“Baleful” is the mot juste (appropriate word) for the various chars, housekeepers and landladies embodied by Irene Handl, whether dealing with a “bohemian” lodger or confronting incomprehensible government paperwork. Beneath their headscarves or very defeated-looking hats, was the mutinous expression of one who ‘wants my rights’ – whatever they might be. Then there was the plaintive voice, grumbling, occasionally aspiring to pseudo-RP when dealing with “authority”, and frequently raised in pitch when confronted with one of life’s many aggravations. Penelope Gilliatt once memorably compared Handl to ‘a gravelly disappointed jelly baby’.
That familiar whining accent was, in part, the result of the actress’s observation of the below-stairs staff at her Maida Vale family home. She was born in 1901 to a French mother and a Viennese father – ‘when his family wanted him to become a shopkeeper he ran away to London’. Handl did not consider embarking on a career as a professional actress until she was in her mid-thirties, when her mother died ‘when she was only 40 and I thought, perhaps foolishly, that I ought to stay with my father and keep his home as perfect as it always had been’.
In 1935, Handl enrolled in the Embassy School of Acting, where she was ‘very lucky as I got the part of the dumb maid in George and Margaret and it ran for two years’. The Sketch newspaper raved ‘She comes on, does some business and yet holds the audience entranced’ – a description that could be equally applied to her future film and television work. 1937 marked her cinematic debut, as a chambermaid in Missing, Believed Married (John Paddy Carstairs), a role that set the template for her screen roles well into the 1960s. She would also, on occasion, essay more genteel types; the tea-room cellist of Brief Encounter (David Lean 1945) or the lonely Mrs. Raymond in the B-feature Burnt Evidence (Daniel Birt 1954).
At all times, Handl possessed the innate ability to commit grand larceny from those billed above her, be they Brian Rix in The Night We Got the Bird (Darcy Conyers 1961), Ian Carmichael in Happy Is the Bride (Roy Boulting 1958), or Edward Tudor-Pole (‘Tadpole!’) in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (Julien Temple 1980).. Her CV included work for Vincente Minnelli in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) and Billy Wilder in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), but the actress thought ‘American directors are so rigid in their conception of character; they lay down hard and fast rules’.
“I thought my time was running out. I had some people the other side of me.”
She was also aware of the risks of typecasting. So much so, that while appearing in the West End comedy Goodnight Mrs. Puffin, she claimed to have felt ‘a strange sort of emptiness’. Handl decided to complete a novel that she began writing when she was aged just 14 – ‘I thought my time was running out. I had some people the other side of me’.
The Sioux, an everyday story of a decadent French-American family, was published in 1965, to considerable acclaim; nineteen years later Doris Lessing thought the novel ‘wiser, sharper, funnier and more tender’ than the works of Nancy Mitford. Handl noted ‘I imagine people will be waiting for something about chars, but I wrote it to get away from the old girls’ –many readers had difficulty equating the authoress with the reassuring face of the Typhoo Tea commercials. Handl even designed the cover – ‘I had nothing to draw it with except Max Factor make-up, Biro and rouge’. A sequel, The Gold Tip Pfitzer, was published seven years later.
Handl continued acting until her death in 1987, for retirement never seemed to enter her mind. Her later work ranged from the sitcoms For the Love of Ada (Thames 1970 – 1971) and Maggie and Her (London Weekend Television 1978-1979), to those films that deserved staking with a rolled-up copy of Sight and Sound in a quiet corner of the studio. But while the unspeakable Come Play with Me (Harrison Marks 1977) and the hideous Adventures of a Private Eye (Stanley Long 1977 had all the charm of a public information film about warehouse safety practice, Handl never failed to entertain the audience.
“I always teeter. It comes over me – moments in comedy when I could cry.”
The actress’s finest work allowed her to strike a fine balance between comedy and pathos – ‘I always teeter. It comes over me – moments in comedy when I could cry’. There was Madge Hickson in Carry On Nurse (Gerald Thomas 1959), the mother of the gorilla-obsessed hero of Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (Karel Reisz 1966), and, of course, Mrs. Kite in I’m All Right Jack (John Boulting 1959). Handl regarded Peter Sellers as her favourite actor, and she wrote Shadows On The Grass for his record Songs for Swingin’ Sellers – ‘I tan a lot faster in bikini you know!’ ‘We were like dancing partners’ she reflected in later life. ‘We never needed to ask each other what we were going to do. It was completely instinctive’.
And it was this bond with Sellers, that made the Kites one of the most believable couples in any British comedy. When newspaper reporters crowd into their front parlour, she coyly responds to their interest, oblivious to the fact that they are using her and mocking her husband. There is also a brief glimpse of their wedding photograph – Fred shy, awkward, but proud, while Mrs. Kite gazes pensively into the lens – and it is entirely understandable why he collapses into despair when she temporarily leaves him. Irene Handl’s screen time may be limited, but the film is a reminder of the sublime actress who, to quote Gilliam Evans in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘could bring something more to the roles she played: a curious and almost tragicomic blend of mettlesomeness, personal warmth, and childlike innocence that was uniquely hers’.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA