Rosamund John (Silkin)

Rosamund John
Family name: 
John (Silkin)
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
26 May 1993
Production Media: 

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Born: October 19th 191 3.

Summary of interview by Rodney Giesler on May 26th 1993




Childhood. Converted to socialism by teacher. Parents separated. Milton Rosmer gets her a part in Secret of Loch Ness (1937). Two seasons at Stratford. C.B. Cochran gives a part in Home & Beauty. Describes working conditions and pay and fellow artistes. Acting in the West End during the blitz. Working with Leslie Howard in First of the Few. Then The Gentle Sex, again with Howard. The Lamp Still Burns with Stewart Granger, directed by Maurice Elvey. The Way to the Stars directed by Anthony Asquith. Tawney Pipit with Bernard Miles. Green for Danger (Sydney Gilliat), with Alastair Sim, Fame is the Spur for Boulting Brothers with Michael Redgrave. Never stopped working. Most directors totally disorganised. Noel Coward the exception. Never entered studio without a finished script and schedule.



Tough working conditions in studios during the war years. Elected to Council of Equity. Impact of the McCarthy era in this country. Invited to join Cinematograph Films Council by Harold Wilson. Knew and liked George Elvin. Describes her experiences as a CFC delegate to the Soviet Union. Meets famed Soviet actor Nicolai Cherkassov. Memories of Larry Olivier, Michael Redgrave, ‘Puffin’ Asquith, John Laurie and Micky Powell. Met husband John Silkin during Marylebone byelection. Had to go back to stage (Gaslight with Robert Newton) to support them. Describes the Silkin family and problems with her children caused by her absence acting.


The copyright of this interview lies with the \british Entertainment History Project

Interview with Rosamund John

Interviewer: Rodney Giesler

RG: Could you tell me your background Rosamund, how you started acting and what was the situation?

RJ: Well I don’t know why, I always wanted to be an actress; my mother should have been an actress. In her day of course it just wasn’t the thing to do and we had her histrionics in the home I may say. But I always wanted to be an actress and I was terribly lucky at school: we had a marvellous woman and she taught me History and Economics and she’d been to LSE with Laski and the magic brushed off, even second hand. She converted me to socialism, I may say, by the time I’d done the history of the Industrial Revolution. And she asked the head mistress if she could be allowed to train the prefects, we used the read the lesson in the morning and she, the headmistress thoroughly disapproved of the theatre. We had a cinema quite nearby the high school that I went to and we were firmly told that we were never to look at the stills outside the theatre. However this woman very craftily suggested to the headmistress that it would be a good idea if she trained us to go onto a platform and stand at a lectern and learn how to control your breathing and so forth. The only training I ever had in the theatre I may say. And having started with that we did poetry and plays for parent’s evening and so forth and I suppose that was what fixed me entirely in my endeavour to be an actress. And then when I left school my father couldn’t conceive of me being an actress, I never dared even to put it to him. My parents had separated I may say and my mother had married again, but my father looked at it as practically taking the primrose path. And when I left school I went to France for a year which was really a way of putting off making any decisions. My father thought I’d be a shorthand typist I think, the only thing he could conceive me doing.

RG: What was the job?

RJ: Oh well I went as an au pair, you know a student looking after children at a place in Lyon. I didn’t realise, the oldest of the children was three. I’d never had anything to do with children before, boy did I learn. Anyway while I was there English girls were much sought after. I used to go to English church on a Sunday because it was the only way I got off the leash. Anyway one of the girls I got to know there was with a family. In Lyon nearly everyone had a connection with the silk trade. Her family had been to China and they were going back there and she’d been once and she didn’t want to go again so they’d asked me if I’d go. I used to write to this woman who had taught me history at school and told her what I was going to do and she wrote to me and said, look you know perfectly well what you really want to do and if you don’t at least have a go you’ll never forgive yourself. So I didn’t go to China and she also, she was a great friend of a man called Milton Rosmer and his wife Irene Rooke and they were very famous actors at the time with Miss Hornman’s touring company in Manchester and through Miss Eliot who taught me at school I got to know them.  Milton was going to make a film about the Loch Ness monster and they wanted a very unsophisticated Scots girl. Well they couldn’t have found anything more unsophisticated than me at that time. So I dropped everything and came home and went to see Milton. He said, well you look right for it, what have you done? And of course I’d done absolutely nothing so he said for Christ’s sake don’t tell the producer that, so I thought what do I say. I knew well enough that the Liverpool Rep was quite well known so I didn’t dare say that I’d been there so in due course when I went to see the producer and he asked what I had done I said happily I’d been in Newcastle Rep. Why Newcastle god only knows. Anyway I got this job and I was lucky because the very first day I was in a bar. I was the daughter of the man who owned the pub and all the journalists had come to Loch Ness. I’d never been in a bar in my life I may say. But I was lucky that they had real scots in the bar and I picked up the Scots accent from them. The first line I ever had to say was “Weesh you cannot scare me”. I didn’t realise I was going to have to have a Scotch accent when I took this job but by the grace of god I got away with it. Everyone used to say, oh you’ve been in Newcastle, who’s the producer now and I always had to find something to do on the other side of the set. Until the day when somebody said to me, oh that’s Jesmond Dene. Well I thought Basil Dean’s brother obviously, I didn’t know for months afterwards that Jesmond Dene is where the theatre is situated. We made this film at Ealing Studios, but it wasn’t an Ealing Studios production, it was some tatty little firm. Somebody wanted to put me under contract, my father was appalled- the mere idea was dreadful for him and I had to persuade him to take a day off work because he had to come with me to sign the paperwork because I was underage. Anyway he said what you are going to pay her. The man said well five a week when she’s not working, twenty five when she is. He said to my absolute horror: “five shillings?” It had never occurred to him that somebody would pay the sum of five pounds to his daughter. Anyway by the time he’d finished consulting with his solicitors the firm had gone bankrupt, nothing ever came of it and I don’t really remember what happened. But after that Milton said to me, look you can’t go into the film business without learning your job, you’ve got to do the theatre. He gave me introductions to various different people including a man called Ben Iden Payne. He was coming back from university in America to take over the Shakespeare theatre in Stratford upon Avon, and in due course I went along and presumably I did Juliet I should think and got a job walking on and understudying. When my father heard about this he thought I meant Stratford-atte-Bow and I said no, Stratford upon Avon. He said how are you going to get there every day and I said, well I shall live there and he said who’s going to pay for you, it was the only thing that concerned him. I’m getting three pounds a week I said. Believe it or not in those days I lived on what was called a nice combined for about twenty five bob a week and lived on the three pounds a week over the six month season and then I had to find out how I was going to survive. I was invited to go back for the next season at five pounds a week, so I felt I was really in the money but I had to live through the winter and one of the girls who were in the company had a boyfriend who was an artist and he asked if he could paint me through him.  I met all sorts of other artists and in those days you were paid half a crown an hour and this is how I kept going. It’s so long ago

RG: Who was up at Stratford with you?

RJ: Ben Iden Payne was the producer, Randall Erton of course was, he also produced the odd couple of plays and he played Shylock which he was famous for. Catherine Lacey. Isn’t it awful I don’t remember them anymore? The second season that I was there, Trevor Howard was my boyfriend he’d just come straight out of RADA at that stage, we used to bicycle everywhere even after the theatre at night or else we stole a punt. Oh it was a very romantic period I can tell you. And the second season I was there, you know they have the governors of the theatre, including the Flowers, they have a ceremony on 23rd April for Shakespeare’s birthday and among the governors at that time was C.B Cochran. They all come up and have a procession and have bunches of flowers and throw them on Shakespeare’s grave and come to the theatre in the evening. Anyway the play at that time was Julius Caesar and most people just tied a shawl over their head because we were romping around in the crowd needless to say for the famous friends, romans and countrymen, but I had curls made to match my hair which was red in those days so I used to pin these on and flaunt them around. Anyway after the theatre at night there was a party and they had an American woman who was quite famous and every year she used to bring over a lot of people from America and was very popular with the theatre of course because she filled the seats for quite a long time. Anyway, she gave a party and said my husband would like to meet you and introduced me to Mr Cochran. Well I never thought it was the Mr Cochran, I could never have uttered. Well he said if you ever play Juliet let me know and I'll come and see you. Then Trevor said to me, do you know who you've been speaking to? That's C.B Cochran. Well he was going to put on this play with Elizabeth Bergner called The Boy David, when I knew this I wrote off and said I seen you at Stratford upon Avon. I went to see him and he said there's nothing for you in this play, there's only one woman in the play and you can't understudy her because you're too tall, she was a tiny little thing. But he said I'm going to put on a review, it was called the Coronation Review, Home and Beauty it was called and he said,  would you like to audition for that? Well I would have auditioned for anything to get a job. Well Elsie April who did chorus and so forth said to me oh find yourself a song, and pick a waltz because it's easier to move around to so I brought a song called ‘It's a Sin to Tell a Lie’. In the meantime I'd met a girl who was my best friend for a long time. Now I met her in a production that Robert Donat did I must have done that between the two seasons at Stratford. Robert Donat put on a play of his own called Red Night Lost all his money in it as far as I remember because it was about the war, the first world war written by Leicherman. There were only a couple of parts for women in and Yvonne who became my best friend was one of them. I understudied Meriel Forbes who played his wife who later married Ralph Richardson. Also there was a woman, French woman who appeared in it and learnt some of the parts that I might be allowed to play in Stratford when I went back; met Yvonne and Yvonne lived in a club, a YMCA that was affectionately known as the cat’s home.  When I went to audition for Cochy it was at the Palace Theatre and when there's not set on the stage it’s the size of an aircraft hangar and I sang this song and whistled round the stage. And I may say I was now living in that club and they had a practice room because it was all for theatre people. I persuaded somebody to play the song for me and when they heard that I was auditioning for Cochran they fell about because I'd never done singing or dancing in my life. Cochy said to me that there wasn't going to be any singing or dancing, but in fact he had Frederick Ashton doing the choreography. Freddy Ashton said to me in despair at one point, have you never had a dancing lesson in your life and I said: No! Anyway, when I saw Cochy he said would I like to do this, be one of Cochy's young ladies. He asked what money I wanted, so I knew he paid more than for a normal chorus girl so I said ten pounds a week and he said are you living at home and I said no, and anyway I got my ten pound a week.  I was terrified because you only got rehearsal money if you earned up to ten pounds a week and I was worried about how I was going to survive but mercifully I was paid my ten pounds a week rehearsal money. I could remember going back to the club and saying I can't go on, it’s too much work, and Yvonne said, for ten pounds a week you can do anything. We opened in the Opera House in Manchester and it was in the depths of winter.

RG: This was what, 1938?

RJ: Well it was the time of the coronation

RG: 1937 then

RJ: Anyway Billy Hale was in the Company and Nelson Keys and a wonderful Hungarian opera singer with the most wonderful god she looked like the [inaudible] of God may I say and she and Billy Hale disliked one another intensely, battle was joined and she brought over a band, none of whom spoke a word of English. We had an American producer who was called John Larry Anderson and he couldn't get his name round Rosamund so he used to call me Rosa Lewis, well I'd never heard of Rosa Lewis but everyone else in the company at that time had. She ran the Cavendish hotel at that time, she was a mistress of Edward VII  and every time he came in to see how the chorus was getting on, I remember on one occasion hearing him say well that's fine but Rosa Lewis is a beat and a half behind everyone else. But there was a wonderful when we were rehearsing in Manchester. We used to rehearse until midnight and you came out and there was a thick fog and you never knew if it was day or night and on one occasion we had a number where we wore clothes that trailed on the floor and Cochy said now sit down and Rosa Lewis will tell you how to deal with the train. This was something that at least I'd learned at Stratford upon Avon and of course it was wonderful for me, someone who had never been able to do anything in the company. Who else was in the company? Michael Wilding was one of the boys in the company, and Greta Gynt was in it too and there was a girl called Bunty and she was married to the boxer Kid Berg and when he used to come and collect her there would always be a couple of hoods with him. There was a wonderful American girl called Maxine Daryl known as legs Daryl she could not get over the fact of my English. Her mother came over in due course and she said sit down over there and listen to Rosa Lewis. Anyway, the thing ran its course and then I went into rep where you learnt a new play every week. One time I was in Wolverhampton and we did twice nightly I can't think how we survived. The woman who played the main parts in addition to playing twice nightly she had two small daughters and both of them had been born in the break and she ran the left book club.

RG: I suppose Equity didn't apply in those days?

RJ: Oh it did, one of the first things Milton said was join Equity because he was brought up in a time when producers used to come into the country with a company  and then if he didn't make any money he used to leave them. Dame May Whitty was one of the founders of Equity and we had her dining table in the headquarters in Harley Street because in due course I was on the council of Equity. They really founded it because producers were fond of using the casting couch and this was why Equity was founded. We came back to London and then I went into rep. At one time Milton was going to direct a film about the Matterhorn and I was in rep in Harrogate and Milton's wife rang me up and said Milton thinks you'd be ideal for the girl in it, but you haven't done any films so you'll have to do an audition. I was in Harrogate and we didn't rehearse on Thursday so I set off from York and got back in time for the performance and I did an audition with Bernard Miles. Bernard was very difficult and the audition took longer than expected and I suddenly realised that I wasn't going to catch the four o'clock train from King's Cross and I said to the chap who was directing the audition, I've got to get back for this train and he said it's alright there's a train at 6 o'clock but this was the silver bullet and you had to pay extra and I had to borrow ten bob from him to get back in time. But I had to leave immediately as the snow was melting or something and they rang me to offer me the part and the only phone was in Mrs Peacock's office. This was the terrifying lady who ran the theatre and of course she was outrage she couldn't conceive of anything leaving her beloved company. I wasn't in the play the next week and she immediately recast it and put me in the play, the old bitch. Anyway she said if you leave I'll see that you'll never work again and I didn't leave. The next thing I got into a play with Robert Donat he was going to do a series of plays at the Old Vic but then all the theatres closed down so nothing came of it and he decided to do The Devil's Disciple out in the country, the Shaw play. Roger Livesey played the parson in it and Milton was producing it and so they asked me to do Judith which is not a very nice part if I may say but anyway I wasn't fussy at this stage. So I went on tour with Robert during the war. We came back to London and opened at the Piccadilly Theatre. The air raid warning used to go off and we used to go on with the play so all the actors used to take turns doing performances and we used to go from one theatre to another doing performances. Robert had a house in Wendover and he invited me and Yvonne to stay his wife was in America with the children and Yvonne and I went to stay and there were masses of fruit trees and I was horrified at all this fruit going to waste. I was climbing up a cherry tree one day and they rang up, Denham studios and said Leslie Howard was doing a film and would I go over and do an audition and I said I can't I hadn't washed my hair in a week, could I do it tomorrow and they said Leslie may not be here tomorrow you need to come now. So of course I went and Leslie took one look at me and said well she doesn't look in the least bit like an actress. They gave me this script to learn and I had to go back a couple of days later ad when I got back and Robert and Yvonne knew of this film and Robert had wanted to be in the film but Robert couldn't do it. I said to Yvonne what’s the part of the wife and she said it's the leading part. And I never dreamed I'd get the part and anyway I did the screen test and got the part to my amazement and I really think I got it because Leslie's girlfriend heard I was living in this house with Robert Donat and she was terrified of Leslie having it off with every other girl he worked with and Vie Lett used to be behind the camera and never took her eyes off me. Leslie was wonderful and taught me everything about film. He said don't let them fuss you; the important thing is your eyes.

RG: A very patient director was he?

RJ: Well he was an actor and therefore understood that actors like to rehearse. There were film directors in those days who thought actors were part of the furniture, who thought if actors wanted to rehearse that was a waste of time. After doing that film with him a man called Derrick De Marney got hold of a film about women going into the ATS. The government wanted to make a film about the ATS because it was very unpopular, the WAFs and the Wrens were, the ATS were looked down upon as being the dregs. Derrick had got hold of this script and Derrick said there was a Scots part so I got this Scots part. Now who were the other people in it, Joyce Howard, Googie Withers?

RG: Lily Palmer?

RJ: Lily Palmer, yes now she was a bitch,

RG: Jimmy Hanley had a small part of course

RJ: Did he? I'd forgotten about that

RG: Now there's a scene in a guards van on a train

RJ: Yes that's right

RG: I remember the line once I settle down I sleep like a kitten and the camera panned down and he was asleep

RJ: Yes fast asleep. Two cities films took it over. At that time you had to get permission from the Ministry of Information because film was in very short supply at that time. In order to get permission to do what they wanted to do they took over the ATS film and asked Leslie to direct it?

RG: Who directed it originally?

RJ: A man called Brunel, Adrian Brunel. We made it at Denham originally and Leslie directed it but Via let directed it and died and this of course absolutely devastated him and he appointed someone called Maurice Elvey and nobody had the slightest, everyone had the greatest contempt for him. Oh he was a dreadful man and he had a girlfriend who was writing a script and this is something I did with Stuart Granger and whilst Leslie was shattered they told him that there were spirit messages coming from Vie Lett. Stuart Granger was in it and so was I. It was the first film I did with Jimmy this was the first film I did with Jimmy and I knew Jimmy's wife, this was long before he married Jean Simmonds. Elspeth March was his wife then. At one stage when I was on stage with Robert we went up to Aberdeen, the whole of Aberdeen was run by the Donald brothers and Peter Donald proposed to me, he sent me a fillet of kippers because I remember saying I didn't like bones so he sent them filleted. Jimmy was in The Black Watch with Peter Donald but he got an ulcer and that was how he managed to go to Gainsborough and he got a contract because they knew he was on the up and up at that stage nobody had heard of him and he started throwing his weight around and that didn't go down well with people like the electricians and carpenters.  I remember they painted his name and spelt it wrongly and said to me will you point it out of course they needed have worried and he said "they've got my bloody name wrong" They approached Jimmy to do a film I did with Michael Redgrave, yes it must have been The Way to the Stars

RG: I don't remember him in that

RJ: No he couldn't do it, but he suggested that I do it with Michael and Johnny Mills was in it. I never stopped working for about two years and Bernard Miles turned up with Tawny Pipit and I said I need a holiday I'm absolutely wiped. But he wouldn't take no for an answer and I said to him let me have the script and he gave me one scene, and it was to be made up in the Cotswolds it was a story about the bird, the Tawny Pipit. Since it was going to be in the Cotswolds my stand in and I would go cycling along the Cotswolds when I wasn't working so that was how I came to do Tawny Pipit. There's a film I did with James Mason called The Upturned Glass with Pamela Kellino his wife at that time and her boyfriend who was supposed to write the script, there wasn't a script so a couple of times we shot the scene silent and had to dub over the script because it wasn't done

RG: That was Laurence Huntingdon directing

RJ: Was it? I didn't enjoy it very much I made it around the same time I was making Fame is the Spur which I adored because it was period. Funny enough I read that whilst I was doing another film. Then I heard Jimmy Granger, because his real name was James Stewart but he couldn't use that because of the famous James Stewart and Granger was his mother’s name. He told me that they were making a film of it so I said can I have one of the parts that was in the book but wasn't in the film as I heard Deborah Kerr was going to be in and they said don't you want the lead and I said I thought Deborah Kerr was going to be the lead and the Boulting Brothers, who were making the film said who do you think makes the casting decisions around here? The very arrogant couple. Roy was doing most of the directing, he and Michael Redgrave didn't see eye to eye which made life very difficult. I loved the film, the lovely clothes.

RG: They never repeated it

RJ: No I don't think it was a great success

RG: And apposite of the time

RJ: Everyone said it was meant to be Ramsey McDonald, but the writer said it was meant to be any left leaning politician with feet of clay. I had my first son around that time because the next film after John was born was Green for Danger, with Sidney Gilliat I was the murderess in that mainly because no one ever thought I could be. It was a nice film Trevor was in it, Leo Gin, Sally Gray, Max Jenkins and Alastair Sim. I remember talking to Anna Neagle about working all the hours’ good send and she said before the war we used to work until two o’clock in the morning. Noel Coward was the first person to realise you should have a finished script and stick to it, it was run by mad men.


RG: Rosamund could you tell me a bit about working conditions during the war years?

RJ: Well we worked very long hours, I remember taking the work man’s train and it was much cheaper. We had to be in by seven in the morning for make-up and hair and I can remember working with Leslie Howard and Leslie was always late coming to rehearsal. On one occasion, I used to rehearse with him in his dressing room and the first assistant director came in and said the men were complaining bitterly because London was being bombed to hell at that time and the workman, a lot of them travelled great distances across London and they were complaining because they had to come in and then wait until Leslie showed up before we could start any work. And Leslie of course who was a complete happy go lucky chap said happily it's the fault of the lighting man but it was in fact because Leslie didn't want to get to the studios early in the morning. And this was an incident that I happen to remember but it was the attitude of so many people connected with the film business, it was horrifying until Noel Coward made Brief Encounter and demonstrated how much more efficient it was to use a finished script and stick to the script and stick to your budget and I hoped his example would show what much more efficient way it was.

RG: And he wasn't really a film director

RJ: No but he was clever enough to learn his job from people who did know it and any director depends a lot on his editor, I don't know who his editor was

RG: Jack Harris

RJ: Was it, oh well that would explain. David Lean must have been enchanted to work with someone so efficient, made a change for him too I think

RG: Well I think he was On Which We Serve he was co-director

RJ: You see Noel was clever enough to learn from other people

RG: And Brief Encounter of course had David Lean’s technical signature on it

RJ: That was a lovely film wasn't it

RG: Going back to these conditions, I believe the ATC was very active then?

RJ: Oh yes I think so, I really got to know George Elvin very well because in due course when I was not filming I was in a play Wyndhams I was elected to the council of Equity it was at the time of that ghastly communist business in America and it had an overflow over here of course and you have no idea what went on

RG: Are you talking about the McCarthy era?

RJ: Yes. Oh they used to have meetings of the Equity council after the theatre had closed down at night and people were obsessed with this sort of thing. I remember at one stage someone was accusing our secretary who was a wonderful man called Gordon Sanderson who strained every nerve for anything to do with Equity but somebody who wanted his job, said, oh Gordon was a communist,  and I can remember after one of these incredible meetings I remember saying to Dicky Attenburgh what is the matter with people at Equity and Dicky said to me who but a communist would do the kind of job he does except a communist and I said my god if that's the definition of a communist then it’s a pity we don't have a few more of them, quite extraordinary. There was all this sort of things that went on I felt that films were made in spite of the technical haphazardry that went on.

RG: I think on the studio floor you get the dedication

RJ: You get it among the electricians, the carpenters it was the industry people, the sponsors that were the real bug bear. I say I got to know George Elvin I really got to know him after the war, it can't have been long after when Harold Wilson was the board of trade and we had The Marshall plan going on there was a law where every cinema had to show a percentage of British films. But on the cinematic film council was a man called O’Brien he was the general secretary of NAPCE and O’Brien always used to say he represented the business but of course he didn't he spent most of the time oiling up to directors and producers and Equity chiefly though.  Gordon Sanderson kept saying there should be an acting representative and Harold Wilson asked to send a letter with a list and Harold chose me. I asked him many years later and he said I'd seen your films and like them. He said I knew I couldn't choose Larry because he was on the production side and I know they'd say I'd just chose another production person. Anyway I used to go to these meetings and used to be amazed at the way they used to talk about films. There was also Americans on the board, why only the government can tell you. Anyway George was representing ACT and we were asked to send a delegation over to Russia, Jimmy Edwards was a representative, Tom O'Brien of course and I didn't know what was worse, when he was drunk or when he was sober. I was the only woman on the delegation I may say. It was interesting. Before we went they asked us what we would like to see and do I passionately wanted to see the children's theatres and they arranged everything. We had to endure endless long speeches, we went to Moscow and went on the famous train to Leningrad and went on this theatre the next morning and I thought more of those boring long speeches. Instead of which a wonderful man called Chekasov who was one of their most famous actors and I thought to myself if Equity had a meeting in London who would you ever persuade to talk about films but this chap was absolutely wonderful mimic. I'd seen him in a film of Don Quixote he was tall and very thin. He told us that he had started off wanting to be a singer but he didn't have the figure for it, you have to be very big to withstand the strain of being an opera singer so  he'd become and actor and it was wonderful listening to him. George Elvin was on that delegation. They decided to take us down to the Black Sea and I'd had enough of these speeches so I decided to stay in Moscow and they were absolutely horrified. There was a dear little man in the hotel who took me to lunch so after lunch I used to say I need to rest and as soon as I got there I shot off and went shopping as I knew Moscow well enough to get the train or bus. I remember I bought records and there was a limit, I could only buy records that I could hum. That was because I was on the council of Equity which was a revelation but at least it taught me how you conduct a meeting, that you take the minutes and the chairman having control of the meeting and not allowing people to talk ad lib came in very useful later in my life.

RG: You never stood for parliament?

RJ: No no. I belonged to the labour party and that was how I met my husband and he was a candidate in Marylebone. He did plenty of jobs his last job was Minister of Agriculture. It was marvellous for his father because he lived long enough to see both of his sons on the front bench. He grew up in poverty, he was brilliant at mathematics at school and was put forward for a scholarship to Oxford but his head teacher wouldn't give him a reference and said he would not profit from a university education because he used to go down to the docks and listen to the Labour men hold forth. But he became a solicitor eventually he told me that before he found his final exams he had to find 25 pounds and didn't have it and his wife's friend lent it to him and he became Lord Silkin and two of his three sons got onto the front bench.

RG: Was he in government?

RJ: They lived in those days in Dulwich which was part of Peckham he said the first time he stood for the LLC he only got three votes but eventually the chap who was the member, he died and Lewis was elected after three recounts. In 45 he became a minister and he put three laws on the statute book which is an incredible achievement.  To do one in the course of one parliament is an achievement, he established the national parks, the town and country planning act and the new towns

RG: Which is not only three acts on the statute books but three acts of such importance which I think are still intact.

RJ: Well more or less, actually the town and country act was one of the first things that the first conservative government tore to pieces when they got back in.

RG: Still got things like the green belt though

RJ: Oh yes, and he was so unpopular of course they let all his tyres down when he went to talk about the new towns, Stevenage I think. But they came to appreciate it; they’ve got a great big thing based on a photograph in Stevenage. And John was given the freedom of Stevenage because he did something for them when he was Town and Planning minister. Now we were talking about conditions

RG: Back to your acting, can you tell me who you most liked working with?

RJ: Of course I owed an enormous amount to Leslie Howard. Larry Olivier, Larry was marvellous he was one of the few big actors who wanted to work with Equity. When we wanted to do something in the press, when there was a dispute or something we’d always ask Larry to come along and he would say, well I know damn all about it but just brief me and of course if you’ve got Larry there you’ve got the whole press there, but he was one of the very few people who didn’t despite equity I admired him both as a person and as an actor.

RG: Michael Redgrave?

RJ: Michael Redgrave, he had his shortcomings. Who else, James Mason I never really knew very well because I had a very minor part in the film I was in with him. He said I wish I could inspire you with some enthusiasm for this part and I said to him if you were playing it would you be enthusiastic about it? Trevor I knew at Stratford upon Avon when we were very young

RG: The romance never lasted?

RJ: Well the war came, the army, that’s life isn’t it. I remember when I was at Wyndham’s doing You Never Can Tell and he was at the theatre that backed on to it, it was called the Duke of York and Trevor was there and he used to come and have tea with me on matinee days. Stuart Granger I worked with, I always bitterly regretted that I never did a film with Carol Reed. Trevor said it was wonderful working with Carol because he understood actors, unlike some directors who treat them like bits of furniture. Puffin Asquith, I adored Puffin, alas he had an alcohol problem. The first film I was in with Michael Redgrave he was very difficult and Puffin was terribly sweet.

RG: Did you your enjoy film career more than theatre?

RJ: No, I adored the theatre. Film was terribly frustrating, I don’t know what it’s like now but in those days you never made things in sequence and there always seemed to be things you had to cope with in addition to your acting, there was always an actor being temperamental or quarrelling with the director or directors who didn’t have a clue what they were doing

RG: There was always the technical dimension to consider, can I have another one for safety, I didn’t quite get that one in focus was the camera operator’s usual plea. It’s a contradiction in a sense

RJ: Oh yes there are so many technical things you have to look after. But I remember Puffin saying, I remember a scene where Michael and I were washing up and I can remember him saying that he’d been told I’m a very emotional actress but no technique. He said that’s an absolute lie, nobody could have shot the scene you’ve just done with Michael without technique.

RG: Didn’t he work on Major Barbara

RJ: Yes, he probably did with Gabby Pascal, god knows Gabby needed help; he was another David Lean but without David Lean’s ability

RG: You were never directed by David Lean?

RJ: No, alas I would have loved to have done a film with him

RG: Michael Powell?

RJ: That was quite a performance. I remember John Laurie telling me lovely story about Michael Powell, he loathed him. Michael Powell had an absolute talent for picking on of the actors who was a nervous type and picking on him til he cried. They were filming in Wales and needed to film the puffins and in due course John was sat in the pub and someone said the puffins have gone, and John walked across the island to have the pleasure of telling Michael because they hadn’t filmed them. John Laurie was a lovely person too, when I was doing the ATS film Leslie used to have an inspiration overnight and he’d come up with two pages of dialogue. I’d go and find John, at Denham there would always be two or three films being made at the time and I’d get him to take me through my Scots accent and it’s quite tricky to produce this

RG: You mention your father, what profession was he?

RJ: His father was an importer of wine, my father was the only boy in a family of girls and his mother never allowed the wind to blow on him, he always passionately wanted to be a soldier, so when the First World War came he could hardly wait. My mother never forgave him for leaving her high and dry but in fact she immediately got herself a job which was quite something as the only women who worked were those who took in washing or went out and cleaning. She went to work at the gas company and then in went to work in a Portuguese bank. When my father came back, his father had died and they had sold the firm so he went to Somerset House. When he first came back in 1918 he didn’t have a job and my mother did and this didn’t help at home. When I was very small I heard my mother say she never had any interest in girls she only wanted boys, there was five of us may I say, my brother was the only one she had any interest in. She was five foot tall and had wonderful blue eyes. Her father adored her and he died very suddenly from appendicitis and she didn’t want to stay with her mother who I imagine was jealous of her, so she married my father but she never should have married him. But as I said, we had her histrionics at home; she should have been an actress. So I heard her say this so spent all my childhood wanting to be a boy. I was terrified of her, I used to go and hide under the dining table until she’d gone out and I don’t think she ever had any use for me, she said why don’t you go and get a job in a bank, and you’ll get a pension at the end of it. This narrow minded attitude from the both of them.

RG: But wasn’t it your mother who knew Harold Laski?

RJ: No no that was the teacher at school,

RG: I was going to ask did you eventually meet Harold Laski.

RJ: No, the magic rubbed off second hand, Mrs Elliott was a wonderful woman it was she who converted me to socialism

RG: Do you feel your career was something that ended on a certain date?

RJ: Well my husband hated me working. When we were first married we were broke so I had to carry on working and I think he resented that. I was working on a production of Gaslight, I think we were touring, oh dear the famous actor, Dennis Price. Then there was a play in London that ended unexpectedly and they wanted to put on another play quickly so they got Robert Newton to play Dennis’s part in Gaslight as Dennis couldn’t do it. He used to get rolling drunk, and they gave him a script and he said I can’t cope with that, he only wanted to know exactly what he wanted to say. He was on the wagon, but I was prompting him on the first night. There was one terrible night when my husband went and the stage manager said, oh you’re Mr John. He hated me working. When I first met him he was a candidate for Marylebone which he didn’t have a chance of winning and the next time it was East Woolwich which was a marginal seat when the tide was turning in 1951 and John wasn’t elected. Then we fought a Nottingham seat, and if you’re fighting a marginal seat you dare not stay away from the constituency. then there was this by election in Deptford and I had my son from my first marriage and I said if you ever want a son of your own you are going to have to earn a living and stop fighting these marginal seats and concentrate on your law practice. Then I thought I hope I haven’t left it too late. But I had my second son and that’s why I gave up, I knew going to work when John was a child did terrible things to him on one occasion he said he got a pain and I thought it was because he was in a new class at school and had to do some work, then he came at two in the morning and said I’ve got the pain and it isn’t because I don’t want to do any work and I thought what have I done to him. I took him to the doctor and the doctor said there isn’t anything physically wrong with him but something is worrying him and what was worrying him is that he’d heard me on the phone saying I was going on tour for six weeks. So I thought if I have another child I’m not going to work and it wasn’t until Rory was four that one man asked me if I’d do a play for him because he wanted to take it on tour and it was only going to go out for two weeks but from the time I started working he stopped eating and it wasn’t until after we opened that I said to him would you like to come and see the theatre and he suddenly said can we have tea and it was only then that he realised that I wasn’t going to disappear. I remember much later that Mary Wilson said to me are you going to go back to the theatre and I said I can’t, she replied saying it’s important you have your own career and I said the children are most important. If you’ve got relatives that’s different.

RG: What have your sons gone on to do?

RJ: John is a hovercraft pilot and is also a nutcase about trains; he’s never got married alas. Rory, John’s son, he’s a lawyer like his father; both of them said they’d never have any truck with the law. Rory is dyslexic and we didn’t know anything about it. Rory went to a progressive school and eventually went to boarding school and when he went to boarding school and said his education has been neglected would you mind if had extra lessons, but this time the woman was an expert in dyslexia. Anyway, we went to see her and she told us, she explained to him that all these children have inferiority complex

[Recording ends here]


Rosamund John (1913-1998) was a British actress who starred in a number of films over a twenty year career. She spent her early career at Stratford upon Avon performing Shakespeare, before moving onto repertory theatre to learn her craft. From there she had a film career and her films included The First of the Few, Green for Danger (1946), The Upturned Glass (1947) and Fame is the Spur (1947). A member of the Labour party, she was also on the board of Equity, the entertainer’s union. She married politician John Silkin and had two sons.