LIVES – YVONNE ARNAUD
Researched and written by Jeremy Palmer.
Of all the stage entertainers who made Effingham their home, none worked harder than the French pianist, singer and actress Yvonne Arnaud. From 1905 through to her death in 1958, she was consistently one of the most popular stars of the era, whether on stage, in films or through television and radio broadcasts. That she lives on via the Guildford theatre named in her honour is a testament to the level of stardom she achieved in her lifetime.
She was born Jeanne Germaine Arnaud on December 20th 1890, to Colonel Charles Leon Arnaud and his wife Antoinette. The family lived in the Bordeaux region of France. Once Germaine’s early musical talent was recognised, her mother made every effort to develop her daughter’s skills, controlling and directing her life in this direction. Germaine was educated in Paris and studied music at the Paris Conservatoire where in 1905 she won the Premier Prix for her piano playing.
By 1906 her mother had taken her on tour throughout Europe. The earliest review we have found is dated November 29th 1906 and appeared in the Morning Post newspaper. Arnaud was appearing at the Aeolian Hall; the reviewer commented on her “exceptional command of the keyboard” and finished by saying:
“Mademoiselle Arnaud displayed much taste and feeling, but if she had revealed all the poetry of the music doubt would have been thrown on the statement as to her age. She was received with great and well-deserved cordiality.”
By 1908 her reputation as a pianist of great promise had taken her to the United States. She was one of the guest soloists for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1909, arriving in January and promptly garlanded with rave reviews. Tours in Germany and Scandinavia followed, then in Russia and as far as Siberia on the Trans-Continental Railway.
The last we hear of her in the role of performing pianist was in February 1910, when she appeared in Nice’s “King Carnival” celebrations where her interpretation of Saint-Saëns’ Toccata was highly praised. However, after this appearance she seems to have dropped out of the public eye for a while, for reasons we have not been able to ascertain.
From Piano to Stage
It was not until the summer of 1911 that Germaine reappeared. Oriel Malet, in her 1961 biography (p.63 onwards) of her godmother Arnaud entitled “Marraine” (this being the name Malet gave to Arnaud) recounted Arnaud’s brother Edmond saying that she accepted a challenge to appear on stage for one night only. This was to be in a theatrical role and not as a pianist. She approached the impresario Georges Edwardes to fulfil this wish. After conquering both Edwardes’ and her mother’s opposition, Germaine was cast in a soubrette role as Princess Mathilde in the musical “The Quaker Girl”. The one night became several weeks of touring. Arnaud appears in the cast lists as “Germaine France”, the earliest mention being an advertisement from the Leeds Mercury on August 22nd 1911. “The Quaker Girl” had been a massive success. Starring Gertie Millar, it had opened at the Adelphi Theatre on November 5th 1910, running to 536 performances. It was therefore a risky decision to cast Germaine Arnaud in a supporting role, even in the touring version, and one that was not well received backstage, as Arnaud described:
“Gertie Millar, Elsie Spain, James Blakeley and Hayden Coffin were in the cast. Joe Coyne was the only one who was kind and who would rehearse with me. There was a terrible uproar in the theatre, you see, because of the understudy who was ready to play … everybody was against me, even the chorus girls who were all very fashionable ladies, very well kept, and I was just like a flea amongst all those beautiful girls.”
The tour lasted until May 1912. Arnaud commented in “Marraine” (p.67) that she was due to go back to France but contracted typhoid and so had to remain in England. This is perhaps doubtful because Arnaud also states that she again demanded a theatrical role from an impresario when she approached Michael Faraday, manager of the Lyric Theatre. Since “Yvonne Arnaud” was announced in The Stage on August 1st 1912 as being in the cast of Faraday’s “The Girl in the Taxi”, this implies a period of only three months between her first and second plays on the stage. Given casting and rehearsals, it would be reasonable to assume the break between the two was even shorter.
“The Girl in the Taxi” opened on September 7th 1912. Based on a French farce, it seems that Faraday showed great patience and faith in the untrained Arnaud as well as having to negotiate with her mother to allow her underage daughter to perform. Faraday also rechristened Germaine as Yvonne, after deciding that Germaine sounded too much like “German”.
“The Girl in the Taxi” ran for 385 performances. Arnaud’s performance was singled out for praise. The Westminster Gazette called her:
” … a very attractive young artist who in the part of Suzanne achieved instantaneous success on the score alike of her personal charms, her sprightly action and her tasteful singing.”
Other publications accorded her similar accolades, The Observer calling her “an attractively arch and demure little rake”, for example.
From Oriel Malet’s account it also seems that “Yvonne Arnaud” was Germaine’s means to escape her mother’s tight control; the character Yvonne, vivacious, charming and bubbly, was everything the pianist Germaine had been denied.
“It is plain that something was released in her from the moment that she stepped onto a stage. Her own comments make this plain: ‘I thought it was the easiest thing in the world and such fun … how I enjoyed it … By then, I had taken a liking to play.’ Inside the solemn, round-faced little girl there was someone else, spontaneous and gay … Inside that warm circle of light, she found herself taking part in a delicious game; and it had nothing at all to do with Maman.”
Arnaud used her considerable musical skills in comedies, farces and operettas through the 1910s. Here are some examples from this period, including a widely covered story about an anonymous admirer gifting her a lemur. She tried to keep it but after an appeal for help on what to feed it, and the lemur then eating one of her hats, it was passed on to London Zoo.
Lemur story in The Sketch, May 13th 1914, while appearing in “Mam’selle Tralala”,
a musical play at the Lyric Theatre.
under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans
(click to enlarge)
A scene from the farce “Jerry” at the Duke of York’s Theatre, in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, March 18th 1916
A scene from the adapted French farce “Kissing Time”,
in The Tatler, July 2nd 1919
Her run of farces and light comedies culminated in “Kissing Time”, with Arnaud now billed alongside stars such as Stanley Holloway, Leslie Henson and Phyllis Dare. This ran for 13 months at the Winter Garden Theatre closing on July 3rd 1920.
Arnaud had by this time taken some first steps into silent films. She was reported in October 1919 as taking a role in “The Temptress”, adapted from a story by Balzac and produced for the British and Colonial Film Company. She followed this with a second production for B&C entitled “Desire”, also from a novel by Balzac. She complained at the heavy workload this caused, appearing in film during the day and on stage at night. This may have been the reason why Arnaud would not work in films again for another 10 years and made no further silent movies.
The Bioscope, November 20th 1919
Promotional card for Arnaud, 1920s
A change now became inevitable; an operation to repair her vocal chords damaged them further, resulting in Arnaud no longer being able to sing professionally (as mentioned without citation on the stagebeauty.net website’s page on Arnaud – via the Biography link there).
A report published in The Pall Mall Gazette on Oct 28th 1920 does mention that Arnaud had only recently recovered from an operation, although this was a passing reference; the main subject of the report was her surprise marriage that same day to Hugh McLellan at Kensington Register Office. It emphasised how much of a shock this was to the theatrical world and how few were in the know.
The Times seems to have been the only newspaper given notice of the wedding, announcing on the 28th:
“The marriage arranged between Hugh McLellan, only son of the late C. M. S McLellan and of Mrs McLellan, and Germaine Yvonne, only daughter of the late Colonel Arnaud, of the French Army, and of Mrs Arnaud, will take place very quietly today in London.”
Hugh McLellan was the son of Charles Morton Stewart McLellan, a highly successful and prolific American writer of musical comedies for the stage. He had enjoyed major success in the West End in 1898-99 with “The Belle of New York”. This had toured overseas and been frequently revived. He resided at Earnshaw Cottage in Esher, a property previously owned by Charlotte Despard of the Women’s Freedom League. Hugh, born in New Jersey in 1895, had become a naturalized British citizen in December 1914 while studying at Trinity College, Oxford. His father had died in 1916, although the family was still involved in theatre via Hugh’s uncle, George Brinton McLellan, who would rise to be the managing director of the Wernher Group of West End playhouses. Hugh had tried his hand at writing for the theatre, had acted and would later become his wife’s manager. Otherwise he seems to have had a peripatetic career; in various places he is described as an amateur golfer, an actor, an academic and an accountant. When the couple moved to Effingham he would then become a pig farmer.
From the Pall Mall Gazette, October 28th 1920
With her ability to sing on stage compromised, Arnaud re-established herself in farces and comedies, enjoying early success in “Tons of Money”, the first in the hugely successful series known as the Aldwych Farces. This was the first venture of a new theatrical partnership. As W. MacQueen Pope wrote in “The Footlights Flickered” (p.94-95), as the curtain rose on the opening night of April 13th 1922, following a desperate battle to find investors, it could easily have fallen again on two new bankrupts. Instead “Tons of Money” lived up to its name. It ran for 737 performances and ushered in 13 years of lucrative and similar hits for the Aldwych. Arnaud played Louise Allington, wife to Ralph Lynn’s Aubrey and forever coming up with a new plan, each more preposterous than the preceding. It gave her a catchphrase – “I’ve got an idea”, a phrase to which Aubrey clings like a limpet in the hope that each new one will rescue them from their impecunious state. “Tons of Money” re-made Arnaud as a star of light comedy. She would return to the Aldwych Farces but such was her mastery of what was called the “comedy of pure fun”, she would have roles written specifically with her in mind. This was precision-tooled comedy, overlaid with Arnaud’s infectious humour and unique delivery. Audiences knew what to expect and even if the material was thin, her commitment and expertise were never in doubt.
The McLellans now lived in the heart of Belgravia, giving their address variously as 44 Eaton Mews North or Lyall Cottage, perhaps both referring to the same property. It would remain their home until the move to Effingham in the mid-1930s.
Arnaud’s next notable role was as Mrs. Pepys in J. B. Fagan’s “And So To Bed” which opened at the Queen’s Theatre on September 6th 1926. With Arnaud starring alongside Edmund Gwenn, this was another substantial, critical and commercial hit, with a run of 8 months. She then continued in the cast when the play transferred to the Shubert Theatre on Broadway in November 1927. Arnaud received praise on both sides of the Atlantic. The review in The Tatler published on September 29th 1926 began:
“Not for a long time have I enjoyed a new play so much as I enjoyed Mr. Fagan’s comedy on the Pepys menage, “And So To Bed”. It began rather slowly, and for a little while I thought it was going to be just a wee bit dull. But the moment Miss Yvonne Arnaud, as Mrs. Pepys, appeared on the scene she “lifted” the play to a wonderful extent. A great performance. Moreover, at her entrance the play itself seemed to get into its stride, so to speak, and for ever afterwards was enchanting.”
In New York The Brooklyn Times Union echoed this with:
“It was Yvonne Arnaud who ran away with the chief honours of the evening though. As Mrs. Pepys she is a joy.”
During the Broadway run, Sir John Gielgud was also appearing in New York for the first time. He mentions Arnaud in his autobiography “Backward Glances” (published by Hodder & Stoughton, 1972) saying she was “enchantingly kind” to him whenever they met (p.173). “And So To Bed” enjoyed a six month run in New York, Arnaud sailing back on June 11th 1928. This would be one of the highlights of Arnaud’s stage career. Oriel Malet mentions that the only portrait of Arnaud which came close to capturing her personality was of Arnaud in costume as Mrs. Pepys (shown above), saying it captured her strength and determination as well as the solemnity of the child prodigy she had been. It hung on the staircase in her Effingham home.
Yvonne Arnaud would appear only twice on Broadway, the second time in “Canaries Sometimes Sing”, a comedy play by the British writer Frederick Lonsdale. She initially appeared in its 1929 staging at The Globe Theatre, then sailed to the US in October 1930 to recreate the role at the Fulton Theatre. However it received poor notices, the Brooklyn Times Union this time branding it a “lean comedy”. Arnaud returned on December 12th 1930 and would not perform in America again. In the meantime a film version of the play had been released in the UK in September, as Arnaud relaunched her acting career on screen.
She reunited with J. B. Fagan on stage in “The Improper Duchess”, another substantial critical and audience success at The Globe which ran from January to November 1931. This united her on stage for the first time with soon-to-be fellow Effingham residents and actors, Winifred Oughton and Andreas Malandrinos, whose own stories are told here and here. All three would also be cast in a revival of “And So To Bed” that followed on in November at The Globe. Oughton in particular was a long-term friend, and would be Arnaud’s regular companion travelling back on the train from Waterloo to Effingham. “The Improper Duchess” was a satire on America, big oil and impoverished Ruritanian nobility. Arnaud would again reprise her role of the Duchess in the movie version three years later. This seems to have been a mixed blessing; her movie roles would ensure she stayed in the public eye when unable to work on the stage, and perhaps compensate for her no longer travelling abroad for work. However, interviewed for the Norwood News on April 1st 1932 she stated:
“There is nothing about making pictures at all, except that they make you get up early every morning for nothing at all. Often when you get there early you are not wanted until four o’clock in the afternoon, and if you do not do the thing right the first time it can be done again and again – a million times if necessary. Seldom is it a spontaneous performance.”
Arnaud’s grumpiness was understandable. It transpired at the end of the tour of “The Improper Duchess” that she had continued working while needing an operation for fibroids. The Daily Mirror reported (see right) on April 12th 1932 that she was in a Park Lane nursing home.
She was discharged a month later in May; she and Hugh were captured by a photographer for The Sphere.
She would not be seen on the stage again until the autumn.
Perhaps this brush with mortality encouraged Arnaud to expand her range into more serious roles. In February 1934 she appeared as Queen Katherine in Sir Oswald Stoll’s revival of Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Alhambra for which she received respectful reviews. However, although thereafter roles by the great comic writers of the age would be offered to her, Arnaud would mostly avoid serious dramas.
By 1935 the McLellans’ thoughts may have turned to escaping from London and putting distance between Arnaud’s professional and family lives. In a report in The Daily Mirror dated November 26th 1935 the McLellans were seen playing tennis at Norwood Farm by Effingham Common, guests of long-time friends Sir Nicholas and Lady Audrey Waterhouse:
“A loud report coincided with every double fault served by Miss Yvonne Arnaud over the weekend – not as a reprimand, but as a signal that her husband, Mr Hugh McLellan had accounted for another rabbit somewhere nearby.
She was playing tennis with Sir Nicholas Waterhouse and Lady Waterhouse on their hard court at Effingham, and with relentless energy repaired to the barn to play badminton as soon as it became dark.
Sir Nicholas Waterhouse, distinguished accountant, went to his study to stick in stamps, of which he has such a fine collection that he told me he bought the house entirely from the proceeds of his ‘swaps’.”
More about the Waterhouses can be read on our page here. We know that the Waterhouses and McLellans had been friends as far back as 1926, as shown by the tennis picture we include at the top of our page on the Waterhouses. Sir Nicholas in his privately-published “Reminiscences” described the tennis parties they enjoyed:
“He (Godfrey Winn) was a very fine [tennis] player and when I partnered him in doubles at our parties here I usually lay down under the net all the time except when I had to serve. In mixed doubles he often partnered Yvonne Arnaud and they made a wonderful pair. If I were on the other side my only chance would be to try and put them off their strokes by improper remarks.”
Godfrey Winn as an actor appeared in many plays and films but went on to write novels and became a star columnist on The Daily Mirror and The Sunday Express.
Arnaud’s sporting skills were not limited to tennis and badminton, as this photograph showing Arnaud playing table tennis demonstrates. She may have started with this sport in 1923, as an article from the Birmingham Gazette (March 10th 1923) described how she and Ralph Lynn had taken it up in order to keep in trim for their roles in “Tons of Money”.
ELHG-owned image from the Daily Mirror archive, captioned
“Miss Yvonne Arnaud playing in the Table Tennis Championships on Saturday last”
The Waterhouse / Arnaud circle of friends illuminates how she had also continued her musical career even after the loss of her singing voice. Lady Waterhouse’s friendship with the French violinist and impresario, André Mangeot, is discussed on our page on the Waterhouses. We know that Arnaud occasionally accompanied Mangeot’s International String Quartet as a pianist. For example, a flyer in the André Mangeot Archive (held in the Royal College of Music library) shows them performing together in May 1922 at St. John’s Institute in Tufton Street, the highlights being Bax’s Second Violin Sonata and the first performance in England of Honegger’s Violin Sonata. Another document in the archive indicates that both Arnaud and Lady Waterhouse were members of Mangeot’s Music Society in 1923. Indeed there is a letter in the archive, dated September 6th 1940, from the publishers Hutchinsons, in which they declined to publish Mangeot’s biography of Yvonne Arnaud. She may also have first met Sir John Barbirolli through his role as cellist in one of Mangeot’s string quartets, although Barbirolli’s official biography states that he met Arnaud when she overheard him playing in a theatre orchestra in 1923. Their friendship would last throughout her life with Arnaud frequently appearing in concert with Barbirolli. She also included a recording of Barbirolli conducting the Hallé’s performance of The Marriage of Figaro Overture, in her Desert Island Discs, broadcast in January 1951.
Yvonne Arnaud pictured in Norwood Farm, Effingham on June 16th 1937
Shown here by courtesy of the Historic England Archive (click to enlarge)
We can be reasonably sure that by 1937 the McLellans had taken up residence at their new home, Banks Way Farm in the north of Effingham parish, situated down a lane leading away eastwards from Effingham Junction railway station. The above photographs from the Historic England Archive were taken on June 16th 1937, but although they purport to show Arnaud in her new home they were actually taken in Norwood Farm. This was probably because Banks Way had not yet been completed. Godfrey Winn wrote in July 1937 in The Daily Mirror that the McLellans would be moving into Banks Way that month.
Farming in Wartime
One of the first things that the McLellans did was to establish a piggery holding 600 pigs. Godfrey Winn, writing in The Daily Mirror on March 11th 1937 indicated that this was part of their original plans:
“Yvonne Arnaud and her husband (are) in the process of moving into a most attractive home near Effingham. Mr Hugh McLellan is taking up pig farming and is most enthusiastic about it. So is his wife. ‘You must come one day and see Hugh’s pigs,’ Yvonne exclaimed. ‘The poor pig, he is a much maligned animal. He is not nearly so dirty as human beings pretend. Hugh’s piggery is spotless and to prove it I am going to give a house-warming party in it soon.’”
Monica German-Ribon née Mooney, who gave the History Group her oral reminiscences on May 22nd 2013, was a young girl living in Effingham at this time and painted a different picture of Yvonne Arnaud and her pigs:
“I went into the Land Army and I was sent to this pig farm run by Yvonne Arnaud’s husband, and I loved the pig farm and the pigs loved me! Yvonne Arnaud didn’t love the pigs and they didn’t love her very much. There was Basil the boar used to waddle towards me for back scratching every day … He [McLellan] had about 12 pigs and lots and lots of piglets and Basil the boar who I was very fond of. Yvonne Arnaud used to come down and look rather disdainfully at the pigs and sniff at them, that sort of thing and Basil would turn his back on her. She only came down once a week to see what was going on. I was only there for a month so I saw her about four times.”
The move to Effingham was initially spoiled by a burglary in the following November in which thieves scaled a ladder to break into Arnaud’s bedroom while she was away broadcasting. Although her dogs were barking furiously, the staff were oblivious, allowing the burglars to steal jewellery worth £2500. Some items were later found discarded on the railway. We have not found a record of anyone being apprehended for the theft.
Arnaud’s career was still in full flow and she used her stardom for good causes in her new home once the War had broken out. In March 1940 she appeared alongside Gerda Brown, the commandant of the local Red Cross detachment, to appeal for donations for the Finnish Comforts and Refugees Fund. After a performance she would always head home to Effingham, as Gielgud writes:
“She would not sleep in London during air raids but would send her dresser out to shop for her, rushing off to Waterloo as soon as the play was over laden with bags and parcels, and riding triumphantly in the guard’s van of a train to reach her country house, coaxing smiles and friendly help from everyone on the way.”
(Backward Glances, p.174)
She travelled back with her friend and fellow-actor Winifred Oughton, their sumptuous supper being noted in the Evening Telegraph of May 25th 1942 – a packet of sandwiches and a flask of coffee. Not that Effingham was always a safe destination. Writing to a Mrs. Salmon on September 30th 1940 she complained:
“We are in the front line here and we have air raids, bombs etc. on our fields and unpleasantly near.”
The letter from Arnaud to Mrs. Salmon can be viewed here:
There is a partial corroboration of this because we know that the raids on Brooklands by German bombers had started on July 24th. We also know from the evacuee Ronald George Burton, who was staying with the Waterhouses at Norwood Farm, that German aircraft had dropped incendiaries on and around Effingham Common, and this may be what Arnaud is referring to in the period between July and September 1940.
Winifred Oughton served as the first President of the Effingham Junction Women’s Institute which met at the Rowland Lubbock Hall at Effingham Junction after it formed in December 1940. Arnaud would often entertain the members on the piano. In April 1942 Oughton persuaded her co-stars from “The Nutmeg Tree”, Arnaud and Naomi Jacobs, to entertain a packed-to-the-rafters WI meeting, and followed this with a Shakespeare Festival on Monday November 16th. Arnaud accompanied Leslie French, the great Shakespearean actor of his day, on the piano performing songs from the Shakespearean canon. A fortnight later on Monday November 30th she was opening a Chinese Exhibition at Bookham First Aid Post, this time to publicise an “Aid to China” fund. Arnaud was eager to recommend Madame Chiang Kai-Shek’s philosophies of courage and determination.
The articles on the right, from The Surrey Advertiser, report the above three occasions.
This coincided with John Gielgud announcing at the start of November that he would be reviving Congreve’s “Love for Love” at the Phoenix Theatre after a nationwide tour, and that Yvonne Arnaud had been cast as Mrs. Frail. He writes in Backward Glances:
“Her technique was as unfailing as her instinct. One might have supposed that the elaborate verbiage of Congreve would have proved something of a problem for her … but she used her breathing and timing as cunningly as ever and rose to the challenge like a bird. She was the only leading actress I have ever known who looked forward to a first night with happy anticipation and really seemed to enjoy every single moment of it.”
(Backward Glances, p.174)
“Love for Love” transferred to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket and ran until May 1944.
Arnaud continued as part of its repertory company in Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle” and also toured Germany to entertain British Army troops on the Rhine as part of the ENSA organisation. This was followed by another Maugham adaptation, simply called “Jane”, in which Arnaud was partially cast against type as a dowdy but wealthy Liverpudlian widow who marries a much younger man.
If neither play was exactly tailored for Arnaud at her best, 1948 redeemed this with “Traveller’s Joy” at the Criterion Theatre, in which Arnaud played a scheming Englishwoman marooned abroad who has exhausted her traveller’s allowance (there were extensive restrictions on how much foreign exchange British travellers could take outside the country). The plot follows her ingenious attempts to escape her impoverishment. This was a perfect piece for Arnaud and helps us understand her comic persona from the critical adulation it received. This is from The Sketch published on July 21st 1948:
“It is strongly Yvonne Arnaud’s evening; comedy rides sparkling in her eyes and bubbles from her lips. She has a taking trill and an equally infectious gurgle. She will toss up an idea like a gay balloon, keep it hovering for a moment, then release another and another … Any Arnaud performance is effortlessly airborne though the apparent lack of effort needs an unremitting attention to technique … her performance in Traveller’s Joy must be a delight to a playgoer who has learned to admire those expressive hands, the twitch of the mouth, the flickering eyes, and the relish with which Miss Arnaud can decorate and colour the most innocent-seeming line.”
Arnaud and Leslie Banks, appearing in Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle”, outside the entrance to the E.N.S.A theatre in Iserlohn, pictured in The Sketch, September 19th 1945
under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans
An interview with Arnaud was published in Woman’s Journal in 1949. This was conducted at Banks Way Farm by Alan Ivimey, one of the people behind the inception of Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio. The full interview can be read via this button:
If Arnaud was feeling these roles were not stretching her, in her private life she was becoming more vocal for causes she believed in. Her presidency of the League Against Cruel Sports in 1948 began with a furious row covered in all the newspapers when the Duke of Beaufort weighed in against both Arnaud and an Anti-Blood Sports Bill then being debated in Parliament. The League condemned his remarks that labelled her a French actress who couldn’t know anything about hunting and how it should be conducted. Arnaud replied with withering Gallic sarcasm saying:
“The Duke must be a very charming man to say such nice things about my acting. But the days are gone when an actress was expected to know about nothing outside the theatre. Because my husband farms I know quite a bit about animals and hunting. Many of my friends hunt but they do not mention the subject because they know my views.”
(Manchester Evening News, February 16th 1949)
Any controversy over her views failed to hit receipts at the Criterion; “Traveller’s Joy” was still going strong and would not close until December 1950 when it had clocked up more than 900 performances. It would be the biggest hit of Arnaud’s career.
This was followed by a rare misstep when she was cast as a bitter ageing actress in “Colombe”, a play by Jean Anouilh translated and produced by Peter Brook. The critics agreed that Arnaud failed to be so detestable that she would justify her son’s hatred towards her, and that this unbalanced the rare moments of comedy in the play.
Much more successfully at the end of 1952 and into 1953 she played a witty and cultured mother in “Dear Charles” at the New Theatre, summoning her three children to inform them that the picture of the man they had assumed to be an absent father was in fact bought from a Brighton junk shop, and that each child had a different father. It was high comedy again and once more a substantial hit, running for a year. However, exhaustion and torn cartilage in her knee forced Arnaud to retire from the play which then closed in February 1954.
Time was catching up with her, even if Arnaud’s precise age remained in doubt. The Liverpool Echo called on her birthday on December 20th 1955 to wish her happy birthday, whether her 60th or 63rd. If her gravestone and obituary in The Times are to be believed, it was actually her 65th. There were more productions – Alan Melville’s “Mrs Willie” was another vehicle designed just for Arnaud, and he was duly rewarded with a hit which ran for a year from July 1955. And when she was not on stage there was a constant series of TV and radio programmes for her fans to lap up. Over-exposure does not seem to have been a concern for Yvonne Arnaud.
By the end of the run of “Mrs Willie” the McLellans had decided to sell Banks Way Farm. It was advertised in the West Sussex Gazette on July 12th 1956. The sale particulars by Weller, Son and Grinsted included 274 pure- and cross-bred pigs together with many farm implements and machinery. The sale took place at the Effingham farm.
Oriel Malet wrote that the McLellans sold up because of the difficulty in acquiring live-in domestic help. Anyone who has tramped over Effingham Common on a bleak winter’s day will recognise her description:
“No one will stay in such a lonely, out-of-the-way place, with a private drive, half a mile long as the only means of access. In winter when the rain lashes against the house and the fields are troughs of liquid clay, Bank’s Way seems a bleak and lonely place, shut away at the end of its long lane.”
The McLellans bought a small house at 35 London Rd, Guildford, living in a flat in Brighton while it was decorated. Arnaud returned to the stage in June 1957 in Robert Morley’s “Six Month’s Grace” at the Phoenix Theatre but the reviews were poor and after Arnaud contracted influenza, its opening night had to be put back.
There was to be one more farce, “A Ticklish Business”, which premiered in Brighton on Easter Monday, April 7th 1958 before being retitled “The Big Tickle” when it reached London. Arnaud played a South American pianist roping in burglars to raise money for dubious reasons. Maybe the plot was just too far-fetched as it managed only 27 performances before closing on June 14th.
Her final appearance may have been at the London Palladium for a midnight revue on July 24th called “Night of 100 Stars” in aid of the Actors’ Orphanage – Arnaud is listed amongst the crowd of celebrities who had promised to attend but we have not been able to find confirmation that she appeared on the night.
Illness and Death
A week later, on July 31st, Yvonne Arnaud suffered a stroke and collapsed in her garden while picking flowers. Oriel Malet stated that she was tired from the strain of moving house and the failure of her latest farce. She was alone, Hugh walking their dog and the visiting Malet was elsewhere. She was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital, Guildford and then transferred to the National Hospital in London, where a team of specialists operated and tried to save her life. She recovered consciousness in August but by September 6th was again giving great cause for concern. She died on September 20th 1958.
Her obituary in The Times was published two days later:
“Her death removes from the stage an actress of abundant charm: it was impossible to resist her. Yet she was much more than a delightful creature with whom every playgoer instantly fell in love; she was the wittiest of actresses too, witty in the essentially theatrical way in which a gesture has all the effect of an epigram.”
The Stage’s obituary, published on September 25th, expanded upon Arnaud’s unique genius:
“Her individual talent, refined to brilliance by an art which, in turn, was the outcome of unremitting concentration and work, remained fresh because she herself remained so. It appealed to younger generations as it continued to appeal to those who had seen Yvonne Arnaud long ago, because in its composition there was an eternal quality.
We have always had, and always will have, silly women who are gifted with wise inspirations; who chatter and get involved in ridiculous situations, yet who know exactly how to behave when real danger is near; who are at heart daring and original, and not merely stupidly reckless or wantonly affected. Yvonne Arnaud typified this type upon the stage, and generation after generation understood what it was all about.”
Her ashes were scattered at St. Martha’s churchyard on St. Martha’s Hill south-east of Guildford, a beautiful spot overlooking the Surrey Hills. Her gravestone (see right – click to enlarge) was erected against the boundary wall.
At far right here can be seen a brief article about her Will and charitable activities published in The Daily Mirror on December 31st 1958.
A memorial service was held in St. Martin in the Fields church in London at noon, Thursday October 16th. There was considerable surprise that in her Will she had left only £1593, a tiny amount after a lifetime of work and fame. A possible reason was that she had effectively worked for the love of it, without the commensurate salary expected for a top-line performer.
An alternative explanation was that although she had earned up to £10000 a year, she gave most of her wealth to animal charities, a view backed up by the then secretary of the League against Cruel Sports. This begs the question – did Arnaud deliberately choose to focus on material that she knew her audience wanted, so that these plays would have long runs and thus maximise the amount she could give away to charity? Could this explain why she rarely deviated into serious or challenging work?
Acclaim and Legacy
By May 1961 it had been decided that the new theatre in Guildford would bear her name. This opened four years later and continues to this day. However, despite being one of the very few women to star on the West End stage from the pre-World War 1 era right up to the late 1950s, and acknowledged by her contemporaries as one of the finest comic performers of her time, the memory of Yvonne Arnaud has since faded. This is probably because the films and plays she appeared in have largely not lasted. Scanning the list of her films, it is only the very last, Jacques Tati’s Oscar winning “Mon Oncle”, released in the year of her death, 1958, in which she had a supporting role, which is still seen as a classic. Few of her farces have been revived in London, “Tons of Money” being a rare exception. Hardly any recordings of Arnaud the pianist are available. There is no single archive of Arnaud’s copious correspondence, even though Hugh had apparently despaired at how many hours she spent at her desk writing to people all over the world. This mirrors an apparent lack of academic interest in re-evaluating her life and career. Perhaps this would have suited Germaine Arnaud, who kept her private life so exclusively out of reach that Eric Johns, trying to interview her during the run of “Traveller’s Joy”, came away empty-handed and despaired at Arnaud’s refusal to meet him even half-way.
The last word here belongs to Naomi Jacobs, with whom Yvonne Arnaud acted in “The Nutmeg Tree” and “Love for Love”. These are extracts from an appreciation she wrote for The Times on Friday September 26th 1958:
“As an actress she was superb and how she hated a bad play! How she would work at it, suggest alterations, improvements for her knowledge of stage craft was very great. Her real love was comedy not farcical comedy. In one of her last letters to me Yvonne Arnaud wrote ‘I hate farce. They want me to be a clown, and I loathe being a clown,’ How admirable she was in ‘Love for Love’: that scene played with Marion Spencer seated on a sofa was surely one of the most masterly exhibitions of polished comedy. It all looked so easy, no matter how often you listened to the scene; you felt that every line was being said for the first time.
Another great comedienne, Marie Lloyd, once told me that ‘You must make your audience love you – really love you.’ That was what Yvonne Arnaud did.”