Obituary: Renée Asherson, actress

Renee Asherson: Stage and screen actress most recently seen in The Others with Nicole Kidman. Picture: Getty
Renee Asherson: Stage and screen actress most recently seen in The Others with Nicole Kidman. Picture: Getty
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Born: 19 May, 1915, in London. Died: 30 October, 2014, in London, aged 99

Eenée Asherson played Laurence Olivier’s fresh-faced bride in his historic film of Henry V, back when Europe was still in the grip of world war. And she was still making films more than half a century later when she played the sinister, blind old woman communing with the dead in the acclaimed supernatural thriller The Others with Nicole Kidman.

Much of her best work was done on stage, often with Olivier or with Robert Donat, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Scottish-set thriller The 39 Steps. She married Donat in 1953, though he was ill and difficult to live with. They separated and he died a few years later. She never remarried nor did she have any children.

Donat left all his money to his children from a previous marriage and while Asherson previously worked for love, so she said, she now had to work for money to survive and she appeared in a wide range of television and films.

She played the Tsarina to Christopher Lee’s Rasputin in Hammer’s dip into Russian history Rasputin – The Mad Monk and she was the wife of an ill-fated theatre critic in the classic 1973 Hammer horror Theatre of Blood, with Vincent Price’s hammy Shakespearean actor drawing inspiration from the Bard to concoct grisly deaths for reviewers.

She was one of the regulars in Tenko, the 1981 television series about European women captured by the Japanese at the Fall of Singapore, and she played an elderly novelist, who is sharper than she seems, in a 1992 television adaptation of Muriel Spark’s darkly comic novel about old age Memento Mori, with Maggie Smith, Thora Hird and Michael Hordern.

The daughter of a businessman, she was born Dorothy Renée Ascherson. Her family were of German-Jewish descent. Her parents were meant to have gone on honeymoon on the Titanic, but cancelled at the last minute when her father got appendicitis.

Ascherson went to finishing school in France, studied at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art – despite parental disapproval – and she was in the London West End as early as 1935 when she appeared in a famous production of Romeo and Juliet in which Olivier and John Gielgud alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio.

She dropped the C from her surname early in her acting career and worked in repertory theatre in England and with the Old Vic. In the mid-1940s she starred opposite Donat in a West End productions of The Cure for Love, playing a woman waiting for her lover to return from war, and in Much Ado About Nothing, playing Beatrice to Donat’s Benedick.

Most of her work around this time was theatre and she visited the King’s in Edinburgh in 1947 in the comedy of manners The Animal Kingdom.

She knew Olivier from the theatre and he reputedly cast her as the French princess Katherine in his acclaimed wartime film version of Henry V in preference to his wife Vivien Leigh because he feared Leigh might over-shadow him. Or so it was said.

After the war Olivier directed the two women in the original London production of Tennessee Williams’s classic play A Streetcar Named Desire, with Asherson as the downtrodden wife Stella Kowalski and Leigh delivering a tour-de-force performance in the showier role of the mentally disintegrating Blanche DuBois, a part that later won Leigh an Oscar.

Slight of build, Asherson had twinkling eyes and angular, almost elfin features.

Her other films around that time included The Way Ahead, with David Niven, a big-screen version of The Cure for Love, in which she and Donat reprised their stage roles, and The Magic Box, once more with Donat.

Her greatest achievements were probably on stage, where she appeared in many of the classics. But she reached a bigger audience via films and television.

In the early 1950s she played Queen Victoria, from young woman to old age, in the BBC historical drama series Happy and Glorious. And in later years, as well as a few notable television plays and recurring roles, she made guest appearances in the likes of Two’s Company, Crown Court and Midsomer Murders.

In 1989 she formed a one-off partnership which at first sight might seem odd, but was entirely appropriate in the circumstances, teaming up with the comic actor Harry Enfield in the television movie Norbert Smith: A Life, a mockumentary “celebrating” the life of a theatrical knight.

It bore more than passing resemblance to the South Bank Show special Laurence Olivier: A Life.

It was even presented by the South Bank Show host Melvyn Bragg, with Enfield as the confused, elderly actor and Asherson as his equally dopey wife, interrupting and “correcting” her husband’s stories – but confirming that one Hollywood co-star was “a marvellous, imaginative lover”.

Even after she retired from acting, Asherson herself remained an enthusiastic and witty storyteller.

Her surviving relatives include her nephew, Neal Ascherson, the Edinburgh-born journalist who worked on The Scotsman and for many years wrote for The Observer.