For many years, British cinema and television boasted a profusion of landladies, barmaids and charwomen who were forever on the alert for those who dared ‘to take a liberty’. They would preside over boarding houses that would allow for ‘no hussies’ in their respectable aspidistra-strewn rooms or clean offices, while almost permanently smoking a Woodbine. Such ladies might temporarily relax with a nice port & lemon, but they would always resolutely ‘stand for none of that’.
And of course, there was the sort of mothers-in-law who populated a Les Dawson monologue – none less so than Emma Hornett of Sailor Beware!. When the Philip King/Falkland Cary farce was staged in the West End in early 1955, Peggy Mount became a star – ‘London has acquired a comedienne fit to be flood-lit’ raved Kenneth Tynan in The Observer. Thirty-six years later, Gilbert Adair remembered her as ‘A Gorgon with curlers, instead of serpents in her hair…Emma Hornett was a statue carved out of a single slab of stone, a Mount Rushmore all to herself; it was the role of a lifetime and she played it well beyond the hilt’.
It was a performance homed in various provincial repertory companies over the past decade, and when interviewed by the national press, Peggy Mount remarked that she had always ‘played middle-aged character parts’.
Margaret Rose Mount was born in Southend-on Sea in 1915 and endured a childhood that haunted the rest of her life. On leaving school aged 14, she worked as a secretary but yearned for a career on stage. Mount performed with various amateur dramatic companies and finally became a professional actress in 1944 when she joined Hanson Players in Keighley.
Over the next ten years, Mount attracted critical acclaim for a quite incredible variety of parts in a succession of companies. One week she appeared in W Somerset Maughan’s The Circle (‘some of the most brilliant acting of the evening’ thought The Orkney Herald) and another she featured as a maid in Indian Summer (‘a capital comedy performance’: The Chester Chronicle). By 1954 Peggy Mount made her film debut as the uber-genteel Eastbourne hotel proprietress in the rather charming B-feature The Embezzler.
At that time Mount was a leading player at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre, where she established the template for “Ma” Hornett (Alfred Burke played her cowed husband) but when Sailor Beware! transferred to the Strand Theatre, the producers initially hoped to cast a “name”. Good sense was to prevail eventually and the 1956 film version, directed by Gordon Parry, allowed audiences across the globe to appreciate the awe-inspiring sight of Mount roaming her front parlour and scattering various neighbours in her wake.
‘I must always speak emotionally in a matter-of-fact way if I am to gain a good effect’
The actress once noted that her experience in repertory had taught her that ‘I must always speak emotionally in a matter-of-fact way if I am to gain a good effect’ and her characters were permanently on the alert for any male who dared to trespass in her realm. Ron Moody’s police Superintendent in Ladies Who Do (1963), all clipped moustache and bristling authority, is no match for the might of Mrs. Cragg while in Dry Rot (1956), Brian Rix, Ronald Shiner and Sidney James cower before the wrath of Sergeant Fire. In 1966 Mount and James were reunited for the ATV sitcom George and the Dragon – and the 1968 episode The 10:15 Train has a priceless moment when the ever-ferocious housekeeper confronts Tom Baker’s insolent porter.
It was the Alf of David Kossoff in The Larkins (ATV 1958 – 1960/1963 – 1964) who displayed the most sensible approach to a Peggy Mount character – support, occasionally cajole but rarely confront. The actress thought that Ada Larkin displayed ‘aggressive common-sense; she sees life clearly’, unlike her neighbour Hetty Prout (the delightful Barbara Mitchell) forever twittering about 66 Sycamore Street. It was a screen relationship echoed by the 1977 – 1981 Yorkshire Television series You’re Only Young Twice, which felicitously cast Pat Coombs as Cissie Lupin, the acolyte of Mount’s ever-impatient Flora Petty. The former had the need to be dominated as much as the latter had the insatiable desire to control.
Such work in television and film comedy alternated with her extensive theatrical appearances. Tyan regarded her Mrs. Hardcastle of She Stoops To Conquer as ‘majestic’ in 1960, and seventeen years later Michael Billington praised her ‘direct, coarse, earth-larding and rapacious Mother Courage. When Mount played Madame Arcati in the 1989 revival of Blithe Spirit, she was a vision, to quote Nicholas de Jongh, in ‘what looked like a personalised tent, the odd feather boots and black beret’.
Peggy Mount was awarded the OBE in 1995; many though a Damehood more appropriate. Her final stage performance was as the nanny in the lauded 1996 production of Uncle Vanya, but failing eyesight brought about her retirement. She died on the 13th November 2001, her obituary in The Stage very accurately describing her as ‘one of Britain’s most brilliant and best-loved character actresses’. If the controllers of BBC4 show any vestiges of wisdom, they should cast Olivia Colman as the lady who was haunted by memories of ‘her mother always telling me that I was overweight and ugly’. Both epithets were utterly false – and the fact that Peggy Mount was not awarded the 1956 Oscar for “Best Actress” is yet further demonstration of the erroneous judgement of the Academy Awards.
Further reading: Everything I Ever Wanted: The Life & Career of Peggy Mount by Andrew Ros https://www.fantompublishing.co.uk/products/book/new-title-tuesday-the-biography-of-peggy-mount/
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRS