Flora Robson

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Dame Flora Robson
Dame Flora Robson Allan Warren.jpg
in 1975, by Allan Warren
Born Flora McKenzie Robson
(1902-03-28)28 March 1902
South Shields, County Durham, England, United Kingdom
Died 7 July 1984(1984-07-07) (aged 82)
Brighton, Sussex, England, UK
Years active 1931–1981
Spouse(s) none

Dame Flora McKenzie Robson, DBE (28 March 1902 – 7 July 1984) was an English actress and star of the theatrical stage and cinema, particularly renowned for her performances in plays demanding dramatic and emotional intensity. Her range extended from queens to murderesses.

Early life

Robson was born in South Shields, County Durham,[1] of Scottish descent to a family of six siblings. Many of her forebears were engineers, mostly in shipping. Her father was a ship's engineer who moved from Wallsend near Newcastle to Palmers Green in 1907 and Southgate in 1910, both in north London, and later to Welwyn Garden City.

She was educated at the Palmers Green High School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.[2]


Her father discovered that Flora had a talent for recitation and, from the age of five, she was taken around by horse and carriage to recite, and to compete in recitations. This established a pattern that remained with her.

Robson made her stage debut in 1921, aged 19. In cinema she was often chosen for character roles, notably that of Queen Elizabeth I in both Fire Over England (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940). At the age of 32, Robson played the Empress Elizabeth in Alexander Korda's Catherine the Great (1934). She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ingrid Bergman's servant in Saratoga Trunk (1945). That same year audiences in the U.K. and the U.S. watched her hypnotic performance as Ftatateeta, the nursemaid, royal confidante and assassin to Vivien Leigh's Queen Cleopatra, in the screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).

After the Second World War, demonstrating her range, she appeared in Holiday Camp (1947), the first of a series of films which featured the very ordinary Huggett family; as Sister Philippa in Black Narcissus (1947); as a magistrate in Goodtime Girl (1948); as a prospective Labour MP in Frieda (1947); and in costume melodrama, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948). Her other film roles included the Empress Dowager Cixi in the 1963 film 55 Days at Peking, the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), Livia in the abortively-attempted I, Claudius (1937), Miss Milchrest in Murder at the Gallop (1963).

She struggled to find a footing in the theatre after she graduated from RADA with a bronze medal since she lacked the conventional good looks which were then an absolute requisite for actresses in dramatic roles (she had a long face with a big nose and a wide mouth). After touring in minor parts with Ben Greet's Shakespeare company she may have played small parts for two seasons in the new repertory company at Oxford, alongside a youthful John Gielgud, but her contract was not renewed: she was told, as tactfully as possible, that they required a prettier actress. Unable to secure any acting engagements she gave up the stage at the age of 23 and in a disconsolate life-change she took up work as a welfare officer in the Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City. For four years, Dame Flora, who would become one of the half dozen finest dramatic actresses of her generation, continued in this twilight zone until the young Tyrone Guthrie, due to direct a season at the new Festival Theatre, Cambridge, asked her to join his company. It was the dramatic making of her. Her acting – as the stepdaughter in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an author – made her the theatrical talk of Cambridge. She followed on to as much excited applause with Isabella in Measure for Measure, opposite a youthful Robert Donat, Iphigenia, Pirandello's Naked, the title role in Iphigenia, Varya in the Cherry Orchard and finally the huge challenge of Rebecca West in Ibsen's Rosmersholm. These performances signalled the arrival of an actress who could either transmit emotional stress or simply hint at it, with rare power. Never again, in a career which was a constant struggle to achieve the roles worthy of her talents, would she have such a run of opportunities. In her second season, though, she had few dramatic opportunities and once again her lack of chocolate-box appeal meant that the management dispensed with her services.

Yet chance or destiny came to her rescue in the early 1930s, when she was cast as the adulterous Abbie in Eugene O'Neill's Desire under the Elms, a play which in that age of stage censorship was considered too shocking to be given a public performance. In the little club theatre, The Gate, near Charing Cross, she scored a direct hit with audiences and critics alike. It was, though, her brief, shocking appearance as the doomed prostitute in James Bridie's play The Anatomist that put her firmly on the road to success. "If you are not moved by this girl's performance, then you are immovable" the Observer critic wrote. This success would lead to her famous 1933 season as leading lady at the Old Vic, opposite Charles Laughton. By the end of it she was caught in the theatrical firmament as a star.

She acted late into life, though not on the West End stage, from which she retired at the age of 67, latterly often for American television films, including a lavish production of A Tale of Two Cities (in which she played Miss Pross). She also gave performances for British television, including The Shrimp and the Anemone. In the 1960s she continued to act in the West End, in such plays as Ring Round the Moon, The Importance of Being Earnest and Three Sisters.

Dame Flora's career ran down after her curious decision to leave the stage after The Old Ladies. However she continued to act on film and television, though the roles were often not rewarding at all. She was last briefly seen a Stygian Witch in the fantasy adventure Clash of the Titans in 1981. Both the BBC and ITV made special programmes to celebrate her 80th birthday in 1982 and the BBC ran a short season of her best films.


She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as Angelique, a Haitian maid, in Saratoga Trunk (1945).[3]

She was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1952, and raised to Dame Commander (DBE) in 1960. She was also the first famous name to become President of the Brighton Little Theatre.

On 4 July 1958, she received an honorary DLitt from Durham University at a congregation in Durham Castle.

She was the subject of This Is Your Life in February 1961 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in central London.

Personal life and death

Her private life was largely focused on her large family of sisters, nephews and nieces, who used the home in Wykeham Terrace, Brighton, which she shared with sisters, Margaret and Shela.

She died in Brighton, possibly from cancer, aged 82, although the exact cause was never revealed. She had never been married or had any children. The two sisters, with whom she shared her life and home, died around the same time: Shela shortly before Flora, in 1984, and Margaret on 1 February 1985.


Dame Flora Robson Avenue, built in 1962, in Simonside, South Shields is named after her. There is a plaque on their house in Wykeham Terrace, Dyke Road, Brighton, and also one in the doorway of St. Nicholas's Church, just up the hill from their house and of which Flora Robson was a great supporter.

There is also a plaque to commemorate the opening of the Prince Charles Theatre (Leicester Square, London) by Flora Robson.

In 1996, the British Film Institute erected a plaque at number 14 Marine Gardens, location of Flora's other home in Brighton, where she lived from 1961 to 1976.

A plaque at 40 Handside Lane in Welwyn Garden City records Flora Robson living there from 1923 to 1925.

A blue plaque sponsored by Southgate District Civic Trust and Robson's former school Palmers Green High School was unveiled at her family home from 1910 to 1921, The Lawe, 65, The Mall, Southgate on 25 April 2010.[2]

Partial filmography

Theatre performances


  1. GRO Register of Births: JUN 1902 10a 829 S. SHIELDS – Flora McKenzie Robson
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Blue plaque unveiled at former home of Hollywood star". Enfield Independent. 27 April 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Awards for Saratoga Trunk at Internet Movie Database.

External links