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Flora Robson

Studio publicity Flora Robson.jpg
Robson in a 1940s studio publicity shot
Flora McKenzie Robson

(1902-03-28)28 March 1902
Died 7 July 1984(1984-07-07) (aged 82)
Alma mater Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
Occupation Actress
Years active 1921–1984

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

Flora McKenzie Robson was born on 28 March 1902 in South Shields, County Durham, 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, where she won a bronze medal in 1921.


Her father discovered that Flora had a talent for recitation and, from the age of 5, 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. By the 1930s she was appearing in several prominent films both in the UK and in Hollywood, alongside such stars as Laurence Olivier, Paul Muni and George Raft. Her most notable role was that of Queen Elizabeth I in both Fire Over England (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940). In 1934, Robson played the Empress Elizabeth in Alexander Korda's The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934). She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Angelique Buiton, a servant, in Saratoga Trunk (1945). The same year, audiences in the U.K. and the U.S. watched her hypnotic performance as Ftatateeta, the nursemaid and royal confidante and murderess-upon-command 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 Good-Time Girl (1948); as a prospective Labour MP in Frieda (1947); and in the costume melodrama Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948). Her other film roles included the Empress Dowager Cixi in 55 Days at Peking (1963), Miss Milchrest in Murder at the Gallop (1963), the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), and Livia in the aborted I, Claudius in 1937.

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. 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, but her contract was not renewed. She was told that they required a prettier actress. Unable to secure any acting engagements, she gave up the stage at the age of 23, and she took up work as a welfare officer in the Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City. Tyrone Guthrie, due to direct a season at the new Festival Theatre, Cambridge, asked her to join his company. Her performance as the stepdaughter in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author made her the theatrical talk of Cambridge. She followed with Isabella in Measure for Measure with Robert Donat, Varya in The Cherry Orchard, and Rebecca West in Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm.

In 1931, she was cast as Abbie in Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms. Her brief, shocking appearance in James Bridie's play The Anatomist 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.

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

She continued to act on film and television. She was last briefly seen as a Stygian Witch in the fantasy adventure Clash of the Titans in 1981. Both the BBC and ITV made special programs to celebrate her 80th birthday in 1982, and the BBC ran a short season of her best films.

Awards and honours

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

She was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1952 New Year Honours, and raised to Dame Commander (DBE) in the 1960 Birthday Honours. 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

Flora Robson tablet
Memorial tablet to Flora Robson in the porch of her final parish church, St Nicholas, Brighton

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, aged 82, in her sleep, of cancer. She was never married and had no 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 the house in Wykeham Terrace, Dyke Road, Brighton, and also one in the doorway of St. Nicholas's Church, 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.

Robson attended the opening of the Flora Robson Playhouse in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1962, which was named in her honour. The building was demolished in 1971 and the theatre company it housed relocated to the new University Theatre.


Year Title Role Note
1931 A Gentleman of Paris Uncredited
1932 Dance Pretty Lady Mrs. Raeburn
1933 One Precious Year Julia Skene
1934 The Rise of Catherine the Great Empress Elisabeth
The Private Life of Don Juan Undetermined Role (scenes deleted)
1937 Fire Over England Queen Elizabeth I of England
Farewell Again Lucy Blair
I, Claudius Livia
1939 Wuthering Heights Ellen Dean
Smith Mary Smith Short
Poison Pen Mary Rider
We Are Not Alone Jessica Newcome
Invisible Stripes Mrs. Taylor
1940 The Sea Hawk Queen Elizabeth I
1941 Bahama Passage Mrs. Ainsworth
1944 Two Thousand Women Miss Manningford
1945 Great Day Mrs. Liz Ellis
Saratoga Trunk Angelique Buiton (in blackface) Nominated - Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Caesar and Cleopatra Ftatateeta
Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco Short
1946 The Years Between Nanny
1947 Black Narcissus Sister Philippa
Frieda Nell
Holiday Camp Esther Harman
1948 Good-Time Girl Miss Thorpe
Saraband for Dead Lovers Countess Platen
1952 The Tall Headlines Mary Rackham
1953 Malta Story Melita Gonzar
1954 Romeo and Juliet Nurse
1957 High Tide at Noon Donna MacKenzie
No Time for Tears Sister Birch
1958 The Gypsy and the Gentleman Mrs. Haggard
Innocent Sinners Olivia Chesney
1959 This Is the BBC
1963 55 Days at Peking Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi
Murder at the Gallop Miss Milchrest
1964 Guns at Batasi Miss Barker-Wise
1965 Young Cassidy Mrs. Cassidy
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines Mother Superior
1966 7 Women Miss Binns
1967 Eye of the Devil Countess Estell
The Shuttered Room Aunt Agatha
Cry in the Wind Anasthasia
1970 Fragment of Fear Lucy Dawson
1971 La grande scrofa nera La Nonna
The Beast in the Cellar Joyce Ballantyne
The Beloved Antigone
1972 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Queen of Hearts
1975 The Canterville Ghost Mrs. Umney TV movie
1978 Les Misérables The Prioress TV movie
1980 Dominique Mrs. Davis
Gauguin the Savage Sister Allandre TV movie
A Tale of Two Cities Miss Pross TV movie
1981 Clash of the Titans A Stygian Witch final film role

Partial television credits

Year Series or miniseries Role Note
1956 BBC Sunday-Night Theatre Lilly Mofat/Sister Agatha 2 episodes
1959 World Theatre Anna Fierling 1 episode
1964 The Human Jungle Headmistress 1 episode
1966 David Copperfield Betsey Trotwood 8 episodes
1968 BBC Play of the Month May Beringer 1 episode
1974 Heidi Grandmother Miniseries, 4 episodes
1975 A Legacy Narrator 5 episodes
1979 A Man Called Intrepid Sister Luke 3 episodes

Theatre performances

  • Queen Margaret in Will Shakespeare at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 1921
  • Shakespearean repertory with Ben Greet's company, 1922
  • JB Fagan's company at the Oxford Playhouse, 1923
  • Two seasons at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge, 1929–30
  • Abbey Putnam in Desire Under the Elms at the Gate Theatre, London, 1931
  • Herodias in Salome at the Gate Theatre, London, 1931
  • Mary Paterson in The Anatomist at the Westminster Theatre, London, 1931
  • Stepdaughter in Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Westminster Theatre, London, 1932
  • Bianca in Othello at the St. James' Theatre, London, 1932
  • Olwen Peel in Dangerous Corner at the Lyric Theatre, London, 1932
  • Eva in For Services Rendered at the Globe Theatre, London, 1932
  • Ella Downey in All God's Chillun Got Wings at the Embassy Theatre, Swiss Cottage, 1933
  • A season at the Old Vic, London, 1933–34
  • Mary Read in Mary Read at His Majesty's Theatre, London 1934
  • Lady Catherine Brooke in Autumn at the St. Martin's Theatre, London, 1937
  • Ellen Creed in Ladies in Retirement at the Henry Miller's Theatre, New York, 1940
  • Sarah, Duchess of Malborough in Anne of England at the St. James Theatre, New York, 1941
  • Rhoda Meldrum in The Damask Cheek at the Playhouse Theatre, New York, 1942–43
  • Thérèse Raquin in Guilty at the Lyric, Hammersmith, 1944
  • Agnes Isit in A Man About the House at the Piccadilly Theatre, 1946
  • Lady Macbeth in Macbeth at the National Theatre, New York, 1948
  • Lady Cicely Waynflete in Captain Brassbound's Conversion at the Lyric, Hammersmith, 1948
  • Christine in Black Chiffon, at the Westminster Theatre, 1949 and the 48th Street Theatre, New York, 1950
  • Lady Catherine Brooke in Autumn at the Q Theatre, London, 1951
  • Paulina in The Winter's Tale at the Phoenix Theatre, London, 1951
  • The Return at the Duchess Theatre, London, 1953–54
  • Janet in The House by the Lake at the Duke of York's Theatre, London, 1956
  • Mrs Alving in Ghosts at the Old Vic, 1958–59 and the Prince's Theatre, London, 1959
  • Miss Tina in The Aspern Papers at the Queen's Theatre, London, 1959 and on tour to South Africa, 1960
  • Grace Rovarte in Time and Yellow Roses at the St. Martin's Theatre, London, 1961
  • Miss Moffatt in The Corn is Green at the Connaught Theatre, Worthing, the Flora Robson Playhouse, Newcastle upon Tyne and on tour to South Africa, 1962
  • Gunhild in John Gabriel Borkman at the Duchess Theatre, London, 1963
  • Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Flora Robson Playhouse, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1964
  • Hecuba in The Trojan Women at the Edinburgh Festival, 1966
  • Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 1968
  • Mother in Ring Round the Moon at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 1968
  • Agatha Payne in The Old Ladies at the Duchess Theatre, London, 1969
  • Elizabeth I in Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England at the Edinburgh Festival, 1970

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Flora Robson para niños

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