Barry Band: Couples who lit up Blackpool stages back in the day

Vanessa Lee (right), with her co-stars 'Mary Ellis (centre) and Irene Browne, from After the Ball at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool in 1954.
Vanessa Lee (right), with her co-stars 'Mary Ellis (centre) and Irene Browne, from After the Ball at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool in 1954.

This week’s piece, looking back on husband and wife acting teams in the great days of touring theatre, is in two parts.

First, a look at the Blackpool visits of an actress who had the longest career biography in Who’s Who in the Theatre (16th edition). It ran to five columns.

Actor Peter Graves, in 1969

Actor Peter Graves, in 1969

Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976) was a pianist before studying for the stage, where she became legendary for her emotional roles, probably none greater than Joan of Arc in Saint Joan, by Bernard Shaw.

She revived the 1924 play in a visit to the Blackpool Opera House for a week in September, 1931, the year she was made a Dame.

A Gazette reviewer was awed by the scale of the play: “It is a part that calls for the portrayal of every emotion. Miss Thorndike portrayed each with the sure touch that amounts almost to genius.”

She often toured with her husband Lewis Casson (1875-1969). In 1936, they twice visited the Opera House.

Sir Lewis Casson and Dame Sybil Thorndike - pictured discussing make-up at Leeds Grand Theatre, in 1964

Sir Lewis Casson and Dame Sybil Thorndike - pictured discussing make-up at Leeds Grand Theatre, in 1964

At Easter, she played a feather-brained former Gaiety Girl in Robert Morley’s first play, Short Story, while in December they did a rep week of plays by Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward.

At the Grand Theatre in December, 1958, when Dame Sybil was 76 and Sir Lewis was 82, they starred in Eighty in the Shade, written for them by Clemence Dane.

Brian Hargreaves wrote in the Gazette: “Dame Sybil gives a performance of extraordinary brilliance.

“Her playing of the scales of emotion will linger long.”

The couple’s last Blackpool visit was to the Grand in April, 1961, in Waiting in the Wings, by Noel Coward – another play written for Dame Sybil, set in a home for sharp-tongued retired actresses.

By a coincidence, in 1964 Dame Sybil was playing in the West End run of a William Douglas Home play when Peter Graves joined the cast.

He took the show on tour (with a new company) and came to the Grand for a week in April, 1964.

The actor was, in fact, a peer who appeared in The Reluctant Peer!

Two years earlier he had inherited his father’s title, becoming the Eighth Baron Graves.

Peter Graves (1911-1994) began his career in Ivor Novello musicals, where he met his wife Vanessa Lee (1920-1992).

In the 1940s he made several romantic films, including two with Margaret Lockwood.

In 1949, he toured with Miss Lockwood as Elyot and Amanda in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which played a week at the Grand Theatre in May.

He and his wife often appeared together on stage. They came to the Grand at Christmas, 1954, as Lord and Lady Windermere in Noel Coward’s musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan.

In April 1960, they were at the Grand in April, in The Merry Widow.

In a Gazette interview, Peter Graves said his mother understudied Gabrielle Ray as Frou Frou in the original 1907 London version of the musical.

Peter Graves and Vanessa Lee returned to the Grand in April, 1964, as Elyot and Amanda in Private Lives, and in June 1970, they were back at the theatre in A Boston Story, adapted by Ronald Gow from Henry James’s novel Watch and Ward.