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Anne Stallybrass:  Why I Chose Death For Mrs Onedin

At the start of the last television series of “The Onedin Line” actress Anne Stallybrass had to make the most difficult decision of her career: whether to have a rest or die.

“I could see that the series might go on for years and I did not want to become typecast,” she explained in her dressing room at the theatre.

“Television makes you very well-known, much more so than a play in the West End, but there is an awful danger of the public getting bored and saying: ‘Oh no.  Not her again!’ There comes a time when you have got to take a stand like this and do something different.”

No temptation

So Anne announced that she did not want to make any further instalments. “I was told that if I just wanted a rest, I could be written out of the script for a while, but that if I was absolutely sure that I wanted to leave, they would kill me off. When that happens you cannot be tempted to return.”

As the vivacious Miss Stallybrass wanted to go back to the live theatre, she chose death. This irrevocable step caused great dismay among many of her fans, who considered her sensitive portrayal of Anne Onedin to be the focal point of the series.

Sea sickness

“I was very surprised and pleased by the reaction,” she admitted, sipping coffee from a green plastic mug. “The strange thing is that people keep writing to me saying how sorry they were that I died at the end of the last episode, but add that they expect I’ll be coming back.

“On the one hand they completely believe in the story.  Yet, on the other, they think I can be resurrected!”

There were times during this successful series that Anne, who is scared of the water, thought she might be risking her neck for real.

“We spent the majority of the time filming at sea and did at least 50 trips on the Charlotte Rhodes,” she said. “There were some very rough days with force seven gales, and a number of frightening moments.

“I had a dread of falling overboard. The costumes were so weighty that I was convinced I would drown, but everyone assured me that with all those petticoats, I’d have floated.

“At least they kept me warm, but I took off the whalebone corset because it was so terribly uncomfortable when I walked up and down the deck. The clothes must have been hell for women in those days!”

Although the cast survived on sea-sickness pills in the early days of “The Onedin Line”, they soon became immune to the pitch and roll of the old sailing ship.

Teaching diploma

“Actors who were doing only one episode would join us on a lovely sunny morning and, as we sailed out of the harbour, would say: ‘Isn’t this wonderful. What a marvellous life,’” she chuckled.

“Two hours later, when it was getting choppy, they would be terribly ill in their false beards, and be desperate to get back to dry land.”

Anne is much prettier and more petite than she appears on the Box, with her smiling brown eyes*, soft complexion and casually-combed dark hair.

She has won this year’s TV Times Actress of the Year award for her performance as Anna Strauss in “The Strauss Family”, and her many television performances include leading roles in “Love on the Dole”, “Thursday’s Child”, “Wuthering Heights” and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” in which she played Jane Seymour.

After gaining a teaching diploma in English, speech and drama at the Royal Academy of Music (“My father thought a qualification would give me security”), Essex-born Anne spent four years in repertory, starting out as an assistant stage manager in Folkestone.

Her first television appearance was in one episode of “Emergency Ward 10”, and she has been in two films.  “They were very minor roles,” she said with obvious regret.  “I had a non-speaking part in ‘David Copperfield’, and played a pregnant peasant in ‘Countess Dracula’. Not very memorable roles.”

Talented and articulate, she has a strong sense of humour - a valuable asset in acting which, she describes with an impish grin, as “a terrible life”.

It has always been her ambition to play on the West End stage and she hopes that “Glasstown”, based on the lives of the Bronte family, will go to a London theatre at the end of its so far successful provincial run.

She has one other goal - to get out of crinolines for a while. “Having done so many parts in wigs and costumes, I would love to play a modern woman of my own age,” confided Anne, who was looking thoroughly modern in brown flared trousers, a patterned blouse and a cream ribbed knit tank top.

“I have had enough of long-suffering terribly nice ladies. One does get bored with being such a good person all the time. It would be lovely to play a loud brassy barmaid instead of all these repressed wives.”

As for widower Captain Onedin, alias actor Peter Gilmore, Anne tells me that in the next series of “The Onedin Line” he will be consoling himself with two new girl friends. Isn’t that just like a man.

Betty Hughes
South Wales Evening Post
11 May 1973

* Anne actually has grey eyes

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