‘Beauty you might have found only on a Greek vase’ was one description of Jill Balcon, who died on July 18 of a brain tumour at the age of 84.
That beauty was first seen by a wide public when she appeared as Madeleine Bray in the Ealing film of Dickens’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1947, where she was pursued by the villainous Ralph Nickleby of Sir Cedric Hardwicke. It was in some ways a reluctant debut, since the producer was her father, soon to be knighted as Sir Michael Balcon, the driving force behind the British film industry. Appearing as the boss’s daughter might not have demonstrated her own worth.
She demonstrated considerable merit in the years that followed, though she was to be cut off by her father when she married the poet Cecil Day-Lewis in 1951. It is striking how much her beauty continued to be noted, even in recent interviews, where her lustrous, dark eyes still drew comment, for what the British public cherished most was her voice – low, distinctive and immaculately articulate. Although she maintained a life-long association with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre and continued to appear in films – in Derek Jarman’s Edward II and Wittgenstein in the nineties, and as Lady Bracknell in the play within the movie of An Ideal Husband in 1999 – and was in such notable television series as Six Days of Justice, it was her readings of poetry and her radio performances stretching over 60 years that marked a genuinely remarkable achievement.
During the Second World War, she was already a youthful BBC announcer. Having first seen and heard Cecil Day-Lewis at Roedean when she was a 12-year-old student, it was their meeting 11 years later in a BBC studio in 1948, during a broadcast of Time for Verse where she was a reader, that ignited the spark which would lead to Day-Lewis ending his marriage and breaking off his nine-year relationship with novelist Rosamond Lehmann. These, and other of her husband’s liasons, would lead her to rueful descriptions of her role as a ‘footnote’ as biographers circled her history with Day-Lewis, who succeeded John Masefield as Poet Laureate in 1968.
While continuing to act and read, on stage and for broadcast, in recent years she also edited collections of her husband’s verse and allowed an authorised biography of his life which touched on painful episodes, but returned his poetry to the mainstream.
Her children from that marriage, Tamasin, the documentary-maker and cookery writer, and Daniel, one of the leading actors of his generation, sometimes overshadowed Jill’s own achievement, but she was an actress who never stopped working. Her home, a beautiful thatched cottage in Hampshire, contained valued memorabilia, including letters and poems from Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and W H Auden, but gave pride of place to a table and chairs made by Daniel, a skilled woodworker, when he was a student at Bedales.
Mother and son remained close, and when Juliet Ace was commissioned by the BBC to write a play celebrating 60 years of her work in radio, Daniel flew into London to appear in the play. “How do you know my mother so well?” he asked the writer. His mother’s role as a woman insistent on the proper use of English, meaningfully spoken, was specially crafted for Jill, who shared that insistence, and it brought him to accept the part of a reticent acolyte to his mother’s character. Jill laughed when an interviewer asked if Daniel was playing her son: “No,” she said, “my lover!”
From her father’s role in the creation of English cinema to her presence at the centre of British cultural and literary life and her son’s pre-eminence in contemporary film, Jill was much more than a footnote. She passed on her passion for people, poetry and properly spoken English for all her life, certain that her values would endure.