Top 10 Welsh actors: Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts pictured in 1973

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Rachel Roberts (1927-80)

Rachel Roberts will always be best remembered for playing repressed roles. Think of Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man!, her anguished widow in the same director's This Sporting Life and her unhappy tippling teacher in the fine Australian feature Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The roles may have reflected a latent unhappiness in her gregarious nature, for Llanelli-born Roberts, in her later years at least, was an undeniably tortured personality, increasingly ill at ease with her Hollywood lifestyle and obsessed to the end with her seemingly unrequited love for former husband, actor Rex Harrison (1962-71). The story of Roberts' gradual loss of focus on her work has been told, poignantly by film critic Alexander Walker in No Bells On Sunday based on her own diary entries.

Roberts was never better than in her British Bafta winning performance in Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963) as Mrs Hammond, self-respecting northern England widow hopelessly riven by guilty after allowing herself to be seduced by her new lodger, the rugby league player Machin (Richard Harris).

In O Lucky Man! (1973), one of her characters was actually a suicide - a homebody obsessed by her failure to cope with life, who destroyed herself only after dutifully completing her chores. The episode was devised by Anderson as a satire on her Sporting Life role but deleted for American release.

She won her first Bafta for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) as a party-loving married woman exploited as a mistress by Albert Finney's cavalier factory worker Arthur Seaton. There were echoes of this performance in Roberts's predatory role as a Northerner lusting after Nicol Williamson's avenging businessman in Jack Gold's The Reckoning (1970).

She was convincingly vituperative and vulgar at times in the screen version of EA Whitehead's articulate stage two-hander Alpha Beta (1973), with Albert Finney and she was again impressive in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1976) but there was something profoundly depressing (particularly in retrospect) about watching her Mrs Appleyard, with her appalling bun wig, drinking herself to death (1976).

Roberts had more scope to reveal the sunnier side of her character as the warm selfless World War Two helpmate of her daughter (played by Lisa Eichhorn) and Richard Gere in John Schlesinger's likeable Yanks (1979) - a performance which won her a Bafta Best Supporting Actress award.

Many of Roberts' admirers will wish she had been given the chance to show more of her versatility, especially her talent for comedy revealed to advantage as Bessie the Milk, an inveterate gossip and nosey parker in Valley of Song, Gilbert Gunn's 1953 comedy set in west Wales.


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