Skip to main content

Surprising Faces in the Archives – Theatre

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: History

For part two of our surprising faces blog, we look at some of the people you wouldn’t expect to find within the collections of the Parliamentary Archives from the world of theatre. This includes a variety of playwrights and actors, some going back to the early 1900s. The records themselves cover a range of mediums such as letters, theatre programmes and photographs.

This blog was written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer.

George Bernard Shaw

This letter is to John St Loe Strachey from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the play ‘Pygmalion’ in 1912. Strachey’s personal papers were originally collected by Lord Beaverbrook, a press baron and politician, who had a large and varied collection of personal and political correspondence. Beaverbrook also collected journalistic archives of interest including Strachey who was the editor of ‘The Spectator’. Beaverbrook’s collection was later transferred to the Parliamentary Archives.

The letter accompanies an article by Shaw he wishes to be published in ‘The Spectator’. The letter dates from 1925 and is a more personal discussion between Shaw and Strachey. They discuss the merits of two different translations of Homer’s ‘The Iliad’. Shaw preferring the translation by Lord Derby (1799-1869) than that of Alexander Pope’s (1688-1744) and eloquently describing his distaste for the Pope translation.

“I tried to read Pope’s, it filled me with disgust and fury. An arrangement of Handel’s Messiah for the banjo would have let me down less miserably.”

Shaw later goes on to discuss the works of the poet and playwright John Dryden, referred to in this letter as “Glorious John”, including his longest poem ‘The Hind and The Panther’. Shaw muses about the changing mood of the public and what is going in and out of literary fashion;

“[Dryden] has gone out of fashion because rhetoric is no use for sentimental mush”

On a lighter note, Shaw also tells Strachey about his time away in Madeira, away from the London smoke and dust and enjoying some sunshine during the British winter months. But after six weeks in the sun, he will soon be returning to London.


Handwritten letter.
Letter from George Bernard Shaw to Strachey, 9th February 1925,                                                Parliamentary Archives, STR/33/2/3

Ellen Terry and Catherine Hueffer


Painting of a women with blonde hair wearing a hat
Ellen Terry by Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson          Oil on canvas, 1876
NPG 3789
                                  Licence: Creative Commons Attribution National Portrait Gallery

This is a letter from actress Dame Ellen Terry to Catherine Hueffer. Catherine Heuffer was the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown and Catherine’s son was the poet Ford Madox Ford. The letter can be found in the Stow Hill Papers donated by Frank Soskice. Frank Soskice was a politician and was the Labour Home Secretary 1964-5. He was elevated to the House of Lords in 1966 and become Baron Stow Hill. Frank Soskice’s father, David Soskice, was a Russian journalist and activist during Tsarist Russia who later moved to England and married Juliet Hueffer, Catherine Hueffer’s daughter. So, within the Stow Hill papers can be found the letters of the Madox Brown and Hueffer Families, including the correspondence of Catherine Hueffer.

The letter begins with Ellen apologising to Catherine for calling her ‘Cathy’ rather than ‘Catherine’ in a previous letter, starting with ‘Don’t be cross!!’. A great start to any letter. Ellen states that she read through a play that Catherine sent her saying that it was a “picturesque fascinating little play” with characters that each “stand out vividly”. Then goes on to say that she was very tired and ill during a season of seriously hard work. This letter is from 1920, the year that she decided to retire from stage performances, two years later she retired from film.

“I have been frightfully ill and dragging through a season of hard work … I am always steadily doing two hours work in every hour of the day … I never sleep more than five hours in the twenty four”

Terry began performing at a very young age, with her first stage performance at the age of 9 she played Mamillius in a production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at Princess's Theatre, London. She is most known for her stage performances at Lyceum Theatre, London usually opposite Sir Henry Irving. She was also involved in the beginnings of cinema, working in silent films from 1916 to 1922.

3 pages of a handwritten letter
Letter from Ellen Terry to Catherine Hueffer, 1920, Parliamentary Archives, STH/BH/1/4


Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Black and white photograph of a man dressed as a pirate
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as D'Artagnan in 'The Musketeers'
by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company
albumen cabinet card, 1898, NPG x36209
                         Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs National Portrait Gallery

This is a programme for a performance of Shakespeare’s King Richard II in 1903, performed at His Majesty’s Theatre. The play was produced by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who also played the titular role of Richard II. It is from a collection of papers relating to William Leveson-Gower, who was a Clerk for the House of Lords Journal Office 1908-1914. He left his post to sign up to serve in the Frist World War and was one of the Parliamentary staff who died during the Great War. His papers were later donated to Parliament by his sister Victoria Leveson-Gower. The programme is from the papers of Victoria Leveson-Gower. Most of her records relate to her brother William but it also includes some more miscellaneous items including papers from the 1896 Olympics and this Shakespeare programme.

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was a well-known actor. He’d been performing since the 1870s especially in his character roles in Shakespeare and other plays. He later owned and managed His Majesty’s Theatre from 1897 until he died in 1917. The Theatre hosted many successful plays and musicals, including the original production of Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ and has been the current home of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ since 1986. Tree also established the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art or RADA in 1904, one of the oldest and prestigious drama schools with star-studded alumni.


Printed booklet with the following printed in brown ink 'His Majesty's Theatre King Richard II' and an image of a young man wearing a crown in the centre.
Programme for King Richard II at His Majesty’s Theatre, 1903, Parliamentary Archives, LEG/3/4/3

Festival of Britain 1951

This record is a programme of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV, Part 1’ in 1951. It was held at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon as part of a series of Shakespeare’s history plays from Richard II to Henry V. This Shakespeare Festival was part of the national Festival of Britain in 1951, 100 years after the 1851 Great Exhibition. Events went on all over the UK promoting the arts, architecture, technology, and science. This programme was amongst Viscount Samuel’s Papers, who was Home Secretary 1931-2. There is a copy of a speech Viscount Samuel gave at a Shakespeare Luncheon as part of the festival on 23 April 1951 titled ‘Immortal Memory’.

The play was directed by Sir Anthony Quayle and Michael Redgrave directed ‘Henry IV, Part 2’. The programme includes a star-studded cast of Shakespearean actors. Anthony Quayle directed the play and also stars as Falstaff. Quayle was Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre from 1948 to 1958 which would eventually become the Royal Shakespeare Company. Sir Michael Redgrave also stars in Part 1, with a theatre career spanning across four decades. Redgrave has also featured in the Hitchcock film ‘The Lady Vanishes’ (1938) as well as ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (1952) and ‘The Dambusters’ (1954).

Robert Hardy also features in this play, known for his role as Siegfried Farnon in the BBC TV series 1978 ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. But he may be more well-known now for his role as Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge in several of the Harry Potter films. Finally, the prolific Shakespearean actor Richard Burton can also be seen in this programme playing the son of Henry IV, Henry the Prince of Wales. Burton later played Mark Antony in the 1963 Cleopatra alongside his soon-to-be wife Elizabeth Taylor, both also feature in the 1966 film adaptation ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’.

Printed programme showing the cast members.
Programme for Henry IV Part 1 at The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1951, Parliamentary Archives, SAM/L/70

Royal Film Performance 1962

This photograph was taken at the Royal Film Performance, an event organised by the Cinematograph Trade Benevolent Fund. All the proceeds from the event went towards the charity which helped to financially support those in need in the TV and Film industry. The charity was originally founded in 1924. As technology advanced so did the charity, becoming The Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund in 1963 and finally The Film and TV Charity in 2017.

The Royal Film Performance showcase a major film premiere, which would be attended by members of the Royal Family. The first event took place in 1946 at the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square premiering the film ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and was attended by King George VI, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. For this event in 1962, the film was ‘West Side Story’ at the Odeon in Leicester Square. This photograph was taken on the rehearsal day on 25th February 1962, the day before the actual event.

The photograph can be found within the Parliamentary Archives Pudsey collection. Gerald Pudsey ran a photographic studio in London from 1948 to 1982 and was often commissioned to take photographs of MPs, peers and visitors to the Parliamentary estate as well as at Parliamentary events and functions. However, some images like this one within this photographic collection were taken by Pudsey elsewhere and do not have an obvious Parliamentary connection.

The most well-known celebrity that can be seen in the photograph being a fresh-faced Cliff Richard near the end of the line-up. This photograph was taken a couple of years after his debut single ‘Move It’ was released in 1958 and only a year after his film ‘The Young Ones’ came out in 1961. Now Cliff Richard has sold over 21 million singles in the UK, over 250 million records worldwide and is the third top-selling artist in the UK behind the Beatles and Elvis Presley.

On the other side of the line-up is Australian actor Peter Finch, who had recently won the BAFTA for Best Actor in 1960 for his titular role in ‘The Trials of Oscar Wilde’. Finch was also the first actor to win a posthumous Oscar for his role in the film 1976 ‘Network’. Next to Cliff Richard you can also see the French actress Leslie Caron, most known for her roles in musical films such as ‘American in Paris’ (1951) alongside Gene Kelly and ‘Gigi’ (1958).

black and white photograph of 6 people on a road walking towards the camera.
Photograph of celebrities, Sylvia Syms, Peter Finch, Janet Munro, Claudia Cardinale, Cliff Richard, and Leslie Caron, 1962, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/F/590

These records show some of the surprising faces that can be found within Parliamentary Archives collection. Compared to Part 1 of the blog which largely features the Beaverbrook collection, George Bernard Shaw is the only one from this collection. Most of the other records show the more personal side of politicians and parliamentary staff. Not all records have to be written documents, some can be photographs like the vast Pudsey photographic collection.


Sharing and comments

Share this page