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Thora Hird: the genius of appearing ordinary
The most extraordinary thing about Dame Thora Hird, who died at the age of 91,.was her ordinariness. All her talents were well masked. Whereas Oscar Wilde said he had nothing to declare but his genius, she would have vehemently declared her lack of it. She looked like every grandmother should look. She was born in Morecambe and displayed all the attitudes and behaviour that we conjure up in our minds when we think of reliance, and decency, and concern, and thoughtfulness. And she was, undoubtedly, a genius of sorts.
I lunched with her in the 1980's and it went on and on to such a degree that I had visions of it merging with dinner. To be precise, it lasted five hours and twenty-five animated minutes.
We had not met before, yet here was someone I felt I had known all my life. She was all my aunts who came to tea, and such people are never at their very best until they are at least 60. The one thing she never did was act. She chatted. She appeared to be chatting when acting, and here was her greatness, her extraordinary ordinariness made manifest; it transcended all that egotistical posturing that so reveals and diminishes many of those who reach the peaks of her profession.
I met her in the year that recorded her first half century in theatre, but the stage had claimed her for much longer. When she was eight weeks old, her mother played theatre's most hackneyed role: Village Girl Shamed by Squire's Son. Thora acted the part of the unfortunate outcome.
"And that," she was to say, "was the only job I got through influence." Her father's influence, as it happens. I reckoned that was 1916. I did not ask, because the one thing she was not specific about was her age: six versions had been published in that year.
Innocence is what she was about. She retained innocence. Now how, in show business, can a human being achieve that? It is almost beyond belief. She assumed a goodness and goodwill in the people she met and that was a part of innocence. She got flowers from the camera crew of "In Loving Memory" (which was about undertakers who never did a thing right). She cried for a lonely old woman whose only birthday card came from Thora, who did not know her! She once refused to play the pan of her daughter's mother (daughter being Janette Scott) because she thought it would strain people's belief. Fiction could not, in her mind, justify fact. "I'm not being coy," she said. "Jan is very beautiful and everybody says so. I always used to say, 'I'll play her grandmother."' She was good in the television Godslot and if God had ever appeared in a blinding flash of light I dare say she would have said, in all innocence, "Come, sit yourself down, and have a nice cup of tea" before pondering the awesomeness of the occasion.
In full flow, the only thing that stemmed her words with me came when she dabbed the corners of her mouth with tissue, and immediately afterwards they poured forth anew, homely as muffins. "My blessing in life," she said, "is that I like being ordinary. I've always been surrounded by such a lot of affection. I used to say goodbye to my mother and father as if I was going round the world instead of to work."
Thora Hird left school at 14, sold music on the pier, played the piano in the kitchen, tap-danced, worked for her father in his office.(he was manager of Morecambe's West End pier for a time, then moved to the Alhambra), and worked for Blundell the draper (shrouds, ties, modesty vests). She wore a navy blue dress, black silk stockings and dark knickers to Blundell's. There were Victorian hat pins that had to be rubbed with emery paper, and 32 boxes with brass handles that required cleaning. Thora was fired after being accused of stealing a halfpenny. Mrs Blundell was convinced the halfpenny had been stolen, and Thora was terrified of the woman who was "like a tram ticket sideways, she was so thin." Father said she should quit. Thora, appalled by the accusation, gave her employer a few sharp words, and thereafter went to the Co-op for a job, which she got after describing to a committee in cheerless surroundings the appalling saga of the halfpenny in all its detail.
"It was Christmas Eve. I took two half crowns out of my money box and nipped across from the shop to the Benefit boot shop for a pair of slippers for my mother. They cost four shillings and elevenpence halfpenny (25p ). I put the halfpenny change in my pocket. When I returned to Blundell's and bent down, the halfpenny rolled away." Mrs Blundell drew her own conclusions.
It was a highly dramatic moment in a life signposted by them.
George Formby spotted her in a Morecambe stage play and he said, "We'll send somebody up to see you." The somebody was the casting director of Ealing Studios. "There he was in a most beautiful camel coat, good trilby, eyeglass dangling. I said, , Are you on holiday?' He said no -he had come to see me play. And what do you think I said? -'But the fare is £3 7s 9d!" A white fiver arrived to take her to a film test in London and she was put under contract at £10 a week if there was no work, and £10 a day if there was work. Thora' s conscience was upset again.
"1 couldn't take that much," she said to Michael Balcon at Ealing. "Not if don't work. I can go back into rep." Rep paid £1 a week. "He sat me down and said, 'Thora Hird, the time will come when your argument will be that we are not paying you enough." The time did come when father, this much-loved, much-respected, strict and proper father, travelled to London to see her as Mrs Holmes in "Flowers for the Living", a play about the tribulations of a middle-aged woman.
The script had reduced Thora to tears. There was a particularly dramatic end to Act 2 which "brought the house down." The day after the opening she had offers of five plays and four films. Yet her father watched, discussed the entire cast, and never mentioned her.
"I was in it, you know," she said in desperation, "and he replied, 'You know the exit in Act 2, the one that brings the roof in?' And I said, 'Yes'. 'If you did that properly you would go off without there being a sound."'
Two nights later, with her father watching, she went off at the end of Act 2 and "it was like being in church. I could hear sniffles and see bits of white flickering -the handkerchiefs. When I got home, father, who was staying with us, was ready for bed. "I said, 'It worked, dad. ' and when he got to the door of our lounge, he half shut it and said, 'That I've lived to see you act like this... You're a wonderful artiste.' Next morning, he was dead.
"I've often thought, Dad, you waited for that exit line. If he hadn't said what he did I would have wondered whether it was all luck."
The strength and security her father provided for her was later provided by the husband she called Scottie - James Scott, organiser of things in which she was inclined to be wayward, like money for lunch and train times; she relied upon him, too, for good counsel. "I'm not good looking, but I'm honest," she said. "I'm not a swank."
Geoffrey Mather © 2004
17 December, 2011