JY wrote to request I say something about the late Kathleen Byron, born on this day 99 years ago (what are we all going to do for the Sister Ruth centenary?).

It’s taken for granted that Michael Powell was right when he told Byron that she’d never get another role as good as Sister Ruth — and of course he was. But we should stop to note that in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, a very nearly perfectly cast film, she’s a very striking presence, and THE SMALL BACK ROOM, which I adore, would not be the same without her.


Rank, of course, did not know what to do with her, and her later career becomes a game of spot-the-Byron, as she turns up for minute, often thankless and sometimes literally wordless roles in distinguished films like THE ELEPHANT MAN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and altogether less celebrated works like CRAZE and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. It can look as if she was embracing obsolescence, accepting Powell’s prophecy, but I think it’s more likely she was still hoping to prove him wrong and knew she’d better keep her hand in if there was to be any chance of landing the great role when it came by.

Maybe people were a little scared of her — not just because she’s so intimidating in BLACK NARCISSUS, but she seems to have been a formidable person in real life. Powell’s unexplained reference to her threatening him with a revolver while naked in Vol II of his autobiography appears to be a complete wish-fulfillment confabulation on his part, but they were intimate, and she wasn’t afraid to stand up to him.

My late friend Lawrie Knight, a third assistant on BN, confirmed Byron’s account of her refusing to take Powell’s direction when Sister Ruth visits Mr. Dean’s hut. She’d decided for herself that Sister Ruth was PERFECTLY SANE and she was damn well going to play it that way. Of course, most viewers still perceive Ruth as mad — her actions are a bit extreme, but unrequited love, frustration and jealousy aren’t mental illnesses, though they may have many of the same characteristics. Whatever was behind Byron’s choices, the effect on screen is incredibly powerful and convincing. Powell went off in a huff, Byron worked out the scene with David Farrar, then they showed it to their director.

“Well, it’s not what I wanted but I suppose it’s all right,” he harumphed.

To his credit, he let her do it, he cast her once more, and he gave her some of the greatest close-ups in British cinema.


(What ARE the greatest close-up in British cinema? When Deborah Kerr looks up from the pencil in her hand and sees Ruth staring at her, that’s one. Christopher Lee coming downstairs and saying hello, that’s two. Yootha Joyce in the hairdressers in THE PUMPKIN EATER, that’s three. Hmm, they’re all quite scary. I’ll need to think of some romantic ones — I think COLONEL BLIMP offers several…)

18 Responses to “Byronic”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “a complete wish-fulfillment confabulation on his part”? I doubt it. Mr. Powell had fallen for Deborah Kerr (get in line!), but had done so right in the middle of making “Black Narcissus.” This gave Byron tons more “motivation” for Sister Ruth. She’s quite an amazing actress and this is her signature role. Can’t imagine her shrunk to the emotional level of Celia Johnson — which is what the UK has always preferred, while hiding its true passions. (Enter P&P to expose this hypocrisy )

    As for Close-Ups I love the one of the psychedelic mushrooms in “Performance” and Massine peering through the curtain hole to look at the audience in “The Red Shoes.”

  2. The sudden cuts to Massine and Shearer’s red-lit faces during the ballet are also incredibly powerful.

    Byron firmly denied pointing a gun at Powell and observed that she wouldn’t have bothered to undress if she were going to do so. And several other Powell collaborators have attested that in particular Vol II of his memoir contains quite a bit of fiction.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I definitely think English cinema of the 40s and 50s maybe didn’t do enough with female actors to build them up as stars. Kathleen Byron is one example of that.

    But anyway, her work on the Powell films will last and has lasted. She definitely had screen presence and star quality.

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    DC, You’re right that she never came close to excelling her P&P performances but she occasionally came very close to supplementing them on television. Unfortunately, the evidence is now lost. My first encounter with her was in several episodes of the 1950s ITV serieds EMERGENCY WARD TEN where she played the alcoholic wife of Chief Surgeon DeLa Roux (John Barron). She is the “family secret” and we first see her in a private clinic. Obviously, marital strife caused by ambition and her husband’s cold manner put her there.

    Also, in another lost BBC TV Sunday afternoon series of the 60s HEREWARD THE WAKE, she plays the vicious head of “The Court of Love” forcing Torfrida (Yvonne Furneaux) to marry a beggar who turns out to be Hereward (Alfred Lynch) in disguise to thwart her plans.

  5. Peter Sasdy directed her in Emergency Ward 10 and must have remembered her for Nothing But the Night.

    It wasn’t so much that star build-up didn’t exist in Britain. The Rank Charm School was supposed to serve that purpose, but they weren’t very good at it. They flopped with Julie Christie and Barbara Steele, who made it on their own in the end. The trouble was that particularly in the fifties, there weren’t many interesting films with strong and exciting female roles. It was useless casting Byron as a drip, and at the same time casting her as a villain got tired. What we needed was filmmakers who could see beyond those stereotypes and imagine roles that would work for a unique personality.

    But from 1948 on, Rank had a bureaucracy that told directors which actors they could have (it was supposed to share the stars out and make efficient use of contract players’ time, but soon became a cart leading the horse kind of thing).

    TV would have offered better possibilities because there was so much drama being made and sometimes series TV encourages complexity. (Not always.)

  6. That brief close up of Moira Shearer, after she spots Walbrook in the audience in the Mercury Theater at the end of her twirls, is one of the greats. But yeah, it’s another horror movie shot.

  7. chris schneider Says:

    I think of those close-ups of Alida Valli in THE THIRD MAN — or is that more international than British? Then, of course, there’s that famous shot revealing Welles’ face … but that isn’t exactly close.

  8. Mark Fuller Says:

    I think the affair between Michael Powell and Deborah Kerr was during Blimp, so while I believe Miss Byron when she denied ever holding him up at gunpoint I also believe there was some level of an affair at some point. I can’t imagine KB waving a gun around; I can imagine it of Sister Ruth and I suspect it was a dream made reality by the passing decades and old age. One of Miss Byron’s later roles is in an early Midsomer Murders, as the elderly mother of a hotelier suspected of stabbing multiple young women. I don’t need to tell you who the real culprit was do I ?? Nearly fifty years after the event, Sister Ruth , mad or not, stayed with her in the eyes of casting agents.

  9. We do get a reasonably close medium shot on Welles. The film is British AND International/American, I’d say.

    There’s a terrifying closeup of Sonia Dresdel in The Fallen Idol, right after her hairpin falls onto Bobby Henrey’s pillow…

    Lawrie mentioned that Byron wasn’t easy to be around on Black Narcissus. “She was fucking Mickey, wasn’t she?” I asked. “HE was fucking HER,” corrected Lawrie.

  10. Thank you for the Byron tribute! Here is a link to a short TV documentary about her in case others haven’t seen it. It’s called REMEMBERING SISTER RUTH by Malcolm Venville:

  11. Thanks, I was looking for that!

  12. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Byron and Mickey’s affair has the makings of a terrific movie — in which shots of her waving a gun at him would of course be included.

  13. The first time I saw Byron in Black Narcissus I couldn’t help but think back to Bette Davis’s performance in Of Human Bondage. Both played strong female characters and were absolutely brilliant in their respective films.

    It’s unfortunate that Byron was also overlooked by American casting directors because she really was a force to be reckoned with. I recall an anecdote where she went to visit John Huston for the role of Lygia in Quo Vadis. Byron had asked him how he saw her and he replied, “We see you as strictly neurotic, Miss Byron.”

    I was reading through some historical newspapers recently and found an article from 1948 announcing that she was tested for Lady Blakeney in P&P’s The Elusive Pimpernel. (Sigh) At times I wish Powell had created a lead role for her to play that showcased her unique talents and versatility.

  14. Simon Kane Says:

    Olivier’s slow approach from a safe stage distance to menacingly cinematic close-up in Richard III is a hoot. And Hoskins trapped in the back of a cab is a film in itself but might be too long to be considered a “close-up”, or is it a medium? Hm, more villains. Oh, pretty much every single close-up of Tilda Swinton in “Orlando” is my favourite.

  15. I always felt she did too many looks to camera. The one during the meet cute is so good, it’s a shame to overplay that hand.

  16. Simon Kane Says:

    It’s quite Fleabag now I think of it!

  17. She delivered an highly nuanced performance as Fanny, the meddlesome socialite in the 1972 adaptation of James’ ‘The Golden Bowl’. One of the most watchable actresses Britain has produced. If a heaven does exist, its female angels would all have to look like her -complete with her ‘AMOLAD’ hairstyling!

  18. What a great cast!

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