Irene Handl

Tony Hancock | Sid James | Stage Fright

British Actress

    Dumpy, delightful British character actress with brown, curly hair and plump, puffin-like features. A specialist in London landladies with mewling voices, she could make quite insignificant phrases seem funny.

    Her plaintive tones and unique way of browbeating her fellow-players quickly stamped her out as a comedy player of distinction, although it wasn't until late in her career that people began to put a name to the face they knew so well.

    The daughter of an Austrian banker, she described her younger self as a plain-faced rebel who moved from school to school. 'No teacher wanted me.'

Irene Handl
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    Her French mother died when Irene was young, and she cared for her father until suddenly deciding to try for the stage in her early thirties, and enrolling at an acting school run by the sister of Dame Sybil Thorndike. She made her London stage debut in February 1937. The play closed in a fortnight but her next stage role ensured her continuous employment on stage, screen, radio and television for the next 40 years. This was Beer, the maid in George and Margaret, the only sane figure in the midst of a panicking family who are awaiting important guests (who are never seen). She repeated the role in the successful 1940 film version, by which time she was already on her way to being established as a regular contributor of funny cameos to British comedies and dramas in the war years.

    In post-war years she continued to play film roles, becoming more shapeless with each decade, as well as becoming an easily-identified radio voice on such shows as Hello Playmates and Hancock's Half Hour. With Tony Hancock, she moved into television, but it was 1970 before she got a series of her own, For the Love of Ada in harness with one-time quizmaster Wilfred Pickles, as two septuagenarians getting married. By this time she had published her first novel, The Sioux, which became a bestseller. It was followed by another.

    Also in the 1960s, she had her biggest theatrical hit in many years in the tide role of Goodnight, Mrs Puffin, which she took on a world-wide tour after a two-year London run. It was much to her disappointment that it was never filmed.

    Cooks, gossips, busybodies and aggressive domestics of all shapes and ranks were her stock in trade. She played Madam Arcati the medium in a stage version of Blithe Spirit, and revelled in the role of David Warner's Marxist mum in Morgan a Suitable Case for Treatment. She was just as good at being kind and nice as she was at being absolutely awful.

    Dying a few weeks before her 86th birthday, Irene Handl had never managed to get married, as much a source of surprise to her, apparently, as anyone else. 'It's one thing I just don't understand', she said. 'I can't understand why I didn't; It's extraordinary.' Perhaps Irene Handl, author, broadcaster, actress and personality, was just too busy.

stage fright

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Changes last made: 2015