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British Actress, Writer Kay Walsh

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005; Page B06

Kay Walsh, a subtle but expressive actress who starred in some of the finest British films of the 1940s and helped her then-husband, David Lean, emerge as a director, died April 16 in London. No cause of death was reported. She was in her early nineties.

Ms. Walsh was a delicate beauty who moved swiftly from the choruses of West End music halls to sizable movie roles. Her frequent co-stars, Alec Guinness and John Mills, admired her naturalness onscreen.

Kay Walsh contributed to scripts including "Pygmalion."

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A deft writer, she also contributed lines to a filmed version of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" (1938) and was so fluid in her style that the writer thought the script had been entirely faithful to his play.

She flourished in the 1940s in unflashy roles that are considered classics of their genre, many of them directed by Lean.

She was the noble wife of a British seaman played by Mills in "In Which We Serve" (1942) and left young sailor Mills for a married man in "This Happy Breed" (1944). Of the second role, she said she differed from the character in that, "I would never have given in, would never have gone back home."

She also played the doomed Nancy in "Oliver Twist" (1948), a film for which she wrote a much-hailed opening sequence.

She eased into character parts in the 1950s and was compellingly cast as a blackmailing maid in Alfred Hitchcock's "Stage Fright" (1950); a sympathetic housekeeper in "Last Holiday" (1950) with Guinness as a man who thinks he is dying; a bickering member of a music-hall duo in "Meet Me Tonight" (1952), a film based on Noel Coward skits; and the heiress who becomes a target of Dirk Bogarde's murderous fortune hunter in "Cast a Dark Shadow" (1957).

In a dazzling transformation, she was the crude old barmaid who befriends eccentric artist Guinness in "The Horse's Mouth" (1958), "my favorite role," she once said. "I wore a horrible black wig."

Off-screen, she was the second wife of the chronically faithless and belittling Lean. Broodingly attractive -- he was compared with Mr. Rochester from "Jane Eyre" -- he seduced her through a heady mixture of sherry, cigarettes and film talk. "I will be Fritz Lang, and you will be my Thea von Harbou," he once told her, referring to the German director and his scriptwriting wife.

She prodded her husband, then working as a film editor, to overcome his shyness and ask Coward for co-directing credit on "In Which We Serve." Soon, he was directing major productions.

She helped her husband adapt Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations" (1946) and "Oliver Twist." For the second, she contributed the wordless opening montage, showing the title character's mother give birth violently, amid gathering storm clouds and wind-raked tree branches.

Her inspiration, she said, was a film she had seen as a child that had long haunted her.

Kathleen Walsh was born in London and raised in Pimlico, England, by her grandmother, who liked to drop the girl at the cinema for the afternoon.

"It was a fleapit and smelled. . ." she told film historian Kevin Brownlow. "There was a woman at the piano with the light shining on her, and another woman who pumped disinfectant into the air. I thought it had the scent of sweet lavender, and that the palace -- my palace -- was the most wonderful place in the world."

As a young stage actress, she was noticed by film producer Basil Dean, who signed her to a contract at Ealing Studios. "I never suffered so much in my life as I did at that studio," she told Brownlow. "They were absolute monsters, and they all thought I was Basil Dean's girlfriend to start off with."

In fact, she was dating a future viscount but ended that relationship after meeting Lean. Their relationship was best described as torrid and tormented, but even Lean's final wife, Sandra, told a reporter: "She was terribly in love with him, and although she was an actress, she was in no way a prima donna. Truthfully, I think he should have stayed with her."

Ms. Walsh's later performing highlights included "Encore" (1952), featuring stories by W. Somerset Maugham, and "Tunes of Glory" (1960), a military drama with Guinness. Her last film was "Night Crossing" (1981), a Cold War drama in which she was Jane Alexander's mother.

She remained a sprightly woman into her eighties. "Despite the fact that she was hard at work on an autobiography herself," Brownlow wrote, "she answered all my questions with unstinting generosity, occasionally saying, 'I'm not giving you that,' and then telling me anyway."

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