COUNTY NEWS: Tributes paid to Sussex musical theatre star

JPCT 270913 Violetta. Photo by Derek Martin ENGPPP00320130930102519
JPCT 270913 Violetta. Photo by Derek Martin ENGPPP00320130930102519

Violetta, the French musical comedy actor who starred in the original London productions of Sandy Wilson’s musicals including The Boy Friend’, died yesterday (Thursday, July 16) at Worthing Hospital.

She had suffered a fall at her home in Southwater, near Horsham, aged 91.

Photo - Jeremy Grayson ENGSUS00120130926135806

Photo - Jeremy Grayson ENGSUS00120130926135806

The vibrant, roguish and bubbly French singer, dancer and comedienne, who escaped from occupied France and arrived in London as a teenager during the Blitz, had a stage and screen career spanning 50 years, during which she appeared with such legendary performers as Peter Ustinov, Hattie Jacques, Clive Dunn, Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier and Cornel Wilde.

The musical star Sheila Mathews, who lives in Southwick, and who appeared with her on many occasions at London’s Players Theatre, said today: “She was a lovely light-hearted person who was adored in the entertainment profession for her wonderful generosity, both personal and professional, to her friends and fellow performers.”

Always billed only by her first name, Violetta had a five-year West End run from 1954-1959 as Hortense, the dizzy and irrepressible French maid in the hit musical, The Boy Friend, in which she stopped the show nightly with her number, ‘It’s Nicer in Nice’.

In the 1965 sequel to the show, Divorce Me, Darling!, in which she reappeared as Hortense, she had another show-stopper with the number, ‘Paradise Hotel’.

Violetta Becket-Williams, the daughter of an English father and of a French concert pianist, was born in Kensington, London, on September 27, 1923, but grew up in a small village in the Pyrenees.

She studied music at the Paris Conservatoire. Her parents were in England when World War Two began in 1939, and as the Germans occupied her country, Violetta fled Paris and travelled south to Vichy France, where she boarded the last coal ship leaving Nice for Tangiers. She arrived in London during the Blitz, aged just 16, and joined the Free French Army, becoming involved in Forces Entertainment.

“On my arrival in London we went straight to an air-raid shelter” she said in an interview given on her 90th birthday. “I had had no idea about the bombardment of London. It was quite a shock!”.

Of her teenage concerts to the service-men she said: “The poor soldiers had to sit through it. I was so bad at the beginning! And they couldn’t leave because there was a sergeant on the door!”.

In 1947, she made her first appearance in the celebrated Late Joys bills of Victorian music-hall at London’s Players Theatre, where she specialised in roguish and suggestive French chansons, mostly written and directed for her by the comedienne Hattie Jacques. At the Players she worked alongside Peter Ustinov and Clive Dunn, later the star of television’s Dad’s Army.

In 1949, she married one of the three directors of the Players, Gervase Farjeon, son of the West End revue writer Herbert Farjeon, who had won fame with his 1920s song, ‘I Danced with a Man, Who Danced with a Girl, Who Danced with the Prince of Wales’.

It was at the Players Theatre in 1953 that the first trial run was presented of the musical, The Boy Friend, set in the 1920s, in which Sandy Wilson had written the role of the outrageous French maid, Hortense, specially for Violetta.

From the moment that the curtain rose on the set of the Villa Caprice in Nice, with Violetta perched on the edge of the sofa, telephone receiver in one hand and feather duster held aloft in the other, audiences took the show to their hearts.

It transferred in 1954 to Wyndhams Theatre, where it was to run for five years and 2,084 performances.

Sandy Wilson recalled that her hit song in the show, ‘It’s Nicer in Nice’, ended with “a miniature Follies routine, in which Violetta skipped and cavorted round the stage in company with the boys and girls, receiving her calls at the end in a plethora of bobs and kisses which she herself remembered from her childhood, when a touring revue visited the village in the Pyrenees where she was living”.

Wilson also recalled that this dance routine was “so vigorous that at many performances her vital assets often popped out of her costume and were on full display to the astonished audience”.

In 1956, during the run of The Boy Friend, Violetta appeared in a cameo role in the film, The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier.

“It was lovely”, she recalled, “because she (Monroe) never used to turn up on the set, and we were paid by the day!”

In the 1960s, Violetta appeared on television in the series, Harpers West One (1961), in Somerset Maugham’s The Creative Impulse (1962), and in another TV series, Sergeant Cork (1964). She was also seen with Cornel Wilde, Brian Aherne and George Baker in the film, Lancelot and Guinevere (1963).

Fluent in English, French, Spanish and German, she even took to the television screens in the 1970s in a BBC-1 series, S’il vous Plait, teaching viewers how to speak French.

Divorce Me, Darling!, the 1965 West End sequel to The Boy Friend, in which she reappeared as Hortense, gave Violetta another show-stopping number, ‘Paradise Hotel’.

Violetta continued to appear on stage at the Players Theatre in Late Joys, and also in the annual Players pantomimes, until 1998, when she was 75.

In 1990, at the age of 66, at the Duchess Theatre, she nostalgically reprised her role as Hortense in The Boy Friend in Concert, and won a standing ovation as she high-kicked her way across the stage.

Famous for addressing her show business colleagues affectionately as ‘Mon petit chou’, Violetta became known throughout the entertainment industry as ‘Chou’.

She and Gervase Farjeon separated in the 1990s, but never divorced. He died in August 2001 at the age of 80. She had no children.

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