Friday, 11 May 2012

bare bones of the story

Michael Rathborne and Diana van Proosdy, c.1950
     Diana van Proosdy (born 24 November 1929), one of the most talented and under-used actresses of her generation, died on Friday 17 August 2007.

   She trained at Central School of Speech and Drama in the late 1940s. In the year above was her future husband, and best friend, until his premature death, Michael Rathborne (1923 -1971).

   Other strong bonds of friendship were made in those days, extended into the next generation. Five of her contemporaries attended her funeral on 24th August, 2007, and others sent condolences and written tributes. 

    While still at drama school, Diana was picked by Orson Welles to be Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, a film which never got made. She acted in her first weekly rep season at Whitby, where she also designed, painted and built sets which exercised her lifelong practical and imaginative gifts in creating elegant fantasy and humorous realism. Her favourite parts at Whitby included the eponymous mermaid in Miranda and Margaret in Dear Brutus.  It was also at Whitby that she and Michael fell in love and played opposite each other in, amongst other productions, Young Wives' Tale.

    After Central, Diana immediately went into Repertory
(including Northampton, Ipswich, Luton and Richmond) and subsequently into the West End, where she worked regularly for most of her career, often having to except understudying jobs to make ends meet. Her first part in a feature film was opposite Peter Finch in Father Brown (1954).

    In the days following her death, the following tributes came in from fellow-actors: "a sublime actress"; "a fine actress and a brave lady"; "her love of the theatre always came through"; "a great raconteur of theatrical stories"; "a quality all of her own, like no-one else". Her last agent called her "truly inspirational", a recognition from a younger generation that Diana exemplified an ideal of being an actor, which has almost died out.

    Diana's dark, "almost exotic", ever-youthful good looks inherited from her Dutch father were combined with a typically English restraint and dry humour, inherited from her mother. She had natural glamour, a warm, deep voice with perfect clarity and diction, unstrained poetic force, physical grace and a superbly light comedic touch, with faultless timing.

    She had ├ęclat and star quality without being stagey. She could as convincingly portray a gutsy North London woman scorned (Mavis in The Football Factory, film 2004), an outraged schoolmistress in Ali G Indahouse, film 2002) as an impeccably reserved Queen and a magnificently flippant, stunningly dressed West End leading lady (Alan Bennett's Single Spies, NT production, West End, 1989). 
    Conveying strength of purpose without being hard or affected, she excelled at grandes dames of every class, most recently Mrs Boyle in The Mousetrap (in which she had been a dashing Miss Casewell forty years earlier); a variety of characters, all of which she brought to life with humour, inventive stage-craft and truthful observation, in the Agatha Christie season at Westcliff (2001); Mrs Birling in An Inspector Calls (NT production in the West End, 1995) and the Duchess of Maryborough in An Ideal Husband (West End and tour, 1992-97). 

    She was brilliantly suited in style and intelligence for period comedy, especially Wilde, Pinero (Miss Limbird in The Gay Lord Quex, Albery Theatre, 1975) and Coward (Blithe Spirit national tour,1980) and infused Ayckbourn's contemporary comedy of manners with vitality and sympathetic characterization (How The Other Half Loves, tour and Lyric Theatre, 1970 -72).

    Diana always enjoyed the theatrical life, laughing at its joys and absurdities, never complaining of its hardships and disappointments. She made the best out of every part, however small, and of every show she was in, being a delightful, light-hearted companion backstage and on tour. Socially, she "could be camp", as some of her theatre friends recalled, because above all Diana loved to amuse other people, and to laugh, but she was always herself. She brought her own joie de vivre to the stage.
Diana loved and understood theatre; it owes her a lot. She was married to the actor Michael Rathborne from 1954 until his death in 1971, and their daughter is an actress.

© Pippa Rathborne 2008

Photo of Michael Rathborne and Diana van Proosdy in Young Wives' Tale 
by Tindale's Photographers, Whitby, Yorks. c.1950.

First published in a slightly different version on Rogues and Vagabonds Theatre Website, 29 August 2007, at the very kind invitation of the editor, Sarah Vernon