At the movies · Home life · Memories

An afternoon with Ingrid Bergman

Most Saturday afternoons the BBC2 schedule includes a movie and a show called “Talking Pictures” that features interview clips with the director or star of the film. Yesterday the subject was Ingrid Bergman, a true Hollywood star. After a screening of “Joan of Arc” (1948, directed by Victor Fleming), “Talking Pictures” included interviews with Ms Bergman from 1971, 1973 and 1980. The interviewer in the 1971 clip was Ronald Bergan. The later interviews were conducted by Michael Parkinson and in the first of them he introduced her with the confession that he had been in love with her since he first saw her on the big screen. Well, he’s only human.

I missed the start of “Joan of Arc” but caught most of it, looking up cast members and their filmographies at the same time. I started with the actor whose distinctive voice I recognized from David Lean’s adaptation of “Great Expectations” (1946), which I saw again a few weeks ago: Francis L Sullivan. He played the part of Jaggers, Pip’s lawyer. He also played Bumble in Lean’s version of “Oliver Twist” (1948). I was surprised to find that he was still in his 40s when he made all three of these films (he seemed so much older), and he died in 1956, aged 53. Jose Ferrer made his film debut in “Joan of Arc”, as the Dauphin, two years before winning the Best Actor Oscar for “Cyrano de Bergerac”.

But the main attraction was Ingrid Bergman herself. As noted here, we watched “Casablanca” as a family on Christmas Eve. My son walked in during the last hour of “Joan of Arc” and said, “Casablanca?” I explained that it was the same actress, and told him about the history of Joan of Arc. We watched the “Talking Pictures” show together and learnt that Ms Bergman had died on her 67th birthday, 29 August 1982, here in London.

A few years before that, my mother saw her in a matinee performance in the West End. I would like to tell you what year it was, and what the play was, but I have no details about it. All I remember is my mother telling us what happened when Ms Bergman appeared on stage. The audience clapped and cheered for a full five minutes. The object of their applause waited motionless, then gracefully nodded in appreciation before delivering her first line. A very classy lady.

I was thinking about all of this during Saturday’s viewing. Growing up in the centre of Dublin, in the care of a maiden aunt after the death of her own mother, my mother escaped from the realities of her day-to-day life with trips to the Metropole Cinema for the latest Hollywood releases, and to Croke Park for Gaelic sport, with a preference for hurling over Gaelic football. She would have seen countless Ingrid Bergman films (in the 1940s her films made more money than any other actor’s, apart from Bing Crosby). She definitely saw “The Bells of St Mary’s” (which stars both of the decade’s biggest grossing actors) at the Metropole. She told me about it not long before she died, when we caught part of the film one Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

The theatre matinee that my mother attended here in London was definitely during the 1970s and she told us about it when we got back from school. Based on the information on this IMDb page I’m guessing it was N.C. Hunter’s “Waters of the Moon”, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (Wendy Hiller, Derek Godfrey, Frances Cuka and Paul Hardwick were also in the cast) in 1978. It might, conceivably, have been the 1975 production of Somerset Maugham’s “The Constant Wife”, directed by John Gielgud. We have no playbills, tickets or theatre programmes to confirm this. I have boxes full of my mother’s things – wedding photos, Thank You cards, Get Well Soon cards, mass cards,. But there are no theatre tickets.

By contrast, I have never thrown away a ticket to a play, gig or football match. If you want to trace all of the things that I have seen since the 1970s you can trawl through a disordered collection that includes shoeboxes, storage boxes and magazine holders. Every now and then I have a go at putting them into some kind of order, but the best I have managed to date is to create “hot-spots”, a handful of places that contain specific items. All of my gig tickets up to the mid-80s are in a wooden memory box that is too full for anything else. It also has dozens of badges which I was collecting at the same time, and a handful of envelopes containing things like my O Level results. Items from the 1980s and 1990s (from university and afterwards, party and wedding invites, letters, postcards, travel documents, more tickets) are distributed across multiple boxes. Theatre programmes from the last 25 years are in magazine holders in the living-room. Most of the programmes before that are in a cardboard storage box, unopened since our last house move.

Ms Bergman won three Oscars: Best Actress awards for “Gaslight” (1944) and “Anastasia” (1956) and Best Supporting Actress for “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974). I assume that the afternoon that my mother spent watching her in the West End was after 1974. That would mean that she saw a triple Oscar winner on stage. I don’t know anyone else who has done this. If it was that Haymarket Theatre production in 1978, she was watching two Oscar winning actresses in the same play: Wendy Hiller won Best Supporting Actress for “Separate Tables” (1958).

The closest I have come to this is seeing productions starring actors who have won two rather than three Oscars, like Glenda Jackson (“Women in Love”, 1970 and “A Touch of Class”, 1973) and Maggie Smith (“Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” 1969 and Best Supporting Actress for “California Suite”, 1978). In the late 1980s I took my mother to an evening performance of a play starring Maggie Smith. I can give you the details of this one: Peter Shaffer’s “Lettice and Lovage”, Friday 23 September 1988, at the Globe on Shaftesbury Avenue, the venue that was renamed as the Gielgud Theatre in 1994. We were joined by the good family friend who died of Coronavirus yesterday, mentioned in this piece. We saw a few shows together around that time, before she moved abroad in 1991. There was “Blood Brothers” (starring Kiki Dee) and “Prin” (starring Sheila Hancock, now Dame Sheila Hancock).

The next time she visited us, in the summer of 1992, my mother and I took her to see an Alan Ayckbourn play at the Lyric Hammersmith. The cast did not include any Oscar winners, or any acting Knights or Dames. The most famous performer was Michael Melia (Eddie Royle, landlord of the Queen Vic in “Eastenders”), but the play’s title could not have been more apt: “Absent Friends”.


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