The Killing of Sister George was the first English play to deal with lesbianism and was written by German Jewish playwright Frank Marcus (1928-1996) who had escaped with his family from Nazi Germany in 1938. Premiered by the Bristol Old Vic at the Theatre Royal on 20 April 1965, the original stage play is more implied whereas the 1968 film version has the lesbian elements darker and more explicit.
“Sister George” is a much loved character, June Buckridge, in a popular radio soap opera (changed to TV in the film). In real life she is a gin guzzling, cigar smoking, slightly sadistic butch lesbian who lives with Alice “Childie” McNaught, a childlike girl obsessed with playing with dolls. June dominates feminine Childie, mentally and physically, and the couple perpetuate the classic butch/femme lesbian couple stereotype. When June discovers her soap character is to be killed off she becomes impossible to live and work with. Matters are made worse by the intervention of a third woman, radio/TV executive, Mrs Mercy Croft, herself a predatory lesbian.
The title character in both the original stage production and the film was played by Beryl Reid, primarily known for her comedy roles beginning on radio in the 1950s. In the original Bristol Old Vic production Childie was played by Eileen Atkins with Lally Bowers as Mrs Croft. The play was directed by Bath born Val May who was artistic director with the company 1961-1975.
From the run at Bristol the play went on tour. It opened in London on 17 June 1965 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, and transferred to the Belasco Theatre, New York, in October 1966, still with the original cast. Beryl Reid won the 1966 Tony Award for Best Performance by a leading actress for the Broadway production. The play caused a sensation in the West End and on Broadway. The actresses were sometimes refused admission to shops because of the plays lesbian content.
The Stage review of 24 June 1965 was headlined ‘A Triumph for All’ and said “A comedy as brilliant in its wit and humour as in serious comment and pathos”. It was the first stage play for Beryl Reid who was hailed as “An actress of enormous talent … previously known for her film and radio comedy roles, her performance was arresting, haunting and memorable”. The review noted Val May directed “with sensitivity and panache”.
Beryl Reid remembered the pre West End tour:
”The tour was a disaster. We were pathfinders. In the British theatre nobody before had spoken about lesbianism, and this really destroyed the people we were playing to. In Bath we were deafened by old chaps in their bathchairs being wheeled out by their nannies, their urine bottles rattling as they went, saying ‘Disgusting, disgusting’…. Hull was the biggest disaster of all. The people of Hull would barely serve us in the shops they were so horrified”. Beryl played the part for two years but found it impossible to use one word to describe it. ”Some people call it a comedy. It has a lot of laughs but to me it isn’t a comedy. It is funny, but it is also very harrowing and sad. It’s ‘life with the lid left off’ … the story of people’s relationships to one another”.
In 2014 Eileen Atkins, the only member of the original cast still alive remembered opening night in Bristol when she heard the banging of seats in the auditorium. She spoke to Beryl Reid about it in the interval who said ”My dear, you haven’t done standup. That was everyone leaving”. Reviews were not good and the play was thought to be a flop until it opened in London where it was a huge success, both critically and commercially, with Eileen Atkins receiving the Evening Standard Best Actress award.
The film version was made in 1968 with only Beryl Reid from the original Bristol production in the title role. Childie was played by Susannah York and Mercy Croft by Coral Browne. The film was promoted as ”a shocking drama” and the lesbian element was made much more explicit; the sex scene between Childie and Mrs Croft not appearing in the original stage play.
Some location filming was done at the Gateway Club in London. ‘The Gate’ was one of the few places in the UK where lesbians could meet openly in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and club regulars featured as extras in the film.
In 1965, the same year The Killing of Sister George was premiered at the Theatre Royal in Bristol, ITV broadcast a documentary about lesbians in the This Week series. On the day of its transmission the Daily Express pleaded with its readers to “stop this filth entering your living room”.
Today attitudes have greatly changed and The Killing of Sister George in its own way helped to pave the way for more open and tolerant feelings towards lesbianism.
Jonathan Rowe 2021