Noel Coward may have waspishly referred to her as “Gracie Dull” – an epithet that she relished and often repeated – but to a large and loyal legion of fans, Dulcie Gray was regarded with unwavering affection throughout a career that spanned more than six decades.
Together with her husband and fellow actor Michael Denison, she was one half of a glamorous acting partnership that proved perennially popular on film, stage and television for much of their 59-year marriage.
She was born on November 20, 1915, in Kuala Lumpur, in British-ruled Malaya (now Malaysia), where her father was a lawyer. She later attended boarding school in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, before returning briefly to Malaya to teach. After her father’s death, an art school scholarship secured her passage back to Britain, where the offer of a second scholarship, to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, changed her career and her life. It was there she met Denison, marrying him in 1939.
She made her professional stage debut as Maria in an open-air Twelfth Night in Regent’s Park in 1942, going on to attract critical attention as the rebellious daughter in The Little Foxes at the Piccadilly Theatre and, the following year, as Rose, the pitiful love interest for the murderous petty thug Pinkie in Frank Harvey’s stage adaptation of Brighton Rock at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool.
She made her first, uncredited, film appearance in the 1942 family drama Banana Ridge, and before the decade was over had refused the offer of a contract from 20th-Century Fox, signing instead to Alexander Korda. She made more than a dozen other films, several of them ripe black-and-white Gainsborough Studios melodramas, including Two Thousand Women (1944) and They Were Sisters (1945). In 1946, she appeared alongside Michael Redgrave and Valerie Hobson in an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s The Years Between.
Caught between film and television, Gray returned to the theatre in 1950, enjoying her first onstage success with Denison in The Four Poster at the Ambassadors Theatre, followed by Dragon’s Mouth at the Winter Gardens (a commercial failure despite its critical accolades). She went on to appear in dozens of productions with her husband as co-star, including a national tour offering Candida and The Importance of Being Earnest on alternate nights in 1960, which also subsequently toured to Canada.
Seldom out of work, she found time to write a stage play, the art school romance, The Love Affair, which was directed by Denison in 1955 with a young Ian Holm and Keith Michell in the cast. Its West End run closed in less than a month. The following year she published her first novel, going on to write another 23, the majority of which featured her dogged sleuth, Inspector Cardiff. She was also a prolific short story writer, making notable contributions to the long-running Pan Book of Horror Stories series, and wrote a short biography of JB Priestley.
As film fashions began to change, she increasingly divided her time between the stage and television, making her small-screen debut in a 1951 adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s Milestones. Appearances in Douglas Fairbanks Jr Presents, the Play of the Week, Playhouse, Crown Court and Rumpole of the Bailey followed for ITV. But it was with the BBC that she enjoyed her biggest screen success as the matriarchal Kate Harvey in 69 episodes of boat-building potboiler Howard’s Way, from 1985-1990.
The 1980s offered something of an Indian summer onstage for Gray, beginning with The Cherry Orchard alongside Denison at the Exeter Northcott Theatre, and a national tour of Lloyd George Knew My Father. In 1983 she appeared in Tartuffe, with Leonard Rossiter in title role, at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, and toured Europe (with School for Scandal) and the Middle East (in Ray Cooney and John Chapman’s There Goes the Bride) in 1985, again in a company headed by herself and Denison. In 1996, the pair made their joint Broadway debuts in a nine-month run of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.
After Denison’s death from cancer in 1998, she returned to the stage to appear in The Ladykillers, The Lady Vanishes (pulling out of a national tour in 2001 after fracturing her hip), and, for Mobil Touring Theatre, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Her last television role was in an episode of daytime medical drama Doctors in 2000.
She was awarded a CBE in 1983 and published her autobiography, Looking Forward, Looking Back, in 1992. In December 2010, she moved into the actors’ residential care home, Denville Hall, where she died from bronchial pneumonia on November 15, just five days short of her 96th birthday.