22 December 2014

Billie Whitelaw (1932-2014)

Acclaimed British actress Billie Whitelaw, famous for her roles on stage and screen, has died yesterday at the age of 82. The Coventry-born star, who was made a CBE in 1991, worked in close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, who described her as a perfect actress. She gained an international audience for her role as the chilling Mrs Baylock in the horror film The Omen.

Billie Whitelaw (1932-2014)
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 2420, 1965. Photo: publicity still for The Comedy Man (Alvin Rakoff, 1964) featuring Kenneth More.

Willowy good looks

Billie Honor Whitelaw was born in Coventry on 6 June 1932. Her family moved to Bradford to escape German bombing. Her father died from lung cancer there when his daughter was just 10.

When the young Billie developed a stutter, her mother enrolled her in a local drama group in an effort to boost her daughter's confidence. Her drama training secured her some spots on BBC North's Children's Hour. Her stage debut came at the Prince's Theatre, Bradford, in a 1950 performance of Pink String and Sealing Wax.

Her willowy good looks also made her something of a regular face in British films of the decade. She made her film debut in Joseph Losey's first British feature The Sleeping Tiger (1954), followed by roles in the war drama Carve Her Name With Pride (Lewis Gilbert, 1958) and Hell Is a City (Val Guest, 1960), starring Stanley Baker.

After working with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop she joined the National Theatre, playing Desdemona to Laurence Olivier's Othello at the Chichester Festival in 1964.

Billie Whitelaw met the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, with whom she would enjoy a 26-year professional relationship. She became his muse. He would write parts in experimental plays for her which she would often perform to the point of exhaustion.

Her first performance in a Beckett work was Play, which had its London debut in 1964. Many of the parts were physically and emotionally demanding. In Happy Days she was buried up to her waist in sand for her performance.

She stopped performing Beckett's works when he died in 1989 but she remained the keeper of his flame through her one-woman lecture tours.

In 1966, she divorced her first husband, actor Peter Vaughan, bringing to an end what had become an increasingly troubled relationship.

Hayley Mills
Hayley Mills. East-German postcard by VEB Progress Film-Vertrieb, Berlin, no. 3042, 1968. Photo: Warner Bros.

Chilling nanny

In the mid1960s, Billie Whitelaw was attracting bigger film parts. There were Baftas for her performance opposite Albert Finney in Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney, 1967) and for her role as the mother of Hayley Mills in the psychological thriller, Twisted Nerve (Roy Boulting, 1968).

Billie Whitelaw won much acclaim for her portrayal of Mrs Baylock, the chilling nanny of the demon child Damien in The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976). Many critics felt she gave the best performance in the film and it won her an Evening Standard Award for Best Actress.

She also won praise for her role as the fiercely domineering and protective mother of the psychopathic Kray twins in The Krays (Peter Medak, 1990), which featured Spandau Ballet's Martin and Gary Kemp as her notorious sons.

After she stopped in the theatre, she did continue to act in films, such as in Quills (Philip Kaufman, 2000) with Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet) and the comedy Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007). During her career, she appeared in more than 50 films.

Billie Whitelaw also found happiness with the writer and actor Robert Muller, whom she met in 1967 and with whom she had a son. Robert Muller died in 1998.

Whitelaw spent her final four years in Denville Hall, the retirement home for actors in north London, which was supported by Richard Attenborough. She died there in the early hours of Sunday 21 December 2014.

Trailer for Hell Is a City (1960). Source: leatherface1111 (YouTube).

Trailer for The Omen (1976). Source: Video Detective (YouTube).

Sources: Kevin Rawlinson (The Guardian), BBC, Wikipedia and IMDb.

Udo Jürgens (1934-2014)

Udo Jürgens, one of the biggest stars and entertainers in the German speaking countries, died yesterday, 21 December 2014. His music spanned several generations. In 1966, he was the first and only Austrian winner of the Eurovision Song Contest with Merci, Chérie. The Austrian composer and singer has written more than 800 songs and sold over 100 million records. He also appeared in some light entertainment films during the 1950s and 1960s. Jürgens collapsed while out for a walk near his Switzerland home. He died of heart failure in a hospital in Münsterlingen, Switzerland. Udo Jürgens was 80 years old.

Udo Jürgens
Dutch postcard by Uitg. en druk. 't Sticht, Utrecht, no. AX 6560.

Udo Jürgens (1919-2014)
Spanish postcard by Oscarcolor, no. 373.

Udo Jürgens
German postcard by Filmbilder-Vertrieb Ernst Freithoff, Essen, no. 6926.

Cross-Dressing Farces

Udo Jürgens was born as Udo Jürgen Bockelmann in Klagenfurt, Austria in 1934. His wealthy family lived in Schloss Ottmanach (Ottmanach Castle), where he grew up with his brothers John, later a businessman, and Manfred, now a respected painter.

In 1948, Udo started studying piano, harmony, composition and singing at the Conservatory of Klagenfurt. Just 16, he won a composer contest organized by Austria's public broadcasting channel ORF with the song Je t'aime (1950). His success built from there over the next decade.

In 1957 he performed a song in the Schlagerfilm Die Beine von Dolores/Night Club (Géza von Cziffra, 1957) starring Germaine Damar, and a year later he appeared in the crime comedy Lilli - ein Mädchen aus der Großstadt/Lilli, a girl from the big city (Hermann Leitner, 1958) with Adrian Hoven.

He was one of the participants of the German delegation that won the Knokke Song festival in Belgium in 1960. His song Jenny became a number 1 hit in the Belgian charts.

In 1961, he wrote the worldwide hit Reach for the Stars, sung by Shirley Bassey. That year he appeared in the Schlagerfilm Und du mein Schatz bleibst hier/And you My Dear, stay here (Franz Antel, 1961), starring Vivi Bach.

The following years he could be seen in more of such mediocre fare, like in the cross-dressing farces Unsere tollen Tanten/Our Great Aunts (Rolf Olsen, 1961), Unsere tollen Tanten in der Südsee/Our Great Aunts in the Southsea (Rolf Olsen, 1963), Unsere tollen Nichten/Our Great Nieces (Rolf Olsen, 1963) all co-starring Günther Philipp and Gus Backus, and Drei Liebesbriefe aus Tirol/Three love letters from Tyrol (Werner Jacobs, 1962) with Ann Smyrner.

In 1964, he represented Austria for the first time at the Eurovision Song Contest with the song Warum nur warum?, finishing sixth. The UK participant, Matt Monro, was impressed with the melody and covered the song with English lyrics as Walk Away. This version reached number four in the UK Singles Chart and number 23 in the US Billboard Hot 100.

Jürgens' song Sag ihr, ich lass sie grüßen came fourth in 1965's contest. In 1966 he finally won the Eurovision Song Contest with Merci, Chérie. This song became an English-language hit for Vince Hill, another cover by Monro, and one of Jürgens' most recognized compositions. Jürgens' version alone sold over one million copies, and he was awarded a gold disc by Deutsche Vogue.

In 1966, he also played in the Italian-German musical La battaglia dei mods/Crazy Baby (Franco Montemurro, 1966) with Ricky Shayne. But the following decades he mostly appeared on TV for the cameras.

Udo Jürgens
Italian postcard. Photo: SAAR.

Udo Jürgens (1934-2014)
German postcard by Filmbilder-Vertrieb Ernst Freihoff, Essen, no. AX 7081. Photo: Ariola.

Udo Jürgens
Swiss promotion card by Ariola. Photo: M. Bockelmann.

The Man With The Bassoon

During the 1970s, Udo Jürgens wrote some of his most famous songs, like Griechischer Wein (1975, Come Share The Wine), Aber bitte mit Sahne (1977, I'll have whipped cream with that), and Mit 66 Jahren (1978, At 66). He is credited with broadening German-language pop music beyond the traditional post-war Schlager by infusing it with a modern pop appeal.

One of his biggest successes was Buenos Días, Argentina, which he performed together with the German national football team in 1978. In 1979, he released a disco album entitled Udo '80. It produced a hit song Ich weiß was ich will (I Know What I Want).

The following Udo ’80 tour became with 330.000 visitors in 110 concerts his most successful concert tour till then. Three years later he broke this record with more than 400.000 visitors in 123 concerts. And his Ohne Maske tour in 1989 attracted 410.000 visitors during 107 concerts. A new record made his 1994-1995 tour with about 500.000 visitors in 140 concerts.

In 2007, the musical Ich war noch niemals in New York (I've never been to New York) opened in Hamburg's Operettenhaus. It weaved songs by Jürgens into a familial storyline. In 2011 he played the lead in the TV mini-series Der Mann mit dem Fagott/The man with the bassoon (Miguel Alexandre, 2011). The mini-series was based on Jürgens’ own autobiographical novel and won two awards in Germany and Austria.

Udo Jürgens’ exceptionally tuneful compositions and sophisticated arrangements continue to attract fans of all ages. Even in his 70’s he filled the largest concert venues in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

He married and divorced twice: first to Erika Meier (1964-1989) and then to Corinna Reinhold (1999-2006). He had two children from his first marriage, singer, actor and DJ John Jürgens (1964), and actress Jenny Jürgens (1967). He also had two illegitimate children, Sonja and actress Gloria Burda.

Scene from Unsere tollen Tanten/Our Great Aunts (1961) with Trude Herr. Source: Sablinef (YouTube).

Udo Jürgens sings Nobody knows the trouble I've seen & Maria (1966). Source: Fritz 51139 (YouTube).

Udo Jürgens sings Merci Cherie at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1966. Source: Escbelgium3 (YouTube).

Sources: Dave Thompson (AllMusic), Udo Jü, Wikipedia and IMDb.