Dinah Sheridan was the English beauty whose movie career was curtailed by marriage and rancour. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw remembers her.
Actors are notoriously insecure creatures. They can be vain, neurotic and desperate for affection. They can also be genuinely modest, dismissive of their talent and brutally self-critical.
Dinah Sheridan, who has died aged 92, fell firmly into the latter category. In a career spanning seven decades, including 30 films, a string of hit West End plays and TV success, she reckoned she’d never really been any good.
“I don’t like myself in anything. Never have done,” she said flatly when interviewed back in the mid-’90s. “I’ve got my own criticisms of myself, how I look, and I wish to goodness I was like somebody else... I am a social animal, but when it comes to work I’m terribly shy.”
Some actors find themselves shackled to their most famous films and fight for years to escape them. Think of Sean Connery, who is forever James Bond, or Christopher Lee, who fled from Dracula to America and found a new lease of life in decidedly trans-Atlantic pictures.
Dinah Sheridan never bothered with any of that. She fully accepted that she was best remembered for two films: Genevieve, a comic tale of rivalry on the London to Brighton antique car rally, and The Railway Children. What’s more, rather than resenting them, she embraced them.
Indeed, most writers over the last 40-odd years have been unable to avoid linking the actress and Genevieve in the same breath. Not that it bothered Sheridan. She was smart enough to recognise that Genevieve’s timelessness meant she was able to return to acting in the mid 1960s after a lengthy self-imposed retirement secure in the knowledge that she had never really been away.
Strangely the classic teaming of Sheridan, Kenneth More, John Gregson and Kay Kendall almost didn’t happen. Director Henry Cornelius originally wanted an entirely different cast that included Claire Bloom, Guy Middleton and Dirk Bogarde.
What’s more, he frequently reminded Sheridan & Co that they were not his first choice.
“It wasn’t easy,” recalled Sheridan. “Cornelius kept coming up and saying ‘Claire Bloom could have done this better’. Kenny, John, Katie Kendall and I all got on pretty well, but there were times when the four of us all clung together. It was partly a defence mechanism.
“Kay was wild and fun. She joked about the fact that she was an absolute idiot. Gregson was perhaps the least easy to get on with. He was very much an enclosed person, which was particularly noticeable against Kenneth More, who was such a wonderfully outgoing person and always laughing loudly.”
There was a 17-year gap between Genevieve, released in 1953, and The Railway Children. The two films represent bookends to Sheridan’s 11-year marriage to former Rank Organisation chairman John Davis, which ended in a bitter divorce in 1965.
It was he who encouraged her to give up acting and concentrate on motherhood, bringing up her children – to her first husband Jimmy Hanley – Jeremy (former Conservative Party chairman and MP Sir Jeremy Hanley) and Jenny, the former model, actress, TV presenter and Bond girl.
“I have nothing but gratitude for Genevieve. It bridged the gap of nearly 15 years when I was doing nothing and when I came back it was still showing. Nobody had been allowed to forget me. I was very, very lucky.”
Never a self-promoter, Sheridan said she could have secured other films before landing her part in The Railway Children – as the mother of Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett and Gary Warren – if only she had been pushier.
Lionel Jeffries’ film remains her personal favourite from a lifetime’s acting performances. In Sheridan’s eyes it is perfect. “Before the film came out I took John Gielgud to see it. He’s renowned for crying at the slightest thing. He was sitting on my right and my right shoulder was really damp. At the end of The Railway Children, he was just in floods of tears.
“It was just a gentle joy. The script was absolutely delightful. I’d never been so enchanted by a film, except for Genevieve.”
Acclaimed performances in two classic films are more than many actors have to their credit, but there could have been more. Over the years Sheridan was offered roles in Reach for the Sky (as Douglas Bader’s real-life wife), in The Million Pound Note alongside Gregory Peck, and opposite Danny Kaye in The Court Jester.
She turned them all down to be a wife and mother. In retrospect were they decisions she regretted? “I can’t regret anything. Regret is something which only eats you up. I can imagine all sorts of things which might have happened had I gone to America. I can dream and think... but what a different life it would have been.”