It would be wrong to say film director Terence Davies always had Freda Dowie in mind to play his mother in Distant Voices, Still Lives, his 1988 drama about growing up in Liverpool after the Second World War. But from the moment he spotted her photo in the Spotlight actors directory Davies decided it was her or no one.
Davies, whose later films include The House of Mirth and Sunset Song – both of which were shot in Scotland –had a reputation for working out exactly what he wanted and then refusing to compromise his vision.
He filmed Distant Voices, Still Lives on a shoestring budget and could offer only union minimum rates, but he decided that he absolutely needed Dowie in the starring role of his mother, with Pete Postlethwaite as her abusive husband. “If you don’t want to do it, I don’t want to do it without you,” he told her.
The film was showcased at a string of film festivals, including Edinburgh and Cannes, picking up a clutch of awards along the way. And its reputation has only grown over the years. In a 2011 Time Out poll to determine the greatest British films of all time Distant Voices, Still Lives came third behind Don’t Look Now and The Third Man.
At the time it was made Dowie had been beavering away largely unnoticed since the 1950s in small roles on television and larger roles on stage, including a Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre production of Jean Genet’s The Maids in 1965. Suddenly, this silver-haired “little old lady” found herself lauded by critics and nominated as Best Supporting Actress at the European Film Awards.
In the 1990s Dowie went on to appear in the prestigious television adaptations Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Middlemarch and she played Christopher Eccleston’s mother in the landmark mini-series Our Friends in the North.
She was born Freda Mary Dowie in Carlisle in 1928. Her father sold fried fish. She studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London and then taught drama, acted in repertory theatre and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In 1971 she played the title role of Electra opposite Derek Jacobi’s Orestes in a translation of the Greek tragedy by David Thompson, her third husband. Both earlier marriages ended in divorce.
Dowie also acted in numerous radio plays, read stories and poetry on radio and in the early 1960s had a regular role on the radio soap opera Mrs Dale’s Diary.
Her screen career spanned half a century. As the nursemaid in Jonathan Miller’s 1966 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, she was called upon to splash about in the Pool of Tears with Alice. “It was a long scene” she said. “Jonathan Miller was on hand with fluffy towels and a good slug of brandy. The longer the scene the more I shivered, so the more I drank and got drunk.”
With a look of long suffering and forbearance, Dowie was repeatedly cast as victims and nuns, which she played in the award-winning television play Edna, the Inebriate Woman (1971) and the classic 1976 horror film The Omen, though her own religious views were less orthodox.
For many years she followed the teachings of the Indian mystic Meher Baba, before rejecting his claim that he was God and distancing herself from the sect.
She was reunited with Derek Jacobi when she played the Sybil in I Claudius in 1976 and she was Sally Brass in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1979, building a solid resume before Distant Voices, Still Lives came along and presented her with the role of a lifetime as the mother of a working-class Roman Catholic family.
The film consists of two halves, the nominal Distant Voices and Still Lives, shot two years apart, and set in the 1940s and 1950s. It managed to be lyrical and at times nostalgic, capturing the spirit of community and intimacy at home and in a pub singalong. But there were also scenes that were difficult to watch, of casual and sometimes horrendous violence, at school and at home.
Postlethwaite’s character violently attacks his wife, with Ella Fitzgerald singing Taking a Chance on Love on the soundtrack. One of the daughters asks why she married him. “He was nice,” Mother calmly replies, as if the answer was obvious. “He was a good dancer.”
“I felt so lucky it should fall in my lap,” Dowie said of the role, although she felt huge pressure in playing the director’s mother. Sometimes she felt like an intruder in painful, private family memories.
Davies gave her meticulous direction on how to talk, act and carry herself.
“Playing a non-fictitious person gives you a great responsibility,” she said. “You can’t do any of your tricks. It has to go very deep.”
The film was also a breakthrough role for the late Pete Postlethwaite, who went on to appear in The Usual Suspects, In the Name of the Father and Jurassic Park: The Lost World. “It was tough working with Pete,” said Dowie, “as he was full of anger then. You could see why Terry cast him.”
Dowie worked into her eighties and later credits include a recurring role in Common as Muck, The Royal and several parts on Heartbeat. She also recorded audiobooks.
Latterly she lived in the village of Westleton in Suffolk with her husband David Thompson, who died in April. They were married for almost 50 years. They did not have children.