Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Vivian Pickles

Vivian Pickles in the film 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'

Vivian Pickles:

You may well say that here I am pushing the premise of 'Familiar Unknown' a little too far. After all, Vivian Pickles is something of a grand dame of the theatre and has worked with many of the greatest actors and directors of her generation, and yet I feel she is not so well known to recent generations as, say, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench or Vanessa Redgrave, and still able to sneak in under the radar in some rather surprising TV roles.

In the 1964 'Avengers' episode 'The Charmers'

Vivian Kay Pickles was born into that complicated Yorkshire dynasty that also gave us the actor and renowned broadcaster Wilfred Pickles (her uncle) and the controversial Judge Pickles (her brother). A child actor in the late '40s, she trained at the Aida Foster Drama School and began her adult career on the repertory stage of the fifties alongside a number of illustrious stars of the era. This was the time of the 'angry young man' and 'kitchen sink' in British drama and she was a hit in new plays by the likes of Willis Hall and John Osborne. As an attractive and talented young actress, it's unsurprising that she appeared in some of the new and popular programmes of the '60s: drama serials 'Emergency Ward-10', Harpers West One', 'Z-Cars' and the Honor Blackman-era 'Avengers' episode 'The Charmers'.

As the doomed artistic free-spirit Isadora Duncan
in Ken Russell's acclaimed 'Isadora' (1966)

A big break comes with the Ken Russell-directed 'Isadora' a remarkable tour-de-force biopic in stark monochrome which boosted her career and that of Russell who was afterward propelled beyond the realm of BBC shorts and into the art-cinema boom of the '70s. For the actress, now in her mid-thirties, it heralded a purple patch of quality roles, beginning with her casting as Mrs Bennett in the BBC's admired 1967 adaptation of 'Pride And Prejudice', and leading to a brief arc of interesting cinema parts: she's in 'Play Dirty' (1969) - a war story penned by her BBC Arts connection Melvyn Bragg - before 'The Looking Glass War' (1970), 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' (1971), 'Nicholas & Alexandra' (1971), and 'O Lucky Man!' (1973).         

A bravura turn as Harold's exasperated mother in the 
cult classic 'Harold And Maude' (1971)

It was also during this period that she made her only appearance in a Hollywood movie, Hal Ashby's 'Harold And Maude' (1971) in which she plays the remote and bewildered mother of the troubled Harold (Bud Cort). Although not a big grossing success at the time, the film is now considered a cult classic. 

As Mary Queen Of Scots in 'Elizabeth R'
Her television presence also peaked during these years, with solid drama including 'Vile Bodies', 'The Great Inimitable Mr Dickens' and the high profile 'Elizabeth R' in which her Mary Queen Of Scots squared up fatally to Glenda Jackson's terrifying virgin queen. It's here though that her profile begins to lower a little, at least as far as film and television are concerned.
As the vain Lady Montdore in 'Love In A Cold Climate'

Bertie's redoubtable Aunt Dahlia in 'Jeeves & Wooster'

From the middle-'70s we see Vivian Pickles in such varied TV output as 'Love In A Cold Climate', 'Rebecca', and the excellent 'Velvet Glove' episode about Marie Stopes, while largely steering clear of the primetime potboilers other than 'Bergerac' and 'Midsomer Murders'. Big screen parts, meanwhile are limited to the Disney romp 'Candleshoe' (1977) with David Niven and Jodie Foster and, by way of contrast, the chaotic satire 'Britannia Hospital' (1982).  

As a sidenote, she was a very prolific story reader on 'Jackanory' which I always consider a badge of honour, and turns up as a fun bag-lady in the Brixton barbershop comedy 'Desmonds'. She was also my favourite of the actresses that portrayed Aunt Dahlia in 'Jeeves & Wooster'.     

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