Dinah Sheridan was born Dinah Mec 1920 in Hampstead, London to a German mother and Russian father, refugees who had fled to Great Britian because of the Russian Revolution. They became talented photographers.
So talented were her parents that they were later photographers to the Royal Family, ‘By Appointment’ to both the Queen and Queen Mother.
“I was a sickly child, contracting tuberculosis at the age of five,” Dinah recalls,”and I was pushed around in a spinal carriage until I was well enough to learn to walk again at age six-and-a-half.”
Young Dinah attended Sherrards Wood School, Welwyn Garden City, among others, and trained at the famous Italia Conti school. She proudly retains the payslip from her first stage appearance at age twelve in “Where The Rainbow Ends” at the Holborn Empire, London for 30 shillings.
When it came time to choose a stage name, she didn’t hesitate. “With our family name pronounced ‘mess,’ I was afraid that I’d read reviews saying, ‘An apt name! Dinah Mec’s performance was a mess.’ So I looked through the telephone directory and, for no reason, decided on ‘Sheridan’.
At the same time, her parents changed their name to Sheridan too, and their photographic business ‘Studio Lisa’ (with Jimmy and Lisa Sheridan) went from strength to strength.
Soon after, she went on tour as Wendy to Jean Forbes-Robertson’s “Peter Pan”, she then took over the title role, before reverting back to Wendy for Elsa Lanchester. She was the youngest, and the first, actress to have payed both roles.
She happily continued her career in repertory untill landing her first film , the lead role at 15 , in “Irish And Proud Of It,” (1936) which meant she was interviewed by Leslie Mitchell on the first ever TV show from Alexander Palace called “Picture Page” (a pictorial version of “In Town Tonight”) Dinah was invited back, with Leslie Mitchell, for the 100th showing.
By the age of ninteen she had appeared in seven films when World War II broke out in September, 1939.
Dinah put war work ahead of her career and became Chief Ambulance Driver for the Welwyn Garden City Council and secretary to the city Surveyor and Sanitary Inspector.
On May 8, 1942, she married the young actor Jimmy Hanley.
Soon after, she had a call to meet with George Formby.
“I walked into the office, there was no Formby. No director. Only Mrs. Formby, sitting behind a desk. She looked at me and asked immediately if I was married. I said ‘Yes.’ ‘How long?’ ‘Three months, ‘I replied, and she said, ‘”You’ll do.’ I was so newly married that presumably she thought I posed no threat!”
During the 1940s, Dinah’s marriage to Jimmy Hanley produced two very gifted children, Jeremy, born in 1945, and Jenny, born in 1947. (In 1944 their first daughter sadly died three days after her birth.)
She played Jane Huggett in 1949’s “The Huggetts Abroad” and appeared as Steve in two Paul Temple films.
Her marriage to Jimmy Hanley was dissolved in 1952, and the following year Dinah completed shooting on a film called “Genevieve”, about a 1904 Vintage car. It had not been a totally happy experience for the cast. There was the physical discomfort of travelling about in an open car in late October and John Gregson, playing Dinah’s husband and Genevieve’s owner, actually couldn’t drive! And all the principals were keenly aware that they had not been the producer’s first choice.
“They wanted Claire Bloom for my part and Dirk Bogarde for John Gregson’s,” she recalls. “They wanted Guy Middleton instead of Kenneth More, and even Kay Kendall wasn’t their first choice!”
Dinah Sheridan had by now made twenty-four films. when she met the President of the Rank Organization, John Davis, who proposed to her on the one condition that she give up acting. She decided, with no remarkable work offers on the cards, to accept his condition.
“He said, ‘You’ll never have to worry or struggle again — just take care of the children’ — he had three , by two different marriages, and I had two. I loved children, and we were all to live on a large farm , so we married in 1954.”
Then Genevieve opened to rave reviews, many of them for the “True English Rose” (!) the grey-eyed blonde who suggested such a contradictory mix of passion and serenity. The film became a comedy classic, and Dinah Sheridan, after twenty years of hard work, was now ‘ an overnight success ‘ and a highly desired commodity.
“When Genevieve was released, it could have changed my life. Suddenly everyone wanted to employ me, but I discovered that my new husband wouldn’t allow me even to think about acting. I told my agent to not tell me about any offers — I didn’t want to be tempted — so I didn’t learn until years later that he had turned down a lot of films including The Court Jester with Danny Kaye and The Million Pound Note with Gregory Peck. Douglas Bader, the World War II legless pilot hero, rang me personally and begged me to play his wife in the film about his life, “Reach For The Sky” with Kenneth Moore. But I had promised my husband never to accept another engagement. It was hard. It was not a very happy time for me.”
The strain proved too much for the marriage. “I got a divorce eleven years later [in 1965] on the grounds of cruelty, which is still not easy in England. But after fifteen minutes, the judge said he ‘didn’t want to hear any more of the disgraceful details.’ I walked out of the divorce court and straight into a leading part in a London play called “Let’s All Go Down The Strand” a very clever comedy. The title, ironically, referred to the divorce court. I never looked back.”
One of Dinah’s most successful later roles included playing the mother in the 1970 film, ” The Railway Children, ” it came about after …
“A totally unexpected phone call came from Lionel Jeffries, an actor I had always admired but never worked with. He asked whether I knew E. Nesbit’s book The Railway Children, and whether I would consider playing the Mother. It was arranged that we would meet with the producer, Robert Lynn, to discuss the film over lunch. Lionel hung up, and suddenly I was just sitting there, holding the receiver in my hand, and contemplating the possibility of making my first film of any size since Genevieve eighteen years before.
“At the restaurant, Lionel asked if I knew a young actress called Jenny Agutter. No, I didn’t. At that moment, Bob Lynn wrote something on a card and slid it along the table so that Lionel and I could read it: ‘She’s sitting on your right!’ There, indeed, was a charming young lady giving an interview over her lunch. Lionel jumped up with such joy that he knocked his chair over, but he managed to blurt out to her, ‘We’re making a film of The Railway Children. Would you like to play the part of Bobby?’ Jenny went crimson with both embarrassment and pleasure, and immediately said, ‘Oh, yes!’
“I had been sitting with my fingers crossed under the table, saying to myself, ‘Please, let him make me an offer.” Then I heard Lionel say, ‘Oh, how wonderful! Meet your Mother.’ That was the first I knew I was their choice. Many weeks later, when we were in the middle of shooting, Lionel told me he had also been sitting with his fingers crossed under the table, saying to himself, ‘Please, let her say “yes!’
“Lionel had never directed before, but, as an actor, he was sensitive to the reactions of actors, and he did a magnificent job. He had many delightful ideas, for instance having the music written before we started the film. Johnny Douglas composed a theme tune for each character. When Bernard Cribbins or I were doing a scene, Lionel would play our particular themes while we rehearsed so the emotion was there. It was one of the marvellous feelings of the film, having the music going in your head while doing scenes. For the birthday party scene with its special waltz, Lionel had the waltz played all the time as we waited to take the scene. By the time everything was ready, we were all swimming in tears.
“During the last week of location work out on the Yorkshire moors near Howarth, I learned that thanks to my son and his wife I had become a Grandmother for the first time. Jason’s arrival completed my happiness. I was about to be fifty, and, suddenly, I didn’t mind!”
Some actresses hate historical costumes, but Dinah Sheridan is not one of them. “I actually enjoy wearing the corsets required in some period films. They bring a helpful ‘discipline’ to stance and movement. The corsets I wore in The Railway Children are still in my undies drawer, a prized relic of my favourite film.
“The film was so good to make, such fun to have a young family.around again ”
In 1968, Dinah Sheridan appeared in a stageplay “Robert’s Wife”with Canadian actor Jack Merivale — “The start of a very happy relationship.” Two years later, doctors gave him ten years to live because of a previously undiagnosed hereditary kidney condition. Dinah soon learned how to administer kidney dialysis at home, coping with complex equipment. “I always think one of my greatest achievements was learning to manage the dialysis machine with all its complexities and dangers”.
They married in 1986, and Merivale died in 1990. They had stretched his ten years to twenty.
She and Jack had been good friends for many years with another couple, American Aubrey Ison and his English wife, Liz. Both Jack Merivale and Liz Ison died the same year. “Aubrey and I shored each other up,'” she recalls. “Two years later we were married.”
“Aubrey started as a radio announcer in California and got into television right at the beginning as a producer. He devised a remarkably successful TV advertising business called TV Log, but he retired to look after Liz when she became seriously ill. We were such a happy foursome then, and Aubrey and I would talk about those times without any sadness.”
Aubrey Ison passed away in 2007.aged 92.
One of Dinah’s two children followed in her show business footsteps, while the other took a somewhat different path. The Right Honourable Sir Jeremy Hanley, K.C.M.G, was a Member of Parliament until 1997, Chairman of the Conservative Party 1994-1995, and Minister of Foreign and Colonial Affairs 1995-1997. He is now on the Boards of seven companies. Daughter Jenny was a very sucessful model and has appeared in many films and TV shows, most notably the children’s program, “Magpie,” Then researching and presenting the first magazine show on Sky TV, followed by winning a Sony Gold for her radio work.
Jeremy and Jenny have presented their mother with five grandchildren. Jenny has two sons. Jeremy has one son from his first marriage (who has two sons of his own) and a son and stepdaughter from his second marriage. “I call them ‘His, Hers, and Theirs,'” says their grandmother affectionately.
Dinah achieved yet more stardom when she took on the role of Angela in the 1980s British sitcom, Don’t Wait Up. Capitalising on her popularity, in 1983, she made a guest appearance in the BBC science fiction television series Doctor Who as the Time Lord , Chancellor Flavia in the 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors.
Dinah Sheridan has always been considered the quintessential English rose. With an alertness, elegance and quiet beauty second to none, she won the hearts of war-torn England during WWII … and is still winning hearts today with her captivating smile and terrific sense of humour!
Dinah sadly died on Sunday 25th November surrounded by her loved ones. She will be truly missed.