Skip to comments.Lady Mills (Mary Hayley Bell) -- obituary
Posted on 12/07/2005 2:33:16 PM PST by dighton
Lady Mills, the actress, playwright and novelist Mary Hayley Bell, who died on Thursday aged 94, wrote one of the West Ends most successful post-war plays, Duet for Two Hands, and a novel, Whistle Down the Wind, which was turned into a memorable film.
Often drawn in her fiction to medical or psychological case histories, Mary Hayley Bell gave up a promising career as an actress in the early 1940s when she married John Mills. She became a dramatist on the ground that she could write where and when she chose to suit her family, whereas acting was bound to keep her from home.
Her husband played the lead in several of her plays, including Duet for Two Hands, in which a young poet who has lost his hands in an accident is, by a miracle of surgery, given new ones; and John Mills was not the only actor whose reputation was enhanced by her authorship.
Her gift for composing highly actable, if not always plausible, dramatic situations gripped the attention through atmosphere, craftsmanship and a sometimes eerie appeal to the imagination. While the curtain was up, the audience was ready to suspend disbelief. Her dialogue was completely of the theatre. Every line she wrote gave the actor something to say or do; and if her plays were weakened by melodramatic effects, those effects could be compelling.
With the arrival of her children, Juliet, Hayley and Jonathan, and the New Wave of subsidised drama, Mary Hayley Bell continued to write novels, plays and screenplays; but she made the well-being of her family her priority.
Having been a student of crime and an habituée of the Old Bailey (where she claimed to find the acting better than you ever see in the theatre), she was appointed a Surrey magistrate in 1965; but within three years, because of absence abroad with her husband while he was filming, she was asked to resign for not attending regularly.
The daughter of an official in the Chinese customs service, Mary Hayley Bell was born in Shanghai on January 22 1911 and spent her childhood in the Far East. From the age of nine, when she first went to school, she wrote plays; and if many of them happened to deal with a person afflicted by physical or mental disabilities - especially psychopaths - she could say only: I dont know why, but I suppose they are heroes to me.
As a teenager, she had her first meeting with Mills, who was rescued by her during a doubles tennis match; he had been incapacitated by drinking her fathers lethal punch. She was educated at Sherborne and Malvern Girls College before training for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and made her first theatrical appearance in Shanghai as Henrietta in an American touring production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1932. She got her first London part two years later, at Dalys, in a popular Seymour Hicks-Ashley Dukes comedy, Vintage Wine.
After leaving that play for another West End comedy, Summers Lease (Embassy and Vaudeville), and a stint with the Manchester Repertory Company, she returned to London to resume her old role as Lissa in Vintage Wine (Victoria Palace), in which she later toured with Seymour Hicks (1936-37); and she played Carter in Ronald Jeans Composite Man (Dalys).
When she ended a three-play tour of Australia in 1937-38 with Fay Compton in Victoria Regina, Tonight at 8.30 and George and Margaret, she had a small part in Lesley Storms highly successful West End comedy, Tony Draws A Horse (Criterion, 1939); when Diana Churchill left the company, Mary Hayley Bell took over her role, which she also played in New York under a new title, Billy Draws A Horse.
Her last West End appearance as an actress was in Denis Ogdens Peaceful Inn (Duke of Yorks, 1940). After that she turned to writing. Before her marriage to John Mills in 1942, she realised that it was no good my being in Birmingham while John was in the West End. I believe that if you want to keep a marriage together you have to be together. Theres always some little girl who finds a husband is misunderstood.
Mary Hayley Bell had no illusions about her early success as a playwright: I wouldnt be able to earn a penny as a playwright if I hadnt married someone famous. London managers never look at plays unless they are forced to.
She took to writing anywhere - on her husbands film sets, in dressing-rooms, on trains: Paddington station is probably best of all, she said. Theres a lot of objective noise there, which is stimulating. Comfortable surroundings were useless: a room with a blank wall and a small, hard table was quite enough.
Her first play, Men In Shadow (1942), created a stir not only as a topical all-male story of war being conducted behind the enemy lines, but also by its author being a young, shapely blonde. It also broke records by being performed simultaneously in London, New York and Moscow.
In The Daily Telegraph, WA Darlington said that anyone who had happened to walk into the Vaudeville Theatre at the end of the opening performance might have taken the young woman acknowledging the first-night cheers for its leading lady. Notwithstanding some slow, not to say static, passages which only the pace of the acting relieved, Darlington praised the play as an exciting and adventurous piece of work which brought from John Mills a really magnificent exhibition of nervous intensity as the leader of a bunch of British airmen shot down over Occupied France.
Her next West End play, Duet For Two Hands (Lyric, 1945), was an even greater success. Delving into those dark realms of the imagination that had fascinated her since adolescence, it again yielded a first-rate part for her husband, (who also directed) as a maimed young poet given the hands of a murderer by a surgical operation.
From the first moment when the seagulls give their mocking cry to the lonely house in the Orkneys, one has much the same feelings as when taking up Stevensons Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to read, was how Beverley Baxter described it in the Evening Standard.
Darlington found in her play imagination and an ability to compel belief which are all her own; and James Agate, the leading critic of the day, while acknowledging the improbabilities, saluted her cleverness and skilled theatricality in what he called an essay in morbid psychology: The fact the play is nonsense does not prevent it from being good theatre any more than the fact that a play is sense makes it theatre.
Her third West End play, Angel (Strand, 1947), was the fruit of six months research into the case of a 16-year-old Victorian girl convicted on her confession to having cut her brothers throat. Again directed by Mills, the play left the audience in doubt as to whether the heroine had been guilty, though no one doubted the fine opportunities it gave to Joyce Redman as the unhappy heroine, and to Alan Webb as her sympathetic counsel.
In The Uninvited Guest (St Jamess, 1953), John Mills, in a fearsome and unsuitable red wig, played a man who had been incarcerated in a mental home for 20 years from the age of 14; and though, again, it gave the cast fine chances to explore the sinister atmosphere of resentment and melodramatic revelation, the acting proved, for Darlington at least, better than the play. Yet he was held for the greater part of the evening.
Her next piece, Foreign Field (Bromley, 1953), was a more sincere and moving piece of work than anything I have seen lately in the West End, declared Darlington. Even so it failed to transfer. It described how a young war widow who had been worshipping at the shrine of her dead poet visited his grave in France, and met a young French boy who was obviously her husbands son.
Shocked and disillusioned, she found help from a young man who had shut himself away from the world by becoming gardener to the war cemetery, where the couple found mutual comfort and began to fall in love.
Other stage plays included Dear Enemy (1949), Feather On The Water (1953) and Treble Key (1956).
Mary Hayley Bells novel Whistle Down The Wind was memorably adapted by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall into a highly successful film directed by Bryan Forbes in 1967; in it, her younger daughter Hayley Mills played the eldest of a group of three Lancashire farm children who find an escaped convict (Alan Bates) hiding in a barn and take him for Jesus Christ. The treatment of their acceptance of the mans identity, and his effect on their religious imagination, triumphantly avoided sentimentality.
Sir John Mills died in April, and Lady Mills is survived by their son and two daughters.
My sympathies to the family. Hayley was a favorite childhood 'friend' via her movies.
Ivan, might you clear up a point for me?
I thought that lords 'n' ladies were never referred to by their surnames - she'd be Lady Mary, not Lady Mills. Just like the ex-Prime Minister is properly Lady Margaret, not Lady Thatcher (which sets my teeth on edge).
Is that an old-fashioned rule no longer in use, or does it only obtain for certain types of titles, or am I bonkers? (I will at least admit to the possibility of the latter.)
RIP Lady Mills. Forgive me, but I really had a crush on your daughter Hayley when I was young.
I too had a bit of a crush on Haley. She wasn't that beautiful but something about her was sexy. Maybe it was her voice although I can still picture her wearing those pink pants in "Moonspinners" which was an under-rated movie.
Ah, didn't we all. What a heartbreaker!
May she rest in peace with her beloved husband.
Hayley, one of my childhood crushes...
Goodness, I thought I was the only one.
A wonderful life and a wonderful career in England as she once was.
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