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Afternoon tea with Renee Asherson

Renee Asherson in The Small Back Room

In 1961, a journalist asked Vivien Leigh why she found old people so fascinating. She responded by saying, “Their wisdom will do for a start; the fact that they’ve lived…What they say is so wise and good. They know what they’re talking about.”

Vivien’s words are so true. I’ve always loved old people, as well. They have the best stories–think of all the things people in their 80s and 90s have seen! My maternal grandmother was born in 1911 and I remember ringing her up when I was a kid to “interview” her for class projects about the Depression and the War. I was too young to appreciate what she had been through at the time. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that my interest in history and the early half of the 20th century really melded together and blossomed into a passion. My grandma died not long afterward at the age of 94, and I have often regretted not having these conversations with her as an adult. In a way, I was given the chance to make up for my past lack of communication this afternoon when I had tea with 97 year old actress Renee Asherson.

The meeting was pure happenstance. Last week, a friend of mine gave me the number of Australian actor Trader Faulkner who acted in the Royal Shakespeare Company with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh during the 1955  Stratford season. He invited me around for a chat and was so warm and open, and most keen to help. We were speaking of our favorite actors and he mentioned Robert Donat, and that he knew his wife Renee Asherson quite well. I mentioned how I’d tried to get in touch with Renee a few months ago for this project so he rang her up right then and there and we made plans for tea. Small wold, indeed!

We showed up at a gorgeous flat near Primrose Hill and were greeted at the door by her caretaker and shown into the sitting room. There, in a comfy chair by the large window, surrounded by books and mementoes from a life well lived, sat the woman who starred opposite Laurence Olivier in Henry V and played Stella to Vivien Leigh’s Blanche in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire. There was no mistaking her face.

Renee is remarkably sharp for nearing 100 and has a friendly, lively personality; the conversation was often permeated by her tinkling laughter. She had nothing but nice things to say about Larry and Vivien but I found her entire dialogue with Trader completely fascinating. She spoke about being born in Kensington and still remembering the bombs raining down during the war (WWI!); taking the early train from Marylebone to Denham and tramping through muddy fields from the station to report for work with Laurence Olivier in 1943; acting with Trevor Howard at the Old Vic; loving Gone with the Wind; being blacklisted from H.M. Tennant’s for complaining about her wig during a stage production at the Aldwych; doing the shopping in Thame with Vivien Leigh when she was invited to Notley for weekends; taking care of her husband Robert Donat when he was seriously ill with asthma in the mid-1950s. And the names that were dropped! It was like a book of who’s who of British film and theatre history! I was just happy to sit there and sip my tea, taking in the scene. They were having such a good time reminiscing, it was lovely to witness. I ended up showing Renee how my iPhone worked and we cooed over photos of my cat Coco, as every conversation with a famous person should end.

As Trader and I walked back toward Camden Town, I thanked him for taking me to see someone I’d wanted to meet for such a long time. He kindly reminded me that everything happens for a reason; that we’re put on this earth to help people. Perhaps, he said, wherever Vivien Leigh is right now, she’s giving me a gentle nudge in the direction of my goal.

Perhaps there are strange forces at work, but whatever happens, I feel very lucky to have had this experience.

*Photo via The Powell and Pressburger Pages

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

Kendra is the designer and webmistress of vivandlarry.com. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait (Running Press, October 2013). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (47)

  1. wow! This was amazing! I bet you were freaking out on the inside the whole time. I would be lol. And he’s right everything happens for a reason:)

    I’m glad you had a great time and thanks for sharing this amazing experience with all of us:)

    1. The stories were amazing; she’s a lovely soul. I helped her caretaker make some coffee and we were saying how amazing Renee’s life was.

  2. What an experience. Your love for Vivian and Larry has taken you on a wonderful journey. I’m so glad that you have got to meet some people from their past. We all envy you but if anyone deserves this you do for your dedication. We all appreciate it. Can’t wait to read your book.

    1. It really has and I feel very lucky to be given the opportunities! I’ve found that people really love sharing things from their past. Not everyone is super-friendly, but a lot of people are, especially once they see how passionate you are about something.

  3. Renee Asherson is my favourite living actress. It’s so wonderful that you got to meet her. If it was anyone else but you then I would probably have been jealous, but I too believe that some meetings are the result of fate. Renee worked closely with both the Oliviers and it’s extremely important that she was able to share her stories with you that might otherwise have been undocumented. Good luck with accomplishing your goal.

    1. She didn’t have a lot to say about Larry and Vivien, but the snippets she did remember bout them and other people were really lovely. Not a bad word to say about anyone except Hugh Beaumont!

      1. She may not have had anything all that revelatory to say about the Oliviers, but just the fact that her voice has been heard is a terrific thing. As far as I know, Renée has only been interviewed by one publication in recent times (curiously enough, Trader Faulker was interviewed by the same rag – also in connection with the Oliviers). The impression I got is that the world was hardly dying to know her thoughts on life or the experiences she had been through – despite the fact that they would doubtless be more interesting than almost any other living actor or actress. At least somebody cared enough to meet her face-to-face and hear some of her reminiscences.

        I am presently reading a book by John McCallum (husband of Googie Withers and accomplished actor in his own right), who also had nothing but nice things to say about the people he knew and worked with, including the Oliviers. It’s so nice to come across talented people who can step outside their egos and offer warm and genuine praise to their friends and colleagues. Perhaps the wisest people live the longest, at that.

        1. I thought the same and wondered why no one had interviewed her for their Vivien biographies in the past–she was in the heart of the action! I’m only sad I wasn’t able to meet her 10 years ago when her memory was a bit better (not that it’s bad now, she’s remarkably sharp for nearing 100). She gave some great commentary on the Oliviers in Love documentary.

  4. Very lucky, indeed! And yet, not just luck. Don’t forget, Kendra- you’ve work SO hard on gathering information on Vivien and Laurence, getting in touch with people and making something you are so passionate about happen, that you should give yourself some credit too ;)
    Ah, it sounds like such a wonderful talk with two great people! Loved reading this.

    1. Thanks, mariana. When in the moment, it’s hard to see the bigger picture! But I’m hoping big things will come from the hard work in the end :) It was a great experience, for sure!

  5. One of my favourite post of yours. It’s such a beautiful and perfect story. And of course, one you will remember all your life. I’m so glad for you !

  6. Thank you, Kendra, for sharing this extraordinary experience with us. I’m wondering whether you could help me with the following: some years ago I saw a film with R. Asherson where she was already quite advanced in years but very charming, typical English-understatement lady-like behaviour, a woman, allegedly caught between two men in her life..One of the men was played by Frank Finlay(?). Thank you in advance for trying to find out.Best,Renata

    1. The film you mean may be “Edwin” (1984), with Alec Guinness and Paul Rogers. I don’t think that Renee ever worked with Frank Finlay.

  7. Great story Kendra ! It’s great when you meet people (especially elder) who seem bigger than life, and realize that they are quite simple, easy-going and friendly. No doubt Ms Asherson and Mr Faulkner saw the passion and dedication in you !
    I really think you should try to meet Olivia De Havilland in Paris… Chances are she would let you have tea with her !
    Again, thanks for sharing,
    Eric

    1. Thanks, Eric! Luckily, it has been the case that my passion for certain subjects is quite obvious once I start talking about it, haha. I would also love to go to Paris to meet Olivia de Havilland but alas, her PA said she’s too busy for a sit-down interview :(

  8. Kendra, sorry it took me so long to get to this post, but recently I’ve been quite busy. Anyway, when I first read about your taking tea with Renee Asherson a couple of weeks ago, I was hoping you would tell us more. A really enjoyable account of your experience. I thought I recognized the photo at the top as the cameo she did in “The Small Back Room,” and the photo credit confirmed this. I first encountered her on the small screen in a 1980s-vintage Miss Marple episode, in which she made a big impression on me as a fluttery, easily flustered character named “Bunny.” At the time I didn’t know her, but in the meantime I’ve become aware of her importance in film. Thanks for a charming and informative post .

    1. Thanks, Richard. She was a joy to meet and sadly someone who has been very much overlooked! I’ve not seen Miss Marple or The Small Black Room (would love to watch the latter at some point as I love Kathleen Byron and Michael Powell). Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the write-up!

  9. An incredible story! Thank you so much for sharing. Like Richard above, I’d love to hear even more details of your experience with Renee. I’d given up hope of finding any recent interview material on her. So glad to hear she’s keeping well in her retirement! What a life and career… A small (albeit brilliant) world indeed, Kendra! :)

  10. Thank you for the fascinating insight. I’ve often wondered about her and hoped she was in good health. Her brief showing in ‘The Small Back Room’ is, in my opinion, one of the finest pieces of acting in British cinema. So riveting, so moving, that you dare not blink as she recites the recording of her loved ones last few moments.
    Renee also starred in my favourite ever film ‘A Way to the Stars’, she had that very rare gift that few actresses can actually convey convincingly on screen – the camera loved her vulnerability.
    Out of curiousity, did Renee mention anything about working on ‘A Way to the Stars’? Or more specifically working with the actress Rosamund John?

  11. Hello there,
    If you have time this week or next week or whenever, would you be able to tell me Renee’s house adress please? I would really like to meet her one day.

    Thanks

    Marcus

  12. Renee worked with my uncle Hugh Kingston- Hardy when she was in Streetcar Named Desire, he was the Manager at the Aldwych theatre. We lost contact a very long time ago but i wonder if there is anyway of finding out if she knew him and what happened to him.

    1. Hi Thea, sorry for the belated comment. I don’t recall her mentioning anything about the Aldwych Theatre itself, unfortunately. Perhaps someone there today might be able to help you track down your uncle?

  13. Hello there,
    I know I’ve asked this question before and you said you couldn’t tell me, but I would really like to know what her adress is because I sent it to this adress,

    Renee Asherson
    The Spotlight
    7 Leicester Place
    London, WC2H 7RJ

    I didn’t get a reply so I’m thinking this is not the right adress. Could you please sent it to me? Message me back when you get my message please.

    Thanks,
    Marcus

    1. Marcus,

      I’m going to reiterate what I’ve said several times before. I cannot and will not give out people’s personal details (addresses, phone numbers, etc). It is a breach of privacy. The address you quoted is probably her agent’s and if she doesn’t reply, I can’t help you any further. I’m sorry. I was able to meet Renee by good luck through someone else.

  14. Yes indeed Renee Asherson is a most delightful lady. She has been a much valued ‘honorary’ member of Movie Memories Magazine for more than 20 years now
    and graciously gave an indepth interview for the mag several years ago, which was very well received. I am pleased she is well – and being looked after in her own home. So many vintage stars of the British stage and screen (including John McCallum) have been interviewed for ‘Movie Memories’ over the years – so do check out my website should more information be required.

  15. Do you have a picture of you and Renee? If you do have one, would you please email the picture to us please because I’d like to look at it to see how Renee looks now.

  16. I recently saw Renee Asherson in a repeat of an episode of Lovejoy from 1993.Delighted to learn she is alive and well and living in Primrose Hill.The Way to the Stars is at the top of my list of favourite WW2 war films.May she enjoy health and happiness for years to come!

  17. Just read article. Sitting watching The Way to the Stars on a miserable day. Looked it up to see if anyones still around, delighted to see Renee is, a lot of the cast passed away at a young age. Sounds a lovely lady. Ive always been a fan of Jean Simmons and i think this was her first film. Even though im probably young enough to be her Grandson! The stars of the old films have a glamour the Hello/OK Magazine age cant match

  18. This is a great capture of my great aunt, sadly she passed away today, but the article has been passed around the family and we loved it :) thanks!

    1. Dear Iona,

      I’m so sorry to hear about Renee’s passing. It was such a pleasure to meet her a few years ago. I’m glad the article brought some comfort and happiness to your family. By the way, is there an obituary anywhere? Nothing popped up on Google.

      Many thanks for your comment,

      Kendra

  19. What a privilege to be a part of this reunion between Trader and Renee. I would have been like you, Kendra! Quietly sipping my tea and thanking the gods that I was able to be there to sip some tea and take it all in!!! So sad to hear of her recent passing. We have lost so many talented people this year, but how special to know that your article was passed around the family gathering in her honor.

    Liz

  20. I am so sad to hear of Renee Asherson’s death. Her Miss Marple appearance, and her role in the BBC drama Tenko, are among my favourites. This is a lovely piece to read. There will soon be a brief obit to Renee at http://www.tenkotv.com. Best wishes to her family following the sad news of her death.

  21. I was not aware that Rene Asherson was friend of the Olivier’s until I read in the papers about her demise recently. She was I think a very good actress I remember her in Olivier’s film of Henry V which she played Princess Katherine of France. I think she was a good friend to Vivien Leigh and helped her very much during some of her breakdowns which she had on and off for may years sadly. I think Rene was very kind and gentle and understanding towards Vivien Leigh which is what she needed I think

  22. What an amazing actress! I’ve seen all her movies apart from The Cure for Love and The Red Dress. She was never the star of a film but her presence and often clipped speech stood out. She worked with so many cinematic luminaries and married one! Recently seen her in repeats of Tenko as Sylvia who refuses to bow to the Japs! Awesome! Hope someone writes a biography one day.

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