Fabia Drake

Fabia Drake OBE[1] (20 January 1904 28 February 1990) was a British actress whose professional career spanned almost 73 years during the 20th century.[2]

Fabia Drake
Ethel McGlinchy

20 January 1904
Died28 February 1990(1990-02-28) (aged 86)
London, England

Drake was born in Herne Bay, Kent. Her first professional role in a film was in Fred Paul's Masks and Faces (1917), and her last role was as Madame de Rosemonde in Miloš Forman's Valmont (1989).[2]

Drake was a lifelong friend of Noël Coward and Laurence Olivier.[3]

Early life

Born Ethel McGlinchy, the actress's Irish father, a caterer, was an actor manqué. She passed an entrance test to the Academy of Dramatic Art (later to become RADA) in December 1913. (It was the high-ups at the ADA who decided McGlinchy was too difficult to pronounce and too hard to remember for a stage name so she changed it, ultimately by deed-poll, to Drake which was the second of her father's Christian names and to Fabia which was the second of her baptismal names, chosen because she was born on St Fabian's Day). Founded by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, her contemporaries at the Academy of Dramatic Art included the actress Meggie Albanesi, Eva Le Gallienne, and Miles Malleson - a senior student who wrote plays for her. She was small, was called 'the Shrimp', and played a very wide range of parts - Richard II, Macbeth, Cardinal Richelieu in Bulwer Lytton's play, the Shaughraun in Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun. Her teachers included Norman Page, whom she admired and to whose teaching she responded "he gave you confidence, he inspired you with his enthusiasm', and Helen Haye, to whom she did not respond and who was not, according to Drake, a great teacher.[4] She made her first professional appearance on a stage at the Court Theatre, Sloane Square, in a children's theatre production titled The Cockjolly Bird as a hermit land-crab "in a shell of immense weight and unparalleled discomfort." Her first paid work came when she was cast in a production of The Happy Family. Also in the cast was Noël Coward. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. In the same year, 1916, she met Ellen Terry, when she played Robin, Falstaff's diminutive page in scenes from The Merry Wives of Windsor, for a week, at the Palace Pier Theatre in Brighton.

Besides acting the most formative influence in Drake's childhood was the Anglican religion later seceded from and the outstanding memory of her Christmases was the sung Saint Cecilia Mass of Gounod, at the Midnight Mass in the Anglo-Catholic church of All Saints, Margaret Street. When one year the chorister set to play Sir Toby Belch in the kitchen scene from Twelfth Night fell ill, Drake was called in to replace him, and so she met a junior chorister also in the production - Laurence Olivier. "His subsequent intimate friendship became one of my most treasured possessions; we would watch each others work, stay in each others houses, be available during public and private moments of triumph and disaster" she wrote, though she never played with him again.[5] At the age of 16, she was sent to a finishing school in France, Camposenea at Meudon-val-Fleury. It had been a hunting lodge of Louis XIV and the sunken marble bath of Madame de Maintenon was still in place. She was taken to Reims, in ruins after World War I, to Versailles, Chartres, the Forest of Fontainebleau, and she was taught by Georges Le Roy sociétaire of the Comédie-Française who was to become one of the great teachers of the Paris Conservatoire.


Back in London in 1921 and unemployed, she spent time with Meggie Albanesi in her dressing room during her 'waits' in Albanesi's current success A Bill of Divorcement at St Martin's Theatre. Drake wrote "Albanesi was by now established as the most talented young actress in England, under contract to Basil Dean...the warmth and sympathy of her personality was like a lodestar in my bleak night sky." Having tried, and failed, to gain employment with J.E.Vedrenne, Drake decided to join Madame Alice Gachet's French acting classes at RADA, another teacher of brilliance, her most famous pupil - Charles Laughton. She then signed with Vedrenne for 18 months, playing small parts, and understudying and was then sent to Basil Dean who was about to produce James Elroy Flecker's Hassan. This proved a memorable production, incidental music was by Frederick Delius, the great ballet in the House-of-the-Moving-Walls was devised by Fokine, and the cast included Malcolm Keen as the Caliph and Henry Ainley as Hassan. Drake, an understudy, playrf both of the two women's parts in the play, Yasmin and Pervaneh - Isabel Jeans (Yasmin) and Laura Cowrie (Parveneh), both went down with influenza in the epidemic of 1923.

When C. Aubrey Smith needed an actress to play his daughter in a production of Roland Pertwee's The Creaking Chair his wife suggested Fabia and she was released from Hassan to create her own, first, part. The play ran for six months, directed by Gerald du Maurier, and starred Tallulah Bankhead as well as Aubrey Smith.

Shortly after this Drake worked with Marie Tempest in a play by John Hastings Turner titled The Scarlet Lady. In Marie Tempest, she found " artistic understanding, comradeship and succour." The play was a success when it opened and brought Drake some critical attention. Charles Langbridge Morgan, then critic of The Times (October 1926) wrote "Fabia Drake...she has not been long on the professional stage. She has judgment and poise and a mind that lifts a trivial part out of its triviality." And James Agate in The Sunday Times (3 October 1926) wrote "Miss Fabia Drake is probably the best ingénue on the present-day stage, and provided she is able to conceal, her brains will one day make a popular success. She suggests health, physical, mental and moral."

RADA ex-students formed the The RADA Players, and Drake became the second of its secretaries. In a play of Allan Monkhouse's titled Sons and Fathers, Drake played opposite John Gielgud. She was the victim of serious stage-fright at this period in her career, the result of a spasm in her throat that prevented her from speaking and that she feared would return at inopportune moments.

In 1929, she went with the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon on its tour of the United States - in three weeks she had to learn the parts of Lady Macbeth, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, the Queen in Hamlet ( 'but I should never have been cast to play Gertrude. I was only 25, just a touch on the young side when the Hamlet is nearing 40'), Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Viola in Twelfth Night. As Lady Macbeth in 1933 at Stratford, the Komisarjevsky production, in the sleepwalking scene, she was painted by Walter Sickert - the work was exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1934 to celebrate Sickert's election as R.A. Shortly before leaving on the White star liner SS Megantic rehearsing Macbeth she suffered a recurrence of the spasm in her throat and so the trip began with an element of fear.

Afraid of a choking fit and being unable to speak her lines she nevertheless got through her performances in Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St Louis, Denver, Washington but in Chicago she finally reached the end of her strength. She sought psychiatric help and with the psychiatrist traced the first intrusion of her phobia into her work on the stage and its possible origin in a lie she had told to avoid catechism when she had made herself sick by pushing a spoon down her throat. Until her temporary retirement from the stage, when she got married, she was henceforth to make herself physically sick before each and every performance to get rid of the choking before she went near the stage.[7] Back in England, her friend John Gielgud asked her to play Rosalind in a production of As You Like It at the Old Vic - Drake became closely identified with this role. In 1931, she made another tour of the U.S. and Canada, this time meeting Ivor Novello in Los Angeles he too became a friend. Back from Hollywood she played in the opening performance at the Stratford-on-Avon Memorial Theatre, Henry IV, Part I, which was a near disaster because much of the performance was inaudible. Drake, playing the minute part of Lady Percy, was helped by the fact that she played her first scene on the 'apron-stage, and was completely audible. The critics noticed her performance all the more; H.V. Morton covered the event for the Daily Herald and the next morning the Daily Herald produced a placard on its billboards which read : All Stratford talks of one woman.

Following her marriage in December 1938 to Maxwell Turner, a barrister-at-law, she retired entirely from the stage. Her daughter was born in March 1940. Over 10 years of provoking physical sickness before each and every performance had taken its toll, but in 1943, when Sir Kenneth Barnes asked her to join his depleted teaching staff at RADA she was recovered and available. For the three years 1943, 1944, 1945 she worked with students, work which she later described as, 'one of the most stimulating and rewarding periods' of her life. Her students included Roger Moore, John Neville, Robert Shaw, and Richard Johnson. She also undertook a production of Henry V, although it was not with RADA students, but with American Army personnel. Renée Asherson appeared in the production, the French Princess of the film version. (Having seen this production Robert Donat asked Drake to undertake the casting and production of his forthcoming post-war season in management at the Aldwych Theatre). Drake's teaching work finished at RADA when she began to have a pain in her jaw, and she had to leave in the middle of a term.

She became interested in researching Shakespeare's troupe of actors, men like Richard Burbage and Thomas Pope, and the effect the actors had on Shakespeare's creation of roles for them.

Her husband having died from liver cancer at the age of 53, she was invited by Binkie Beaumont to return to the theatre. She accepted the offer of a part in a thriller called Write Me a Murder by Frederick Knott. She continued to work on radio and on television, including work with Dickie Henderson in comedy sketches for Thames TV, and Leslie Crowther (in ATV's Big Boy, Now!), as well as in major series like The Pallisers and P.G.Wodehouse's, The World of Wooster, playing Bertie Wooster's outrageous Aunt Agatha, with Ian Carmichael (Bertie) and Dennis Price (the inimitable Jeeves), and an acclaimed performance as the eccentric, reclusive Anglo-Indian matriarch Mabel Layton in The Jewel in the Crown (1984).

There were also two notable screen performances in her last years, as Catherine Alan in A Room with a View (1985) and as Madame de Rosemonde in Valmont (1989), in which The New York Times praised her performance for its "quiet dignity." [8]

She was awarded the OBE in 1987.

Personal life

She married Maxwell Turner, a barrister-at-law and brother of John Hastings Turner, the dramatist of her two plays with Marie Tempest, in December 1938. Their only child, a daughter Deirdre, was born in March 1940.[9]



1917Masks and FacesTriplet's Child
1938Meet Mr. PennyAnnie Penny
1948London Belongs to MeMrs Jan Byl
1951 All Over the TownMiss Gelding
Poet's PubLady Mercy Cotton
1951 White CorridorsMiss Farmer
Young Wives' TaleNanny Blott
1952The Hour of 13Lady Elmbridge
1954 Fast and LooseMrs Crabb
Isn't Life Wonderful!Lady Probus
1955All for MaryOpulent Lady
1956My Wife's FamilyArabella Parker
1957 The Good CompanionsMrs Tarvin
Not Wanted on VoyageMrs Brough
1958Girls at SeaLady Kitty Hewitt
1959Operation BullshineJunior Commander Maddox A.T.S
1961 Seven KeysMrs Piggott
What a WhopperMrs Pinner
1969A Nice Girl Like MeMiss Grimsby
1970Tam-LinMiss Gibson
1974Got It MadeAunt Olive
1985 Year of the DragonNun
A Room with a ViewMiss Catharine Allan
1989ValmontMadame de Rosemonde(final film role)


1960PersuasionLady Russell3 episodes
1964The SaintAunt HattieEpisode: The Miracle Tea Party
1965The SaintAunt PrudenceEpisode: The Smart Detective
1965-67The World of WoosterAunt Agatha4 episodes
1966The Avengers Colonel AdamsEpisode: The Danger Makers
1967 The Prisoner Welfare Worker Episode: Arrival (The Prisoner)
1969-70A Present for DickieMrs. Upshott-Mainwaring
1971Doctor at Large Dr WhitelandEpisode 10: Upton Sells Out?
1974The PallisersCountess of MidlothianTV mini-series 4 episodes
1976-77Big Boy Now!Mrs Heather Marchant14 episodes
1984 Crown CourtMiss Simpson3 episodes
The Jewel in the CrownMabel LaytonTV mini-series, 4 episodes
Miss MarpleMiss HendersonEpisode: A Pocketful of Rye
1985Screen TwoMrs BlakeEpisode: Lent
1988 Inspector MorseMrs JarmanEpisode: Last Bus to Woodstock (1988)[10][11]
The RainbowAunt OlgaEpisode: The Darkness of Paradise
1989BoonMary FraserEpisode: Sickness and Health


  • Blind Fortune published by William Kimber (1978)


  1. http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/50948/supplements/9
  2. "Fabia Drake | BFI". Explore.bfi.org.uk. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  3. "Yes, but what's he really like? » 17 April 1987 » The Spectator Archive". Archive.spectator.co.uk. 17 April 1987. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  4. Fabia Drake, Blind Fortune, p.24 ISBN 0-7183-0455-1
  5. Fabia Drake, Blind Fortune p.36
  6. Fabia Drake, p.58 Blind Fortune
  7. Blind Fortune, p.90
  8. AP (2 March 1990). "Fabia Drake Dies; Actress on Stage, TV And Screen Was 86 - New York Times". The New York Times. Nytimes.com. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  9. Blind Fortune, p.95 ISBN 0-7183-0455-1
  10. Fabia Drake Biography (1904–1990) Film Reference
  11. kiwikwi (30 November 2006). ""Inspector Morse" Last Bus to Woodstock (TV Episode 1988)". IMDb.
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