Isabel Dean: A Versatile Actress of Stage, Film and Television
Isabel Dean (1918-1997) was an English actress who had a long and varied career in theatre, cinema and television. She was known for her elegant and refined appearance, as well as her ability to play both classical and contemporary roles. She worked with some of the most prominent directors and actors of her time, such as John Gielgud, Agatha Christie and Paul Scofield.
Dean was born Isabel Hodgkinson in Aldridge, Staffordshire, on 29 May 1918. She studied painting at Birmingham Art School and joined the Cheltenham Repertory Company as a scenic artist in 1937. She soon started acting with small parts and made her London debut in 1940 in an adaptation of Christie’s Peril at End House. She gained recognition for her performance as Jenny in Gielgud’s production of Congreve’s Love for Love at the Phoenix Theatre in 1943. She also understudied Peggy Ashcroft as Ophelia in Gielgud’s Hamlet at the Haymarket Theatre and played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Dean’s career was affected by her refusal to join Gielgud’s company for a tour of India in 1944, which angered the influential theatrical manager Binkie Beaumont. She rarely appeared in the West End afterwards, but continued to work in provincial theatres and on television. She played leading roles in Shakespearean plays, such as Juliet, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, as well as modern dramas, such as The Deep Blue Sea, Breaking the Code and The Hotel in Amsterdam. She also starred in several popular TV series, such as The Quatermass Experiment (1953), I, Claudius (1976) and Inspector Morse (1990).
Dean’s film career was less prominent, but she appeared in some notable movies, such as The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953), A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), Inadmissible Evidence (1968) and Five Days One Summer (1982). She was often cast as aristocratic or sophisticated women, but she also showed her versatility and range in different genres and roles.
Dean married the writer William Fairchild in 1953 and had two daughters with him. The marriage ended in divorce in the 1970s. Dean died on 27 July 1997 in Wandsworth, London, at the age of 79. She was remembered as a talented and versatile actress who never achieved the fame she deserved.
Some of the highlights of Dean’s stage career include her performance as Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at the Oxford Playhouse in 1954, which was praised by the critics for its emotional intensity and realism. She also played Alan Turing’s mother in Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in 1986, opposite Derek Jacobi as Turing. She received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for this role. Another memorable role was as Laurie in John Osborne’s The Hotel in Amsterdam at the same theatre in 1968 and 1971, with Paul Scofield as Leo. She portrayed a disillusioned actress who is part of a group of friends who escape to a hotel room to avoid their problems.
Dean’s television appearances spanned five decades and covered various genres and formats. She was one of the first actors to appear in a live science fiction series, The Quatermass Experiment, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1953. She played Judith Carroon, the wife of an astronaut who is infected by an alien organism after returning from space. She also appeared in several historical dramas, such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Elizabeth R (1971) and I, Claudius (1976), playing Lady Rochford, Lady Lennox and Domitia respectively. She also had guest roles in popular shows such as The Avengers (1967), The Saint (1968) and Inspector Morse (1990), where she played Mrs. Murdoch, a murder suspect.
Dean’s film roles were often supporting parts, but she made an impression with her screen presence and elegance. She played Mrs. Gilbert, the wife of the composer Arthur Sullivan, in The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953), a biographical musical directed by Sidney Gilliat. She also played Alice Thornton, the mother of one of the children kidnapped by pirates in A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), a swashbuckling adventure based on the novel by Richard Hughes. She also had a memorable scene as Mrs. Gamsey, a witness who is cross-examined by Nicol Williamson’s lawyer in Inadmissible Evidence (1968), an adaptation of John Osborne’s play. Her last film role was as Kate’s mother in Five Days One Summer (1982), a romantic drama directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Sean Connery.