Walter Greenwood and Robert Donat

During the war, unidentified scenes from Love on the Dole starring Wendy Hiller as Sally and Robert Donat as Larry were broadcast on BBC radio in a ‘Saturday Matinee’ for the Forces programme (19/9/1942). This may be how Donat and Greenwood got to know of each other. They certainly seem to have met by 1945, when Greenwood’s new play The Cure for Love was produced in London by Donat. The play had originally been called The Sergeants’ Mess and an advert in the Stage on 8/3/1945 stated boldly ‘WANTED BIG THEATRES ONCE OR TWICE NIGHTLY’ (p. 6). The play had already had a so-called ‘provincial tour’ between January and March 1945, presented according to the advert by Parkwood Productions (who I take to be a twin to Greenwood and Park’s Greenpark company, presumably with a slightly different remit). Indeed, the Stage advert quoted enthusiastic reviews: ‘This is a Lancashire play the West End will thoroughly enjoy’ (Daily Dispatch); ‘Its war theme has sufficient wit and interest to remain grand comedy long after the war in Europe or the Far East is over’ (Evening Chronicle). Whether influenced by the Stage advert or not, Donat decided to include the play as part of the repertoire of his new Fanfare Productions venture, in which he revived for himself the role of actor-manager, in this case at the Westminster Theatre. (1)

The play was first produced at the Westminster on 12/7/1945 and Donat took the starring role of Jack Hardacre, an army sergeant who returns on leave to his mother’s Salford home towards the end of the war. Renee Asherson played the female lead, Milly Southern, a billettee in his mother’s house, who eventually marries Jack. Donat and Asherson did themselves marry in 1949, after a relationship dating back to this time – Donat had in 1945 broken off a relationship with Deborah Kerr, who of course played Sally Hardcastle in the 1941 film of Love on the Dole. The London production also featured two other actresses who had appeared in that film, as members of the older female ‘chorus’: Iris Vandeleur and Marjorie Rhodes (but in this play Vandeleur plays Mrs Dorbell, rather than her film role of Mrs Nattle, while Rhodes replaces her Mrs Bull role with the new Greenwood character of Sara Hardacre, Jack’s tough mother). Barrow records that some critics thought Donat good in the play but that it lacked sufficient substance for an actor of his stature (p.150). Barrow himself is more sympathetic to the play, writing that ‘like many of its kind, [it] was light on plot, but rich in comedy’ (p.150), and indeed the pre-London production really had been positively reviewed as highly entertaining by both national and regional newspapers. It returned to a further ‘provincial’ tour after the London production.

Barrow also says that Greenwood was one of the few life-long friends made by Donat during the course of his professional career, though also comments that there was considerable ‘acrimony’ in their financial dealings (he notes that the London stage production of The Cure for Love only brought in ‘£114, 4s 2d’ to Donat’s company, so perhaps there were disappointments on both sides, pp.151-2). Their friendship is attested to by continuing personal interactions unearthed by Barrow in correspondence over the years before Donat’s early death in 1958, aged 53 (see Barrow pp. 160, 166, 170, 187). Donat’s earlier biographer, J.C. Trewin, too says that Greenwood and Donat ‘came to know each other intimately in friendship and business’ and that it was an ‘association now bantering, now angry, but enduring’. (2) Indeed, Trewin notes that Greenwood was asked to speak about Robert on a BBC Home Service radio programme in his memory (24/6/1958), and recalled an occasion in 1950 when they flew to Cyprus via Rome, and arriving at a hotel at 2 am, Donat was, after initial and understandable sleepiness on the porter’s part, greeted enthusiastically with the words, ‘Signor Chippo’. (3)

Donat certainly showed great faith in The Cure for Love, despite the financial return of the play version, and invested both his energy and own money in bringing about (with some difficulty) a film version. Barrow tells us that Donat invested the very substantial sum of £20,000 in the project, his entire earnings from the successful film of Terence Rattigan’s play, The Winslow Boy (director Anthony Asquith, London Film Productions, 1948, in which Donat had starred as the barrister Sir Robert Morton, p.162).  The film set for The Cure for Love built at London Film Studies, Isleworth, was designed in the light of a number of photographs of Glossop in the Derbyshire Peak District, and indeed the story in the film was shifted from its original Salford to ‘Mossop’. The film had to be made wholly in a studio because Donat’s recurrent and severe asthma meant he felt unable to work in the north (which presumably then had an even-worse air-quality than London due to heavy industrial use of coal). Even so, Donat was ill during filming and this led to delays and extra costs and may have affected the final coherence of the production. On the fourteenth of December 1949, Donat took the trouble to write to the then President of the Board of Trade, Harold Wilson, to explain that part of his motivation making the film was to support the British film industry by showing that home-grown products could work well: ‘my aim and ambition was the making of a quality film at low cost’. Donat goes on to say that overall the film cost £175,000, but that his period of illness added about £45, 000 of this sum and concludes that:

I think you will find that I have made a film of considerable quality at what might have been a remarkably low figure. Anyway, I hope one day you will find time to see this film, having its roots in the Lancashire we both know so well, and judge for yourself. I honestly believe it gets nearer to a slice of truly British life and character than any British comedy that has appeared so far. I cannot speak of my own performance, but there is no doubt whatever that the other performances are of the highest possible order. (4)

Barrow’s judgement is that ‘The Cure For Love was in no way an important film, and it was not a success’ (p. 162), a view shared by the Film Bulletin which printed one of its pithiest ever reviews – simply stating without even the luxury of a verb: ‘Ante-diluvian regional farce’ (Vol 17, no.193, January-February 1950, p.8: ( However, as with the play, there were many favourable national and regional reviews, and the film certainly played widely in cinemas over the next few years (to publicise the film, the Plaza in Worthing offered a guinea prize for the best letter outlining a cure for love: Worthing Herald 30/12/1949, p.15). C.A Lejeune thought the film was ‘prime fun’ and indeed argued in the Sketch that ‘southerners’ did not understand the film and that really only ‘northerners’ (he, like Donat, was a Mancunian) could appreciate it:

When I came out of the Press-show full of a rich and secret enjoyment, my London colleagues clustered round with well-meant apologies … the sets were artificial and not realistic: there was no attempt at all, what a pity, to approach the subject documentarily … The secret of it all is, of course, that The Cure for Love is a joke for northerners by northerners (18/1/1950, p. 38).

Here Greenwood’s reputation as the grim realist and documentarian of Love on the Dole still evidently haunts him – at least for southern viewers. To read the film properly, hints Lejeune, one needs to see its connections to the Lancashire music-hall tradition. However, the BFI’s Michael Brooke in his modern commentary reads the style of the film rather differently, and takes the view that for 1949 this was not a sophisticated film adaptation and looked every inch a filmed play: ‘Donat the director makes no attempt to disguise the film’s stage origins’ ( Dora Bryan, who played Janey Jenkins in the film, had high expectations of the role’s impact on her career. These seemed from the London film reviews likely to be disappointed, but she was cheered up after the film went down well in cinemas nationally. (5)

The play indeed quickly became a firm favourite for amateur productions during the nineteen-forties and fifties (as many regional reviews and notices available via the British Library National Newspaper Archive attest). After a pause in the nineteen-sixties, there were a number of professional productions in the seventies and eighties, perhaps partly motivated by an element of nostalgia. The Bolton Octagon played it in February 1981 (the Stage reviewer, R.W. Shakespeare, thought the play ‘full of splendid characters and packed with choice lines and good jokes’; 26/2/1981). The last revival seems to have been at York (presumably at the Theatre Royal) in September 1986, when the reviewer Bill Anderson sadly observed that the play was now rarely to be seen but that it was ‘for those over 50 a gentle reminder of the working-class morality: the simple faith, hope, dreams that somehow survived the most cruel period in history’ (the Stage 18/9/1986). There was even a BBC 2 TV adaption in 1964 (15 October) when Marjorie Rhodes reprised the part of Mrs Sarah Hardacre which she had first played on the stage nearly twenty years before (the reviewer, Susan Kay, thought the piece old-fashioned, but entertaining and well-produced; the Stage, 22/10/1964, p.12).

See also or more about writers and performers Greenwood worked with closely: Walter Greenwood’s Creative Partnerships

Note 1. See Kenneth Barrow’s Mr Chips – the Life of Robert Donat, London, Methuen, 1985, chapter 6, ‘The Manager 1943-1949’.

Note 2. J.C Trewin, Robert Donat: a Biography, Wiliam Heinemann, London, 1968, p. 164.

Note 3. Robert Donat: a Biography, p.108.

Note 4. Quoted with further detail in  Robert Donat: a Biography, p.188. The preceding  production details of the film come from the same page.

Note 5. Recounted in her memoir, According to Dora, Bodley Head, London, 1987, revised and updated edition, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1996, pp.63-4.