In March 1920 Pamela Stirling was born, an ordinary little girl to an ordinary family in Wandsworth, Surrey. Replace the word “ordinary” with “extraordinary” and that is much nearer the truth.
Pamela’s maternal grandfather was a Brighton man, and her mother, Flora Rose Parsons lived nearly all her young life in the city, first in Hamilton Road and then until her marriage in 1912 at 18 Caburn Road in Hove. In a fit of francophilia, Flora Rose’s father named their house Chez Nous. That was in about 1908. Did the father’s love of France rub off on to his daughter or did his daughter inspire the new name? Whichever it was, Flora Rose (stage name, Margaret Vaughan) was to spend most of her early married life in France.
By 1924, Pamela’s parents, (William) Edward Stirling and Margaret Vaughan had founded and were managing the ‘English Players’ in Paris:
La seule troupe étrangère qui ait réussi à s’accrocher et qui tienne, grâce à son animateur, comédien au talent divers, M. Edward Stirling. [The only foreign troupe that has managed to make its mark and survive, thanks to its driving force, an actor of multiple talents, Mr Edward Stirling.] A very flattering remark made in August 1928 by L’Intransigeant newspaper. [Image: Exclesior 3 September 1935 © Retronews.fr]
Pamela and her older sister, Hermione Monica, would grow up bilingual, speaking French at school and English at home.
Pamela’s first reported stage performance was given in Monaco when la petite Pamela, just a few days before her 13th birthday, played in ‘The Soul of Nicholas Snyder’ by Jerome K Jerome. She and her sisters were soon whisked off by boat to Brazil (July 1934) for a year-long season touring South America.
By 1935, Pamela was a fully-fledged, independent actress, appearing, for example, at the Marigny Theatre in Paris along side the legendary Yvonne Printemps. However, Pamela, or her parents, were rightly ambitious for her. In two successive years, 1938 and 1939, she entered the prestigious Concours (Competition) of the Conservatoire national de musique et d’art dramatique. The competition was, in effect, an audition not only for the various national theatres, but by the late 30s, for the privately run theatres in France. Both times Pamela came close to third place – a staggering achievement for a “foreigner”. It is easy to believe the art critic of the newspaper Ce Soir, who, in a 1939 report of an English performance, did not agree with the jurors :
La perle de la soirée, c’est la toute jeune Pamela Stirling, celle même qui, en langue française cette fois, fut trop modestement récompensée aux concours du Conservatoire voici quinze jours … [The delight of the evening was the very young Pamela Stirling, the very same girl who, using the French language at the time, was quite inadequately rewarded in the Convervatoire competition a fortnight ago.]
And then there was war. Surely by October 1939 it was time for the British to leave France and to return to Britain.
Which the Stirling family did. Well almost. In the middle of the Battle of France, ‘The Stage’ reported on 13 June 1940 (a few days after the event):
For the romantically inclined, now is the time to mention that Miss Stirling (whilst keeping her professional name) became Mrs Gaston Richer. Gaston was a French opera singer now working with the FFF after having escaped imprisonment by the Germans in Poland. [Image (c) holder sought]
Two years later, little Jean-Pierre Richer was born, destined, of course, to have a successful career on stage, radio and film himself under his stage name, John Stirling.
Pamela’s first screen role had been in La Marseillaise, released in February 1938. It was not a very large role – but she was learning from the experts: the director was Jean Renoir, one of the male leads was Pierre Renoir (both sons of the painter Auguste), the other male lead was the wonderful Louis Jouvet. Her last film in France, made in early 1940, before returning to the UK was a comedy. The film was called Elles étaient douze femmes [They Were Twelve Women]. Pamela Stirling, along with the 11 other actresses were given a full page spread in the magazine Pour vous in April of that year. [Image: Pour Vous 10 April 1940© Retronews.fr]
Once back in England, Pamela appeared in 15 films in the same number of years. For anyone keen to see Pamela in action, her 1943 film “Candlelight in Algeria” is a staple (2021) of the Great Movies Classic television channel.
Pamela Stirling’s commitment to helping the British improve their French became evident as early as 1950 when, with her husband, she appeared in what has been described as “The first film to be made in Scotland by a company of French players speaking their own language, it tells the story of a mother’s birthday.” This commitment became more pronounced as she moved into television.
Quite remarkably, Edward Stirling’s production of “The Soul of Nicholas Snyder” had been televised in January 1937. This was a stunning tribute to Edward’s troupe of actors as a television service had been running in England for no more than 2 months by that time. The television service was suspended from 1 September 1939 until 7 June 1946 – but in little more than a year after resumption of the service, on 14 November 1947, Pamela was to be seen on the small screen but in a major role. The play was televised as part of the celebrations for the wedding of a future Queen to her new husband, Philip Mountbatten. There were other television appearances in 1948 -9. But Pamela had grown up on the stage and that is where she continued to work most.
And work she did. While the war was still raging, Pamela brought much needed entertainment to English-speaking audiences as far apart as Bradford, Bath and Croydon – none of which were a safe haven for performers, artists or audiences – whilst continuing to perform in French for the Free French Forces stationed in Britain.
Gradually, Edward Stirling’s English Players based in France transformed into the UK-based ‘French Players’ and eventually, in 1947 ‘The French Theatre’ which came under the control of Pamela herself. Along with frequent stage appearances in France, Pamela threw herself into a period of her work which has been so important for many Francophiles in Britain.
In the 1950s, very few families could afford to go to the commercial theatre. With the rise in grammar school education, many more children of relatively low-income families began to learn French. How could these children access the French language and French culture? There were no videos, there were virtually no sound recordings, there was certainly no Internet access to francophone radio and television. But there was live theatre.
Whilst continuing to take roles in films, on the stage (both in France and UK) and, more and more frequently, on the television, Pamela and her troupe threw themselves into the daunting task of travelling up and down the country to bring French culture to school pupils: between 1948 and the mid-1970s the troupe played in schools and large venues from Aberdeen to St Austell, not to mention Harrow, Eastbourne, Berwick, Dover, Liverpool, Rugby and so many more. [© Image © Reach PLC. Image created courtesy of The British Libaray Board]
In December 1971, a group of pupils from Hurstpierpoint College (West Sussex) attended a performance of La Leçon (Ionesco) and Antigone (Anouilh) by La Troupe Française at The Dome in Brighton. A pupil later wrote in the school magazine: “The experience was … a valuable experience, and gave an informative insight into modern French literature.”
There are many of us who, whether as pupils or as teachers, will always be most grateful for the chance to have seen a play in French acted by ‘real’ French actors.
From her eleven appearances in the children’s television series “Bobby in France” (1955) to her long stint as presenter of all 30 episodes of “Bonjour Françoise” on BBC1, (1965/6), fostering an awareness of French language and culture, especially in youngsters, was particularly important for Pamela. And how many adults learned the basics of French from ‘Bonjour Françoise’ in preparations for those newly-affordable exotic holidays in France. (Image (c) Suzanne Hinton)
Of a career spanning some 55 years, much has had to be omitted: the accolade paid to her in 1946, when the Comédie Française made her a pensionnaire (the equivalent of inviting a French actor to act with the Royal Shakespeare Company); her Troupe’s visits abroad, including Turkey (1953); her invitation to be adjudicator of the bilingual Dominion Drama Festival in Canada (1956); her appearance in two episodes of ‘Dr Who” (1979) right up to playing in a radio adaptation of John Le Carré’s “Smiley’s People” (1990).
Very few people who met the older Pamela when she and her second husband Claude moved to 47 Langdale Road in Hove will have realised what a huge contribution she had made to the ability of more than one generation to hear and appreciate French and French culture. Pamela Stirling died in 2013 at the age of 93.
Pamela’s mother, Margaret Vaughn, also returned to her home city where she died in 1980, in Hove, aged 91.
My thanks to John Stirling for his help in supplying information for this article and whose own adventures as an actor are so well told in his book “Never Work with Children and Animals”.