Rachel Roberts (19271980), by Roy Gough, 1960 [in the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning]
Roberts, Rachel (19271980), actress, was born on 20 September 1927, at Llanelli, the second daughter of the Baptist minister Richard Rhys Roberts (18941965) and his wife, Rachel Ann Jones (18941973). Rachel Roberts records that despite her childhood in a caring family she had little consciousness of being loved and she developed early a sense of inferiority, as the unwanted child of middle-aged parents, with a sister ten years older, more accomplished, and better looking. From 1932 Roberts lived in Swansea and attended Swansea high school from 1938 to 1945. She records systematic bullying at school. In compensation Roberts began to develop an interior erotic fantasy life and an exhibitionist, rebellious exterior. The combination of insecurity and flamboyant display, to the point of scandal, proved an unstable basis for the best of her work and provoked the gradual disintegration of her personal life.
From 1945 Roberts studied at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and then went on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (19481950), where she was awarded two student prizes. After a few years acquiring experience and moving from relationship to relationship she decided that the stability of marriage was what she wanted, and in 1955, after a deliberate pursuit, she married the actor Alan Dobie (b. 1932). From the start the marriage with a serious, introvert partner failed, and soon descended into long separations filled with promiscuous relations with other lovers.
The year 1956 changed the face of British theatre and, subsequently, films. Alan Dobie became one of a generation of young, regional actors who found a wide range of work opening up for them. Roberts's Welsh background opened some doors, largely because there were few young English actresses equipped to play opposite the new actors. In 1960 she was cast to play opposite Albert Finney, in the film of Alan Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), for which she received the British Film Academy award as best actress. She was to receive this award again in 1963 for her role opposite Richard Harris in This Sporting Life. It might be considered strange that such a flamboyant, extrovert actress could score her triumphs playing working-class, sexually neglected women, used and abused by rough, extrovert, inconsiderate men; perhaps she tapped into the latent sense of inferiority which the display masked. Playing together again in 1972, in E. A. Whitehead's play Alpha beta, Roberts and Finney put together a coruscating revelation of the stages of the disintegration of a marriage as a descent into hell.
Also, in 1960, the year of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Roberts joined the Royal Court Theatre to play Anna Petrovna in Anton Chekhov's Platonov and found herself cast to play opposite Rex Harrison (19081990) [see ]. For the role, she was awarded the Clarence Derwent award for the best supporting actress. The meeting with Harrison was to have a greater effect on her life and career. She began to live with him, and this ended the marriage with Alan Dobie. She and Harrison married on 11 March 1962. She records the security gained from mixing with stars and living the luxurious life. Unfortunately it also increased her insecurity, as Harrison began a run of films culminating in My Fair Lady (1964) and Roberts was in the wrong place for her line of acting. Her work in London and in British films such as This Sporting Life (1963), O Lucky Man! (1973), Our Man in Havana (1959), and the Australian Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) continued to bring praise, and for John Schlesinger's film Yanks (1979) she was awarded a British Academy award as best supporting actress. But the relationship with Harrison, with whom she was obsessed, was well on the way to disintegration by the mid-1960s, causing great suffering to both parties. Her drinking increased, her private and public behaviour became more outrageous, and in 1969 Harrison issued a statement saying they had separated. The marriage finally ended in 1971. The dissipation in her life began to affect her work. Her death, at 2620 Hutton Drive, Los Angeles, California, from a barbiturate overdose on 26 November 1980, was judged as suicide.
No bells on Sunday: the journals of Rachel Roberts, ed. A. Walker (1984) · The Times (28 Nov 1980) · personal knowledge (2004)
BL NSA, performance recordings
R. Gough, photograph, 1960, Pinewood Studios, Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire [see illus.]