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Lillie, Beatrice Gladys [married name Beatrice Gladys Peel, Lady Peel]locked

(1894–1989)

Beatrice Gladys Lillie (1894–1989)

by Sir Cecil Beaton, 1920s

© Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Lillie, Beatrice Gladys [married name Beatrice Gladys Peel, Lady Peel] (1894–1989), actress and singer, was born on 29 May 1894 in Toronto, the younger daughter (there were no sons) of John Lillie, cigar seller, of Lisburn in Ireland, and his wife, Lucie Ann, eldest daughter of John Shaw, a Manchester draper. Following her parents' emigration to Toronto, the family grew up there and Bea, as she was known, was educated at St Agnes' College in Belleville, Ontario; she began to appear in amateur concerts there with her mother and sister as the Lillie Trio. At the outbreak of the First World War they all returned to London, and it was at the Chatham Music Hall in 1914 that she made her professional stage début.

Already it was clear that the Lillie Trio was not much of a success, and that if Beatrice Lillie was to succeed in the theatre it would have to be as a solo act. Almost immediately after her London début she formed an alliance with the leading First World War producer of intimate revues, André Charlot, who saw in her not the serious singer she had set out to become, but a comedian of considerable if zany qualities. Charlot at this time was also fostering the very early careers of Gertrude Lawrence (who for a time was Lillie's understudy), W. J. (‘Jack’) Buchanan, and Noël Coward. During the First World War, Lillie became a favourite of troops on leave from the front, relying on spontaneity and an improvised response to her audiences, which Charlot had to restrain when it threatened to go too far. Lillie's great talents were the arched eyebrow, the curled lip, the fluttering eyelid, the tilted chin, the ability to suggest, even in apparently innocent material, the possible double entendre.

On 5 January 1920 Lillie married Robert Peel (1898–1934), son of Robert Peel, and great-grandson of Sir Robert Peel, prime minister. He succeeded his father as fifth baronet in 1925. He died in 1934, leaving his wife with one beloved son, Robert, sixth baronet, the last of the senior line of the Peel family, who was killed in the Second World War, in April 1942. The loss of her husband and then her son comparatively early in her life (she never married again) left Lillie with a constant private sadness that she seemed able to overcome only on stage. Her career encompassed some fifty stage shows in the West End and Broadway as well as a dozen films, but she excelled in live performance, demolishing scripts and songs alike with her own particular brand of solo eccentricity. Charles Cochran, Coward, and Florenz Ziegfeld all employed her in their revues, but in 1932 American audiences saw her as the Nurse in the New York première of Too Good to be True by Bernard Shaw, one of the comparatively few ‘straight’ roles she undertook: others were in Robert Morley's first play, Staff Dance (1944), and the non-musical version of Auntie Mame, which she brought to London after the war.

Lillie made her cabaret début at the Café de Paris in 1933, worked in revue and troop concerts throughout the war, and made her own television series, based on her cabaret routines, as early as 1951. She then developed, and toured for many years around the world, a solo show called simply An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, which ranked alongside those of Joyce Grenfell and Ruth Draper. Her career in films began with the silent film Exit Smiling, in 1927 and continued intermittently right through to Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (her last, in 1967). But in films as on radio something was missing: the live audience to which she could respond and which she often made part of the act. She was excellent as the mad Auntie Mame, or as Madame Arcati in High Spirits (1964), a Broadway musical version of Coward's Blithe Spirit. Coward called her 'the perfect comedienne' and wrote his 'Marvellous Party' for her to sing, while Cole Porter wrote her 'Mrs Lowsborough-Goodby'. Her entire career was a sustained monument to anarchic alternative comedy before those terms had ever been invented, and hers was a triumph of manic high spirits. With her long face, tall brow, lively eyes, natural poise, and radiant personality, she was one of the great female clowns.

Lillie's last years were overshadowed by illness; she lived at Peel Fold, Mill Lane, Henley-on-Thames, a virtual recluse had it not been for her devoted manager John Philip, who shared the house with her for twenty years and who died of a stroke only a matter of hours after her death. She died on 20 January 1989 in Henley.

Sources

  • B. Lillie, Every other inch a lady (1973)
  • The Times (21 Jan 1989)
  • private information (1996)

Likenesses

Wealth at Death

£949,203: probate, 21 Aug 1991, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]