Barry Band: Husband-and-wife acting team with strong links to resort

Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray
Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray

By Barry Band

In the days when famous actors toured major provincial theatres, the husband and wife teams had large followings.

Dulcie Gray

Dulcie Gray

Drawing on my book Blackpool’s Century of Stars, we’re starting a series on-stage couples with Dulcie Gray (1916-2011) and Michael Denison (1915-1998).

Dulcie’s Blackpool Grand Theatre visits spanned 57 years, her husband being with her in several shows.

Dulcie Bailey was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya. She was educated in Britain and enrolled at the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, where she met Michael Denison. They were married in 1939.

Doncaster-born Michael was educated at Harrow and Oxford and smoothed a path through the higher echelons of drama.

Dulcie Gray & Michael Denison.

Dulcie Gray & Michael Denison.

Dulcie had stage roles leading up to Graham Greene’s crime drama Brighton Rock, which was premiered at the Grand in February, 1943. She was Rose, the adoring little girlfriend of racetrack hoodlum Pinkie, played by Richard Attenborough.

In correspondence with Michael when I was writing my 1994 history of the Grand, he added some information on the importance of the play on the careers of his wife and Richard.

He said the posters for the tour and the London opening at the Garrick Theatre, a month after the play’s Blackpool visit, had Hermione Baddeley as the sole star. (This is shown in the Grand’s own programme ad).

“I was at the London opening, in uniform, and the response to Dulcie’s and Dickie’s performances was so tremendous, that the following day their names joined Hermione’s above the title and Dulcie was offered a film contract,” Michael said.”

Photocall for The Ladykillers at Blackpool's Grand Theatre. Dulcie Gray, with from left, Tim Marriott, Martin Herdman, Brian Murphy, Owen Aaronovitch and Tim Brooke-Taylor.

Photocall for The Ladykillers at Blackpool's Grand Theatre. Dulcie Gray, with from left, Tim Marriott, Martin Herdman, Brian Murphy, Owen Aaronovitch and Tim Brooke-Taylor.

The Denisons’ name as an acting team was made in the British films My Brother Jonathan (1948) and The Glass Mountain (49) and a few months later the couple made their first Blackpool visit together in a farce called Queen Elizabeth Slept Here, adapted by Talbot Rothwell (of later Carry On fame) from an American play by Kaufman and Hart. Kenneth Connor was in the cast.

It played an October week at the Grand before opening at London’s Strand Theatre on November 3, 1949.

Dulcie was also a novelist and one of three plays in which they came to the Grand in the 1950s was her own work, Love Affair (March, 1956).

It was set in an art school, with Dulcie as a secretary involved in an affair with a debonair philanderer, played by Michael, who also directed the piece.

Denison and Gray in The Kingfisher at The Grand, November 1981

Denison and Gray in The Kingfisher at The Grand, November 1981

In the 1960s their work moved towards classic plays and in February, 1961, they toured to the Grand in Bernard Shaw’s Candida, after an acclaimed run at Wyndham’s Theatre.

Michael was Morrell, the radical cleric whose self-satisfied course was upset by his protégé, the aristocratic poet Marchbanks, who declared his love for Morrell’s wife, Candida.

Gazette reviewer Brian Hargreaves (later editor) wrote that Dulcie Gray seized this great female role brilliantly and provided “some of those unforgettable moments which are treasured for a lifetime.”

In October, 1965, the couple returned to the Grand, touring prior to London in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband with Margaret Lockwood, Richard Todd, Roger Livesey, Ursula Jeans and Perlita Neilson.

It was the first of their several outings as Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern. Gazette reviewer Bill Burgess said they managed to triumph over the writer’s smug characterisations.

The play had the last multi-star cast to be seen at the Grand before the theatre’s 1972 closure.

Advert from February 1961

Advert from February 1961

In November, 1981, the couple brought charm back to the reopened Grand – to the delight of playgoers who remembered the old days.

The play was The Kingfisher, by William Douglas Home, in which Michael Denison was the novelist, quite happy being attended by his crusty old butler (Robert Fleming) but contemplating marriage to a recently widowed lady he had adored 50 years earlier (Dulcie Gray).

In 1983 Dulcie and Michael were each made CBEs for their services to drama.

In 1990, a Sunday night audience at the Grand heard the Denisons talk about their early lives and their long careers. Some of us thought such a great run of plays, films and TV dramas would have provided some livelier anecdotes!

Dulcie had just finished her role as Kate Harvey in BBC1’s Howard’s Way, in which Michael had a late role as Admiral Redfern.

Dulcie’s link with the Grand was not over.

After her husband’s death, she returned in June, 1999, as the dotty Mrs Wilberforce in the stage version of the British film comedy, The Ladykillers. In the Gazette photo, taken in the precinct behind the theatre, she is seen with the hapless gangsters, who included Brian Murphy and Tim Brook-Taylor.

In April, 2000, Dulcie was back at The Grand in a minor role in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Christopher Hampton’s play about sexual power games in 18th century France.

Sid James and Joan Sims would have been a wow in this version!

But it was a gentle farewell to Dulcie’s 57-year association with the theatre.

Advert from February 1943

Advert from February 1943