Glynis Johns

BFI Obituary in 2024

Glynis Johns obituary: veteran British star of Mary Poppins and Miranda

Johns, who has died aged 100, had a long-running career in film, TV and theatre, playing the mermaid in Miranda and the suffragette mother in Disney’s Mary Poppins.

8 January 2024

By Josephine Botting

Publicity portrait of Glynis Johns for Mad About Men (1954) © Group Film Productions. Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Interviewed in March 1973, Glynis Johns reflected on the advice her father, actor Mervyn Johns, had given her early in her acting career at the age of 12. “He said ‘Always listen for your cue,’” she recalled. “That is good advice both on stage and in life. Listen for your cue and then act on it.”

By this time, Johns’ cues had taken her in many different directions. She had appeared in over 50 films, had survived cancer, and her fourth and final marriage, to American author Elliott Arnold, was nearing divorce. She summed up her marital history wryly: “For me, most relationships with men have been like pregnancies. They last about nine months.”

Yet on a professional level, she had hit a new peak, having just won a Tony Award for her performance on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Sondheim, who described her voice as like “an unmade bed”, famously wrote the show-stopping song ‘Send in the Clowns’ especially for her, and she included it in her Desert Island Discs in 1976.

Johns was born on 5 October 1923 in South Africa, apparently on a train transporting her theatrical family as they toured the country. She was the fourth generation of performers on her father’s side, while her mother was an accomplished pianist, and she made her stage debut at three weeks’ old.

Johns (right) with Deborah Kerr in Perfect Strangers (1945)
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Dance was an early passion, and her first professional performance was in a children’s Christmas show at the Garrick Theatre in December 1935. This brought her to the attention of actor Leo Genn who encouraged her to audition for the part of Napoleon’s daughter in the play St Helena. After seeing her in The Children’s Hour, Alexander Korda snapped her up for London Films, and her first screen role was in South Riding in 1938 as Ralph Richardson’s daughter.

Film roles dried up when war broke out, and she considered learning secretarial skills as a fall-back; luckily Michael Powell intervened and she replaced Elisabeth Bergner in his 1941 war drama 49th Parallel, kickstarting her film career.

The British film industry was not quite sure where to place the 5 foot 4 inch husky-voiced actor, but she eventually graduated from minor roles. Ealing Studios and Alexander Korda respectively gave her excellent supporting parts in The Halfway House (1944) and Perfect Strangers (1945), two very different but equally powerful reflections on the British wartime experience.

Her first top billing came in 1948 in Miranda, as a mermaid who inadvertently captivates every man she meets. The film was a huge hit, and its success hinged firmly on her performance, which skilfully balanced childlike innocence with a heavily suggestive flirtatiousness that raised a few eyebrows at the time.

As the eponymous mermaid in Miranda (1948)
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Her stature and youthful looks meant that femme fatale roles rarely came her way, and she tended towards fun-loving or practical types. Yet her talent and versatility saw her move between drama, comedy and musicals, and between film, television and theatre during the seven decades of her career.

As suffragette Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins (1964)
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

High points included a move to Hollywood in the mid-50s, appearing in The Court Jester (1955) with Danny Kaye, a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for The Sundowners in 1961, and her much-loved performance as Winifred Banks in Disney’s 1964 film Mary Poppins. Throughout the 1970s, her theatrical career burgeoned, her performance in Terence Rattigan’s Cause Célébre winning her the Variety Club actress of the year award in 1978.

Among the lows were the closure of Enid Bagnold’s play Gertie on Broadway after just four nights in 1952, mounting debts over back taxes in the early 60s, the break up of four marriages and two engagements, and a battle with alcoholism. Her first marriage, to Anthony Forwood, produced her only child, Gareth, who predeceased her in 2007.

Yet Johns remained resilient, turning to Christian Science and yoga and espousing a healthy lifestyle based on a macrobiotic diet. As she approached middle age, screen roles cultivated her endearing, slightly eccentric qualities. She even got her own US sitcom entitled Glynis, a screwball precursor of Murder She Wrote, with Johns as a sleuthing would-be writer. In 1983, she appeared in Cheers as the upper-class mother of Shelley Long’s character Diane.

Johns approached every role with energy and focus, and her irrepressible humour and vivacity ensured her popularity. While the peaks of her screen career are memorable, a film industry that fully appreciated her talents would have given her many more of them, and it was the theatre that brought her the genuine celebrity she deserved.

Her spirit and determination got her to her 100th birthday, celebrated last year at a Hollywood retirement home. “I do sometimes feel very disappointed that I’ve achieved more as an actress than as a person,” she once confessed. Yet the outpouring of affection that greeted the news of her passing has sparked a well-deserved celebration of those achievements, which continue to bring joy to audiences of all generations.

  • Glynis Johns, 5 October 1923 to 4 January 2024

Daily telegraph obituary


Glynis Johns, the actress, who has died aged 100, rose to fame in the late 1940s and early 1950s in a series of film comedies; she became best-known for playing the suffragette mother Mrs Banks in the Walt Disney classic Mary Poppins, while on stage her distinctive, husky voice – described by one critic as sounding like “a princess who is turning into a frog” – was perfect for Send in the Clowns in A Little Night Music, the Broadway hit for which she won a Best Musical Actress Tony award.

She had mistakenly formed the impression that she was up for the title role in Mary Poppins, and was placated by Walt Disney, who told her that the songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman had written a big number for her that they would play for her after lunch. The brothers rapidly set to work and produced in short order the rousing Sister Suffragette.

There was no such confusion in A Little Night Music: Stephen Sondheim wrote Send in the Clowns especially for her, playing the role of the courtesan Desiree in a complicated tale of emotional The show had gone into rehearsal with both book and score unfinished, she recalled, and its director Hal Prince suggested that she and her co-star Len Cariou improvise a couple of scenes to give the book writer Hugh Wheeler a few ideas.

“Hal said: ‘Why don’t you just say what you feel?’ When Len and I did that, he got on the phone to Steve Sondheim and said, ‘I think you’d better get in a cab and get round here and watch what they’re doing because you are going to get the idea for Glynis’s solo.’”

Suitably inspired, Sondheim employed shorter phrasing to suit her smoky voice and her inability to sustain long notes. She described it as “the greatest gift I’ve ever been given in the theatre”.

Throughout her long career Glynis Johns, who was billed at first as “the girl with the upside-down eyes”, was most often cast in comic roles; she played Deborah Kerr’s jaunty military chum in Alexander Korda’s Perfect Strangers (1945), a sophisticated mermaid in Miranda (1948) – which she said was her own favourite film – and its sequel Mad About Men (1954); she also appeared opposite Danny Kaye in The Court  Jester”.  Although she always presented a witty, vivacious public image, Glynis Johns was described by acquaintances as “shy, wary and insecure”. She claimed that she was “the most intolerant, impatient person in the world” and surprised her fans by her intense and highly disciplined approach to her profession.

Latterly she was better known in the US than in Britain. She appeared in a considerable number of network television series and for a time had her own show, Glynis. Continuing ill health stopped her from performing as often as she would have liked, and by the end of her career Glynis Johns was spending a great deal of her time meditating and resting. “I have to have a lot of rest and be alone a lot of the time” she said. “If I can be alone, doing my exercises and puttering about, I’m fine.”

She admitted to a growing interest in Christian Science and metaphysics. “I couldn’t have got through my illness without metaphysics,” she said. “I firmly believe that what happens to the body is a manifestation of your thoughts.” No doubt wanting to keep all options open, she also claimed that she believed in what she called “little people”, and insisted that she would take a firm stand on their existence until someone positively proved her wrong.

But her dedication to her craft was firmly rooted in the material world. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m not interested in playing the role on only one level,” she said in 1990. “The whole point of first-class acting is to make a reality of it. To be real. And I have to make sense of it in my own mind in order to be real.”Glynis Margaret Payne Johns was born on October 5 1923 in South Africa while her parents, the actor Mervyn Johns and the pianist Alys Steele-Payne, were touring in a musical review, and she made her theatrical debut when three weeks old, appearing as “the baby”. Her maternal grandparents, members of a well-known Australian bell-ringing act, were devout Christian Scientists, as was her mother, and young Glynis was brought up to believe in the healing power of prayer.

The family moved back to London when Glynis was five. She attended South Hampstead High School, where she was a contemporary of Angela Lansbury. She studied ballet and became a child prodigy, gaining her teaching certificates aged 10 and making her professional debut two years later. “I never had enough time to be silly as a child,” she recalled. “Mistakes on stage are too serious to make so I didn’t make any.” In 1935, aged 12, she appeared as the principal ballerina in the pantomime Buckie’s Bears; the child originally cast as the lead was taken ill and she stepped into the role with no rehearsal.

Glynis rapidly made a reputation for herself as a reliable child actress, appearing in a variety of plays including the lead in A Kiss for Cinderella (1937) and Miranda in Quiet Wedding (1938). She made her film debut in South Riding in 1938 after being given a contract by Alexander Korda and subsequently appeared in a series of British films including Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1942) and The Adventures of Tartu.   Glynis Johns gained “film star” status in 1945 when she played Deborah Kerr’s tomboy friend in Perfect Strangers. In 1948 she starred in Miranda as the mermaid who tires of the sea and comes ashore. The film was a hit and led to offers of other lead roles.

Glynis Johns was divorced for the first time in 1948; she had married Anthony Forwood in 1942 and had a son, Gareth. Anthony Forwood would go on to become Dirk Bogarde’s partner and manager. In 1952 she was married for a second time, to David Foster, a Second World War hero who became the chairman of Colgate Palmolive International; that year she starred as a Channel Islander who helps to smuggle a prize cow out of Nazi hands in Appointment with Venus, opposite David Niven.

She also co-starred with Alec Guinness in The Card (1952), in which she played an ingenuous dance teacher. The following year she made an inauspicious Broadway debut in Gertie, which closed after only five performances.

She returned to Britain and made a sequel to Miranda: in Mad About Men (1954) she resumed the role of sophisticated mermaid, starring opposite .  When Glynis Johns moved to Hollywood in 1955, her combination of tomboy good-looks and husky, seductive voice confused casting agents. They cast her first as the virtuous Maid Jean opposite Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (1955) and then in a cameo role as “Sporting Lady’s Companion” in Around the World in Eighty Days (1956).

By then she had begun to suffer from ill health; she was admitted to hospital for a stomach operation and returned to hospital for numerous operations throughout her career. The following year she was divorced for the second time and remained in Hollywood, taking leading roles in films for Universal, United Artists and Paramount.

In 1960 she appeared, again with Deborah Kerr, in the excellent The Sundowners, which starred Robert Mitchum; she was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of a blowsy Australian innkeeper. In a quirk of casting, her suitor in the film was played by her own father. (Following the death of Olivia de Havilland in 2020, she became the oldest surviving actor to have received an Oscar nomination.)

For the remainder of the decade Glynis Johns stayed in the US, where she appeared regularly on television in shows such as The Naked City and General Electric Theatre. After her third divorce in 1962 (she had married Cecil Henderson in 1960) she underwent another operation for cancer of the stomach. “Not living in harmony makes me ill,” she recalled, “I’m sure these terrible worries have contributed to my cancer.” But she made a remarkable recovery after her operation and three weeks later appeared in an episode of Dr Kildare.

In 1963 she starred in her own series, Glynis, playing a murder mystery writer who solves real murders. The series flopped badly and was taken off the air after 13 weeks, and she returned to making films, turning in good performances in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1962) and Mary Poppins two years later. She was married for the last time in 1964, to the writer Elliot Arnold.

In the late 1960s Glynis Johns retired from film and theatre work in order to devote herself to family life. Her health remained poor and she underwent several more operations for cancer. But she eventually decided that she preferred performing to domesticity and after 16 years in the US she returned to the theatre in Britain, starring in a 1966 run of the Anita Loos comedy The King’s Mare, but was forced to leave the show when she found the nightly two-hour performance too taxing.

For Mary Poppins her role was made into a suffragette to explain her absences and the need for a nanny. There was some criticism of the fact that, although she was a proto-feminist out of the house, at home she was conventionally subservient to Mr Banks (David Tomlison); this, however, was not a decision made by her.

In 1970 she starred in John Mortimer’s  Come As You Are. “I used to suffer terribly from stage fright before that show,” she recalled, “but after having to do four little plays every night on a revolving stage with different characters, different accents and different costumes for each, I feel I’ve conquered it.”

Her performance in A Little Night Music in 1973 prompted one critic to praise her as “adorable”, while another described her as “fitting her role as snugly as a Gibson Girl’s girdle”, but her success was marred by another bout of illness which resulted in her leaving the show for some time.

In 1976 she returned to London for a production of Terence Rattigan’s Cause Célèbre. Cast against type as an accessory to a murder, she received standing ovations. The production was extremely successful, but as in the past she had to pull out of the show because of ill health. She underwent another operation for cancer in 1977.

During the remainder of the 1970s and 1980s Glynis Johns appeared in very few productions. “The fact is I’m hardly ever offered anything I consider good,” she said. “If I was I’d do more.”

In 1978 she did appear in the ITV production Across a Crowded Room and followed it with a UK tour of Hay Fever opposite Christopher Plummer. After nearly a decade she returned to television in 1982 to play Lady Fitzpatrick Morgan in the mini-series Little Gloria… Happy at Last. That year she also appeared in the American sitcom Cheers, as an eccentric dowager. Two years later, in 1984, she toured Canada in The Boyfriend and in 1985 co-starred with Plummer again, in Peccadillo.

She returned to A Little Night Music in 1991, playing Desiree’s mother Madame Armfeldt, and for the rest of the decade she had a few cameo roles, including the 1995 romcom starring Sandra Bullock, While You Were Sleeping. Her final appearance was in the 1999 comedy Superstar.

When not acting Glynis Johns spent most of her time at her home. “I do a lot” she recalled, “painting, dancing, playing the flute, writing poetry, doing my exercises, but I do it all slowly.”

She was married and divorced four times and suffered from ill health for much of her career.

Glynis Johns’s four marriages all ended in divorce. Her son Gareth Forwood predeceased her in 2007.

Glynis Johns, born October 5 1923, died January 4 2024

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