was always an unequal relationship.  

He was the consummate musician and would play the classical and jazz guitar, piano, flute all day, having to be dragged away to go and appear on TV for his Rediffusion anchor job (read about Kenneth, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Barry Took); she was tone deaf although she absolutely loved to dance.

He was peaceful, not especially anxious to be sociable: she was gregarious, vivacious, energetic and a party animal. 

He was laid back and quiet: she was a whirling, frenetic, pro-active dervish. 

A less compatible match would be hard to find.  

A beautiful and popular teenager, she had had her admirers but shunned most of them. She was in love with love, with the romance and idea of love above all. This was not a young girl, then an ingénue or starlet, who ‘got around’. Growing up a Catholic, her favourite boy friend (that is, friend who was a boy) was a ‘Darcy’. The trunk is full of sets of war-time romantic but harmless letters to her, each bundled up carefully with ribbon, from young men far away at war who were her admirers but not her boyfriends. Also when in her early 20s, she dated a young man who was to become a very senior Cabinet politician from the ‘70s with whom she continued to share cordial exchanges well on into her late years.  

There was only ever one man in her life and when that relationship did not ultimately work out, her man antenna from then on forever cruelly let her down. Always a sympathetic, hopelessly messianic, soul, she afterwards became involved with two or three disastrous characters of the type that newly divorced women in their late 30s or early 40s, and usually with young children, are seriously warned against. Whether this was an actress’s lot (the powerful capacity to imagine you can create life as you wish it to be) or a divorced woman’s lot, is hard to say but she was never romantically happy again.


From The Trunk:

Pictures of Diane Hart and Pam Manson in Moscow; the 'Beatnix' corselet; Hart in gold kid trousers of her own design; telegram from Lt Col Parry Burnett re Falklands' mine clearance

If Diane Hart had not become the successful actress she clearly was, she could equally well have become a Classics Don (see Upbringing), a barrister (see The Law) or a politician (Politics). Why, then, such an intellectually gifted woman should have persisted in her life as a comedy actress is a bit of a mystery – even to those who knew her very well. That is, unless the work, ‘The Act of Creation” by Arthur Koestler happens to come to mind. Koestler believed that the ‘association of disconnected ideas’ of the very kind that is found in humour is also the eternal well from which invention also springs. Edward de Bono, with whom the actress had a brief correspondence, is more generally familiar to most of us with his ‘lateral thinking’ approach of which Hart was clearly a prime proponent. 

If you watch Dragon’s Den, or have ever had a good idea for an innovative product or service, you will know how very difficult it is to establish a patent for invention with the required burden of proof on originality. Diane Hart had three, one of which was for a permutation corset, ’Beatnix’ (1959). 

The age of the corset might now seem aeons away, but some of us can remember wearing stockings and a pantie girdle, the not so distant cousin of those whalebone contraptions. When Hart gave birth to her second daughter by Caesarian section, she hopped out of bed in record time for a television appearance telling the posh clinic that, if they did not allow her to leave early, she would not be able to earn enough money to pay for the child’s delivery bill. They obliged. She discovered then that her stomach stuck out annoyingly and would look terrible on the screen. Instantly, her lateral thinking kicked in when she came across a male ballet dancer’s jockstrap (records nor memory, sadly, record where in the Hart household this was found) that she pulled on, back to front. This was adorned with black lace to feminize the garment. And so, in 1959, the Beatnik era, ‘Beatnix’ were born.

Together with her business partner, the brilliant and witty Pamela Manson (also a comedy actress) the corselets were taken on for manufacture by R. & W.H. Symington in 22 factories and with magnificent sales in Marks & Spencer. Indeed, it is very strange that they do not mention the 'Beatnix' phenomenon on their website along with their introductions of lycra and spandex. So successful was the product, indeed, that in a personal bid for their own  ‘peaceful co-existence through trade’, the Misses Hart and Manson found themselves in Moscow on a trade mission to meet with Mrs Alexei Nikolayevich Kosgyin, wife of the then Soviet Premier, who had become a fan of both Beatnix and the wacky pair. 

It was 1962, the 'Cuban crisis' and as real-life  drama would have it, Hart & Manson were invited during the trip to the Bolshoi Ballet where they somehow ended up in a box with the Cuban delegation to Moscow. Witness to this bizarre piece of history was the broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy who met the pair while covering the story from Moscow and remembered partying with them both. He is reported to have said: “If the red-haired lady, Ms. Hart, and the dark-haired lady Ms. Manson, ruled the world everybody might well end up wearing corsets but there would most certainly be peace.” This Russian connection for the two continued on down into history when they both worked hard as part of the UK campaign to free Valery and Galina Panov from house arrest in Moscow so that they could go and live and work in Israel. 

The invention of which she was most proud, though, and the one that most clearly shows how her ideas came about was one for mine sweeping that was implemented in the Persian Gulf War. She dreamed up a life-saving mine clearing idea after become more and more furious about British soldiers being killed by plastic mines in the Falklands War. These were undetectable by conventional metal-seeking detectors. Hart suggested to a friend, Lieutenant Colonel Parry-Burnett, Defense Correspondent at The Telegraph, that they deploy helicopters pulling agricultural harrows behind them to efficiently seek and destroy the mines. The method was then implemented in East Falkland (as written up by Angus McGill, amongst others, in  his column 'Eureka! The lady has a brain wave' in The Evening Standard on 11 June 1991) and then used in The Gulf. It is a tribute to her originality and persistence that she was able to not only come up with such ideas but to use her charm, humour, tenacity and guile to get them successfully adopted (see Telegram from Lt Col Parry-Burnett above). 

Other inventions included some of the very earliest PVC and gold kid clothing, (see picture), a non-twist screwdriver, a method to cure migraine (of which she was a persistent sufferer) and a permutation ‘Little Black Dress’ which she continued to market right up to the time of her death. 

Pamela Manson's son, Tony, remembers his mother and Diane Hart [AUDIO]returning from their trip to the USSR to see Mrs. Kosygin for 'Beatnix', and the chemistry between these two energetic personalities. [2:30 mins]

The Law

From The Trunk:

Press clippings of news coverage; the legal 'bundle' of evidence and documentation for The High Court; 3 x legal Judgments; one Wig & Pen membership card; movie poster and stills from 'The Games That Lovers Play'

Whether the fact that Diane Hart once gave a highly memorable rendition of Portia’s 'The Quality of Mercy is Not Strain'd' speech in The Merchant of Venice (for her audition at R.A.D.A.) had anything to do with her subsequent dalliance as an advocate is not certain. What is, though, is that in the 1970s when she became involved in a fight representing a group of fellow members against Equity, the actor’s union, her legal taste buds were whetted. 

At the time, Equity (like most other unions, the National Union of Journalists, for example) was a 'closed shop': you could not work as an actor without a union membership card, and could not get a card unless you had worked as an actor. It was made deliberately tough, it was thought, to discourage the feint of heart who might wither under the duress of perpetual unemployment. However, it was also overly effective in keeping talented newcomers out, something that Hart found both ridiculous and objectionable. 

As a member of the Union by then for decades, Hart decided that she had for once to take a more pro-active role and so stood as member of Equity Council to which she was duly elected. To achieve this, she had stood up as an ordinary member at a meeting and asked who, exactly, among the members of the ruling council would themselves have been able to get into ‘showbiz’ themselves had such impossible conditions of entry existed when first starting out. No one apparently. 

Her next legal involvement came about not through choice but through necessity. Living in a property coming to the end of its lease in ‘South Ken’, she one day noticed that the supporting walls and joists of her elegant first-floor drawing room were sporting a large zigzag crack. As it turned out, it was not for nothing that was she brought up by an architect, her father, James G. Hart. 

After consultation with the local and at the time unfailingly charmless property agents, Hart discovered that as a lessee at the end of a property agreement, she would be liable for ‘dilapidation costs’ incurred over the life of her occupation. This would be deemed to include the substantial aperture now threatening her salon and could be expected to cost around £250,000 to repair, equivalent in today's money to millions of pounds.

All too well aware of the nuisance from a building site immediately opposite, at the Aga Khan Foundation’s Ismaili Centre, Hart was certain that the damage was originating from work there as the ceiling’s development was a new one. Several major British law firms were prevailed upon to give their best advice, all of whom advised her against sueing the Aga Khan Foundation for damages. HRH would, they alleged,   hire the very best and most expensive lawyers against her, dragging the case on and on through the court which could only result in her personal bankruptcy from the cost of legal fees. 

So. screwed if she did and screwed if she did not, Hart decided that her only course of action was to act as her own lawyer and barrister, as a litigant in person. Unknown to the opposing legal team representing the Foundation was the fact that among Hart’s closest friends, daily crossword chums (The Times and The Telegraph) and her most enduring fans, were any number of the country’s top QCs - Queen's Counsels.The legal eagles all  conspired with her behind the scenes to keep her fully briefed on procedures and she won, defeating one of the High Court’s top barristers in the process. She also set the precedent for expenses for cases conducted by other plaintiffs in person. 

She was, at the time of this case, a permanent  and highly popular fixture and fitting of The Strand’s Wig and Pen. There, with a daily backstage briefing by the most helpful of the High Court’s key clerks and functionaries, Hart mugged up on her brief, learned her lines, and played out the next day’s most likely scenario.   

However, history shows that one victory in the High Court was not to be enough for Hart and she was to earn another through the same diligent methodology and application as in the first. At the wedding of her eldest daughter, Hart heard stage whispers of amazement from some of the guests that her acting career had so fallen into the doldrums that she was now forced to appear in porn, “Electric Blue, 002 – a jolly good film actually!” they cackled. 

She was not annoyed that there were those who thought she had been forced to appear in a porn film as a ‘Madam’ at the age of 52.  The fact that she did not know about it, though, made her outraged. The truth was a clip had been taken from a comedy film. ‘The Games That Lovers Play’ with none other than Joanna Lumley, Richard Wattis, Jeremy Lloyd (actor and writer of 'Allo Allo') and Nan Munro, and embedded in solid blue antics that caused Hart’s hair to stand on end when she saw it. She was awarded £15,000 damages. The judge implied the sum would have been much higher had there not been substantial risk of pushing the production company into bankruptcy. 

Hart was no 'vexatious litigant' and fell into court in real life as easily as she fell into the dramatic roles in which she was cast in plays by fate and circumstance. At her memorial service, a dear friend, Moira Lister (with whom she had appeared in a long run in Sir Peter Saunders' production of the Ray Cooney, John Chapman farce, 'Move Over Mrs. Markham' at the Vaudeville Theatre in The Strand) reminisced with pride about her friendship with the great lady who took on the “Aga Khan fight against the mosque” and “how prescient Diane had been about the coming state of England”. In truth, it was nothing of the kind.

Vonnie & Gerry Phillips are well-known British variety artistes. Gerry was a British Actor's Equity councillor at the same time as Diane Hart and remembers when in 1977 Hart led a legal action [AUDIO] against the actors' union Equity (Source: The Times of London August 25 of that year) , of which she was a very longstanding member, to stop a referendum of their members over changes to union rules.


From The Trunk:

Election posters

Diane Hart became involved in politics by accident, quite literally. In the early ‘70s, she lived by a ferociously busy crossroads that was the scene of head-on crashes at least once a week. Fed up with ringing for ambulances and rushing out to see if anyone needed help (this was long before mobile phones), she decided to do something about it. First of all they rang the council, where she could not persuade anyone to come and see the problem for themselves, let alone do anything about it. So, taking the law into her own hands, she went out with her two daughters and a large pot of paint and wrote ‘Halt’ in huge letters across the road. This not only did not get the attention she thought the problem deserved, but she also discovered the paint had been deliberately washed off by the council. She was outraged. Then there was another major accident in which people died. Hart did what she always did and went to the newspapers, local and national. Eventually, annoyed by an actress’s continual nagging, the council put up a ‘Give Way’ sign and then, eventually traffic lights. 

This campaign caught the attention of a local political pressure group, ‘Homes Before Roads’ which was trying to stop a major arterial road 'Westway' running through some of the most architecturally important parts of London. This campaign saw her giving speeches at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and also led to an invitation for her by then Quintin Hogg (then MP for Marylebone, and later Lord Hailsham) to run as a Conservative MP. Instead, she declined and set up another pressure group (through a small ad in The Times) to persuade more women – of any party – to run for parliament to boost the female membership of the House of Commons. For this, she was vilified by Germaine Greer in a postscript in the last few pages of ‘The Female Eunuch’. She ran as an ‘Independent’ for Lewisham South when ‘Time Magazine’ dubbed her the ‘most stimulating candidate'. However, they also included a photo of her in a see-through negligee from the film ‘The Games That Lovers Play’ with Joanna Lumley (see Movies), in which she was appearing at the time.


From The Trunk:

Several membership cards The Chelsea Arts' Club, etc.

While Groucho Marx may have 'refused to join any Club that would have him as a member', Hart wanted not only to join clubs but to create them. They were a very important part of her life for over 50 years, with her preferred venue for sociability till the day she died being The Chelsea Arts' Club. She was there every day, even in her 70s, always doing the crosswords while talking to other members or having people in to meet her there for lunch or dinner.

However, a very long time before she became a member of Chelsea Arts', she had been a founder member of 'The White Elephant Club', and a regular at 'Les Ambassadeurs' and other well known establishments. She was a founder member, too, of 'Gerry's', always known as 'the actors' club' on Shaftesbury Avenue which was owned and run by the actor Gerry Campion and continues to this day. In his younger days, Gerry had been a very well known comic actor who had created the role of 'Billy Bunter' in the 50s in a TV adaptation of the book.

But the other club which was not a club at all really which gave her the greatest pride was the group of actors who came together in the '50s to found what was then called  'The Stars' Organization for Spastics' (NOTE: in 1994 The Spastics' Society was re-named 'SCOPE'). With Harry Secombe, Vera Lynn, Dickie Henderson, Ronnie Corbett, Roger Moore, Leslie Crowther, Tim Rice and other 'greats' of the time, they worked tirelessly - and in Hart's case for 40+ years - to raise funds and visibility on the importance of care for those with cerebral palsy. Millions of pounds were raised collectively. At one point Hart was the organization's Treasurer, arranging galas and fetes on a few occasions in the early '60s pop concerts known as 'The Record Stars' Show' at Wembley with such groups as 'The Beatles', 'The Dave Clark Five', P.J. Proby and many other now legendary names of Britain's music world, most of whom at the time were relatively unknown.

U.S. Presidents

From The Trunk:

Plane tickets

During her life, Diane Hart came across three U.S. Presidents, which for a British actress was a little unusual. By the term 'actress', I mean the kind who makes a professional living  in film and theatre (rather than those ladies of the night, who have so often fashionably styled themselves 'actresses'.). The first, the late John F. Kennedy she came to know, along with actress Elaine Stritch, when the two were appearing in 'The Chiltern Hundreds' on Broadway in New York (See, The Theatre) and 'Jack' came to see the show.  In the 50s, she also danced with the (then) actor, Ronald Reagan in the London Club 'Les Ambassadeurs'. New York Tony Award-winning producer, Judith Ann Abrams (of the famed children's theatre company, The Broadway Pixie Judy Troupe) was a long-time friend of Diane Hart. That is, till she invited her one day to see Abrams' company in performance at The White House Christmas Party for Amy Carter and children of the diplomatic corps, by special invitation from President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter. She would like to add that Diane Hart "ALWAYS took this often broke Yank into her home because she had a heart of gold. Her humour and acute intelligence always astounded me. She was a naughty kid and a wise sage all rolled into one. Wherever she is, she is making the angels laugh as they admire her figure made pefect by the corset she invented amd her little black dress!" As to the story of her "meeting with President Jimmy Carter", you will have to hear this story from the theatrical producer [AUDIO].

The End

From The Trunk:

One bill from the Harley Street Clinic

One microccassette tape [AUDIO] 

Together with all the 'memor.MA.bil.i.a', I found a small cassette - of terrible quality (from those days long before digital). When travelling, Diane Hart would sometimes send her daughters a tape instead of a letter. 

Now, it feels like a missive from beyond the grave. 

Diane Hart Literary References

New York Theatre Critics'   Reviews (1949) 

Theatre (1949)

Punch Magazine (1950)

The Theatre Book of the Year (1950)

Theatre World Annual (1951) 

An Almanac (1952) 

The Dickensian (1952)

Who's Who in The Theatre (1952) 

An Almanac (1953)

International Motion Picture Almanac (1953)

Motion Pictures (1953)

British Film & Television Year Book (1956)

Film Review (1962)

Drama, the Quarterly Theatre Review (1963) 

Guide to the Performing Arts (1964)

An Almanac (1965)

An Actor Guide to the Talkies (1967)

Who's Who in The Theatre (1967)

New Society (1970)

The Female Eunuch (1970)

Terence Rattigan, The Man & His Work (1970)

 The Best Plays (1971) 

 British Theatre Review (1974)

Shoot 'em Ups, Reference Guide to Westerns (1978)

Tyrone Power, The Last Idol (1979)

TV Guide (1980) 

Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television (1981) 

Richard Attenborough, a Pictorial Film Biography (1984)

 The RKO Story (1985)

Crown Guide to the World's Great Plays (1984)

The British Film Catalogue, 1895 - 1985, a Reference Guide

The Motion Picture Guide (1988)

 Halliwell's Film Guide (1989)

A History of Horrors (2008)


With grateful thanks to Katie Hart, a wondeful actress in her own right (as well as a terrific 'aide de memoir'), Ms. Elaine Stritch (a doyenne of the theatre who has few equals), to Judi 'Pixie' Abrams of 'The Pixie Judy' Troupe, to Jeremy and Vonnie Phillips (Variety Artistes Extraordinaires), to Tony Manson (his mother was the very witty actress, Pamela Manson),  to Jason Flick, Scott Clarke and Paul Zhou of Flick Software for their invaluable technical advice and collaboration. Also to Professor Sue Thomas and Kate Pullinger at De Montfort University for their inspiration and pedagogy, to Chris Joseph for being my mentor, and to all the New Media writers who helped in 'mobilizing' their own projects for research.

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  COPYRIGHT, 2009. This work  is licensed under a  

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Diane Hart in the Internet Movie Database

Obituaries - in The Independent 

In The Telegraph

In The Stage

Diane Hart - at Wikipedia


THE WICKED LADY (1945) Trailer

 & Margaret Lockwood
Movies I
et al.
Britannia Mews (1949) & Dana Andrews, Maureen O'Hara, Dame Sybil Thorndike, A. E. Matthews, Fay Compton, Wilfred Hyde White, aka Affairs of Adelaide (USA)
... aka The Forbidden Street (USA) 

Pickwick Papers

  Pickwick Papers, Part 1 (9:00) & James Hayter, Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley
 et al. 
(full movie) & David Niven, Vera Ellen, Cesar Romero

Happy go Lovely

Keep It Clean (1952) & James Hayter, Norman Rossington, Gerry Campion, Ronald Shiner, Joan Sims

One Jump Ahead (1955) & Freddie Mills

Dick Turpin: Highwayman (1956) & Philip Friend, Allan Cuthbertson

My Wife's Family (1956) 
& Ted Ray, Patricia Roc

The Crowning Touch (1959) & Greta Gynt, Sydney Tafler, Irene Handle, Dermot Walsh

Enter Inspector Duval (1961) & Anton Diffring

Games That Lovers Play (1970) with Joanna Lumley, Jeremy Lloyd, Richard Wattis, Nan Munro


Re-opening of BBC Television - 1946

BBC at Alexandra Palace with Val Gielgud (1946)