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Byron, Kathleen (1921–2009), actress, was born Kathleen Elizabeth Fell on 11 January 1921 at 77 Carlyle Road, Manor Park, London, the daughter of Richard John Fell (1884–1981), railway clerk, and his wife, Eleanor Mary, née Macaree (1887–1984). Her father became Labour mayor of East Ham in 1941. Educated at East Ham grammar school, she always wanted to act and won a scholarship to the Old Vic Theatre School, turning down an offered place at London University. But she was eighteen when the Second World War broke out and, as for so many others, this disrupted her career plans and she spent much of the war working in censorship. However, through the agent John Glidden she did get a tiny, uncredited role in The Young Mr Pitt (1942) and could thereafter say she'd acted ‘opposite Robert Donat’ (McFarlane, 104). On 25 May 1943 she married a lieutenant in the US Air Force three years her senior, Daniel Jean Bowen (son of Daniel John Bowen, merchant). Her marriage led her to the United States but neither career nor marriage thrived there, and , the director who was to exercise much influence on her career, persuaded her to return to England. He had been impressed with her in the first role in which she was seriously noticed (and in which she first appeared as Kathleen Byron)—that of the schoolmistress in the Dutch-set resistance drama, Vernon Sewell's The Silver Fleet (1943). Powell, who described her as having ‘a dreamy voice and great eyes like a lynx’ (Powell, 413), was the producer but Byron later insisted—gratefully—that the gentler Sewell really did direct it.

Byron made her greatest impact in the roles she played for Powell (now as director) in the later 1940s. He cast her in the ambitious fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (1946), as the recording angel, a small role though one that ensured she would be noticed. There was about her something that was strikingly sensual rather than conventionally pretty, a touch of mystery, of emotional potential. All this would be unforgettably deployed in her next role for Powell, as Sister Ruth, who goes spectacularly mad from lust and the rarefied Himalayan air in Black Narcissus (1947). British cinema of the 1940s was replete with memorable images, none more so than those of Byron's Sister Ruth, her nun's habit replaced with a red dress as she applies lipstick, creating a moment of high erotic tension. Failing to seduce the District Commissioner (David Farrar), she attacks the convent's leader, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), on the bell-tower before falling to her death. These remain imperishable moments of repressed urges breaking free and leading to destruction. In Powell's The Small Back Room (1949) she played a more conventional leading-lady role, but there was something so unusual and compelling about her that she riveted the gaze as few actresses could. If she never again had parts which were so potentially exciting, it is also true that she invariably made something memorable of them. Her wartime marriage ended in divorce in 1950, with Powell cited as correspondent. Powell's second wife reputedly broke down the door of Byron's Knightsbridge flat and attacked her with an umbrella; she developed a better relationship with Powell's third wife, Thelma Schoonmaker.

Two striking melodramas, Madness of the Heart (1949) and Prelude to Fame (1950), gave Byron scope for all-stops-out display as dangerous and manipulative women, and she brought appropriate zest to the Duchess of Devonshire in the period fantasy The House in the Square (1951). A Hollywood stint as Ann Seymour in the lavish costume drama Young Bess (1953) led nowhere, partly because she was pregnant following her second marriage on 16 September 1953 to the radio journalist (Harold) Alaric Jacob (1909–1995), son of Lt.-Col Harold Fenton Jacob, former political agent in Aden. Back in England her career never quite regained momentum, though she was busy enough in all the acting media, making the most of what came her way. As one obituarist noted, ‘Increasingly she drifted into second features and supporting parts in bigger pictures’ (Daily Telegraph, 21 Jan 2009), but some of her B movies, such as The Scarlet Thread (1951), The Gambler and the Lady (1952), and Star of My Night (1954), still look better than they deserve because of her invincibly intelligent approach. She continued to film intermittently over the ensuing decades: there were vivid appearances in a couple of above-average horror films, The Night of the Eagle (1962) and Twins of Evil (1971), and cameos in upmarket enterprises such as The Elephant Man (1980), Emma (1996), and finally, as old Mrs Ryan, providing for some viewers the one true note in Steven Spielberg's war epic, Saving Private Ryan (1998). There was also much television work, including two elegant brushes with Henry James in skilful adaptations of The Portrait of a Lady (1968), as the rackety Countess Gemini, and The Golden Bowl (1972), as a quietly insightful Fanny Assingham. Her last television role was in Stephen Poliakoff's subtle exploration of family secrets, Perfect Strangers (2001). She preferred film work to theatre's long runs, though had a season in The Mousetrap in the early 1990s, as the woman who is murdered in Act One. While waiting around for the curtain call she filled the time by learning Spanish in her dressing-room.

Though Kathleen Byron loved acting, it was not her whole life. She was a woman who enjoyed her family life (she had two children with Alaric Jacob), was an entertaining hostess, and was blessed with a wide-ranging wit and intelligence. She died of breast cancer at Denville Hall, the retirement home for actors and actresses in Northwood, London, on 18 January 2009. She was survived by her son and daughter, and by a stepdaughter from her second marriage.

Brian McFarlane

Sources  

M. Powell, A life in movies (1986) · B. McFarlane, An autobiography of British cinema (1997) · S. Street, Black Narcissus (2005) · The Guardian (20 Jan 2009) · The Independent (20 Jan 2009) · The Times (21 Jan 2009); (3 Feb 2009) · Daily Telegraph (21 Jan 2009) · www.imdb.com/name/nm0126402/, accessed on 9 March 2012 · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFI NFTVA, performance footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, performance recording · University of the West of England, interview


Likenesses  

photograph, c.1940–c.1950, Heritage Images · photographs, 1946–94, Rex Features, London · group portrait, photographs, 1951, Getty Images, London

Wealth at death  

under £164,000: probate, 6 April 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales