Dinah Sheridan as Wendy McKim in the classic 1953 British comedy "Genevieve"
Dinah Sheridan, who has died aged 92, was a graceful actress fondly remembered for her performances in two of the most thoroughly British, good-natured and popular comedies in modern screen history — Genevieve (1953) and The Railway Children (1970).
In the first she played the wife of a vintage car enthusiast and perched prettily but unenthusiastically atop a 1904 Darracq (named Genevieve) which is driven from London to Brighton by her dull barrister-husband Alan (John Gregson). The journey is riddled with mishap, and on the return leg they try to beat another couple in a race back to Westminster.
Subtly deploying her smiling mouth and high cheekbones to express doubts about the sort of Englishman who puts more emotion and sincerity into the running of his car than his marriage, Dinah Sheridan’s comic instinct and control were precise and stylish. When the girlfriend of her husband’s racing rival confides that her escort “only thinks about cars — and the other thing”, Dinah Sheridan, without batting an eyelid, replies: “Alan only thinks about cars.”
Genevieve proved hugely popular, and won a BAFTA for best film.
Dinah Sheridan was then in the prime of her career, having made two dozen films. But having tasted success, she married John Davis, her boss at the Rank Organisation, and promptly had 13 years of retirement imposed upon her. It was only following her separation from Davis, her second husband, that she began acting again. Then, after bringing wit and elegance to a succession of West End comedies, farces and thrillers, she picked up on-screen where she had left off, joining the cast of another huge hit – Lionel Jeffries’s The Railway Children.
Taken from an Edwardian story by E Nesbit about a mother and her three children adapting to straitened circumstances in the Yorkshire countryside after the father, a Foreign Office official, is wrongly convicted of treachery, the film is best-remembered for the adventures of city-bred children exploring a new life in the countryside. Nonetheless, Dinah Sheridan achieved through restraint an affecting emotional eloquence that was crucial to the film’s appeal.
She was born Dinah MEc on September 17 1920 at Hampstead Garden Suburb. A sickly child, she contracted tuberculosis at the age of five. “I was pushed around in a spinal carriage until I was well enough to learn to walk again at age six-and-a-half,” she recalled.
Her father was Russian, while before the war her German mother ran a photographic business, for which Dinah posed willingly and often from an early age. Later the Royal Family became clients, and only the Mecs, under the trading name of Studio Lisa (her mother’s first name), were allowed to photograph the royal pantomimes at Christmas.
Educated at the Italia Conti school of acting, Dinah made her professional debut aged 11 in Where the Rainbow Ends (Holborn Empire, 1932), and proved a particularly lovely Wendy in Peter Pan, a role she played, from the age of 15, at least 100 times. By that age she had already appeared in her first feature film, Give My Heart (1935), having perused a telephone directory to select “Sheridan” as a stage name. The following year she was the first actress to broadcast on television from Alexandra Palace, in Picture Page. Her first film lead also came in 1936 with Irish and Proud of It.
After such domestic English epics as Father Steps Out (1937), Merely Mr Hawkins (1938), and Full Speed Ahead (1939) she spent two years during the early part of the war in provincial rep, also driving an ambulance at Welwyn Garden City. Then came such films as Salute John Citizen (1942); Get Cracking (1945, with George Formby); Murder in Reverse (1947); Calling Paul Temple (1948); The Story of Shirley Yorke (1949); The Huggetts Abroad (1949); and Paul Temple’s Triumph (1950).
Despite such regular work, it was not until she played the game warden’s wife in Harry Watt’s film about African wildlife, Where No Vultures Fly (1951), that her acting received wide acknowledgement. And only after further parts, in The Sound Barrier (1952), Appointment in London (1953) and The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953), did she finally achieve – in Genevieve – stardom.
Success came at the same moment as the end of her 11-year marriage to the actor Jimmy Hanley, with whom she had a son and a daughter. Davis soon proposed on one condition – that she give up acting “to have a happy home”.
It was a condition she seemed at first to accept: “I looked at films as a career from necessity but all I have really wanted is my home and children. The two things just do not work out together when one has to leave home at 5.30am in the morning to go to the studio.” Soon things changed. Two years later, in 1956, she resented having to turn down a big part in Reach for The Sky, the biopic about Douglas Bader. “I had promised my husband never to accept another engagement. It was hard. It was not a very happy time for me.”
It was two years after the end of her second marriage in 1965 that she returned to the stage – in a drawing room comedy by Hugh and Margaret Williams, Let’s All Go Down The Strand (Phoenix). In it she had the only serious role – that of a wife who insists on divorcing her husband after his first sexual lapse. Noting her “promising” comeback to the West End, the Telegraph’s critic WA Darlington praised her as “one of the clearest and best speakers on our stage”. “She had the task of winning our sympathy,” he added, “and brought it off with much charm.”
Subsequent stage productions included A Boston Story (Duchess 1968); Out of the Question (St Martin’s 1969); A Touch of Purple (Thorndike, Leatherhead, 1972); Move Over Mrs Markham (Vaudeville, 1972); The Card (Queen’s 1973); The Gentle Hook (Piccadilly, 1974); In The Red (Whitehall, 1977); and a tour of Half Life, which took her to Toronto.
If she rarely grappled with the classics, it was perhaps because she never could evoke persuasively that streak of hardness which goes with many great roles. So it was natural that, as she matured, it was as old flames, obliging widows, demure or indignant wives that she was most appreciated. Her femininity, likeability, integrity and sense of comedy contributed richly to the success of such West End hits as The Pleasure of his Company (Phoenix, 1976), A Murder is Announced (Vaudeville, 1977) and Present Laughter (1981).
Despite the success of The Railway Children, she only made one more film – The Mirror Crack’d – a Miss Marple adaptation starring Angela Lansbury as Agatha Christie’s detective. She did take several television roles, though, and could be seen thereafter in Don’t Wait Up (as Nigel Havers’s mother), and Winning Streak. In the early 1990s she also appeared frequently on the afternoon game show Countdown.
In 1986 she married Jack Merivale, the Canadian actor (and former lover of Vivien Leigh), whom she had met 19 years earlier and nursed for many years until his death from a hereditary kidney condition in 1990. Two years later she married Aubrey Ison, an American television producer. He died in 2007, and she is survived by her son, Jeremy Hanley, the former chairman of the Conservative Party, and her daughter, Jenny, an actress.
Dinah Sheridan, born September 17 1920, died November 25 2012
from The Guardian 25 November 2012