Colleen Clifford

Irene Margaret Clifford (née Blackford) (17 November 1898 – 7 April 1996), known professionally as Colleen Clifford, was a British-born performer, who worked in her native England as well as New Zealand and, later in her career, Australia. As an actress she worked in all facets of the industry: radio, stage, television and film. She was also a theatre founder, director and producer, coloratura soprano, dancer, comedian and classical pianist who was a specialist in voice production, drama and music. She was also a commercial advertiser, spokeswoman and charity worker and released her own memoirs. She worked across stage and screen with stars including Laurence Olivier, Noël Coward and Bette Davis, and trained Australian actors such as Judy Nunn, Paula Duncan and Melissa George.

Colleen Clifford
Personal details
Irene Margaret Blackford.

(1898-11-17)17 November 1898
Taunton, Somerset, England
Died7 April 1996(1996-04-07) (aged 97)
Edgecliff, Sydney, Australia
  • Actress
  • dancer
  • comedian
  • singer
  • theatre director, producer and owner
  • classical pianist
  • elocution, music and drama teacher
AwardsJohn Campbell Fellowship

Clifford started her career in her native United Kingdom where she was an early radio and television performer for the British Broadcasting Corporation during the 1930s and 1940s hosting cabaret and variety shows, and appearing in West End theatre and during the Second World War, becoming a feature of news broadcasting and war concerts. Clifford was, at one time, featured on a 15-minute radio show showcasing her singing and musical performances. She emigrated to Australia in 1954, and from 1955 became a highly recognisable character actress of stage, television and films, from the early 1970s in soap operas, series, mini-series, telemovies and theatrical features, often portraying eccentric elderly women. She was a grand dame and matriarch of the arts and entertainment industry. She appeared in her last role at 93 years of age and as such, alongside Olga Dickie and Queenie Ashton was one of the oldest working actors in Australia, she died aged 97.[2]


Early life and career in EnglandEdit

Born in Taunton, Somerset, England as Irene Margaret Blackford to an English-born mother and George Taunton Constable Clifford, a Major in the British army, who served in his regiment worldwide including France and Belgium, at which time Clifford was raised by an aunt in London. She had two brothers. Her paternal grandfather from Somerset also served in the army as a Major and was a recipient of the VC, her paternal youngest uncle, Ned was killed in the Boer War.[1] Clifford although based in London, lived in various parts of England including Farnham, Stropeshire, Surrey, Kensington and Cornwall, as well as New Zealand during her childhood, where her father worked as a cadet on a stock station in Masterton, before purchasing a run in Taranaki. She studied classical piano in Belgium at the Brussels Conservatoire, before receiving a scholarship to the Royal Academy in London, but stating musical theatre was favoured more, she curtailed a musical career, to become active in British theatre as a stage performer for almost thirty years, starting with a production of Hubert Henry Davies, The Mollusc. She emigrated to Perth, Australia in 1954, after the death of her husband who was a Major in The Royal Air Force.

Career in AustraliaEdit

Theatre careerEdit

She continued her theatrical career after emigrating to Australia, where she founded the Perth Theatre Guild and Drama School and as a side project taught voice production, drama and music, where throughout the next fifteen years she help develop and train talent for the theatre. She staged six successful musicals using entirely local talent and without importing professional actors. These included stage productions of Annie Get Your Gun (1959), starring Leone Martin Smith in the title role, Oklahoma (1961) and South Pacific (1962) at His Majesty's Theatre, Perth. She moved to Sydney in 1969, where she appeared often at the Old Tote Theatre in theatre roles, including "A Nightingale Still At It"[3]

Television rolesEdit

Clifford having moved from Perth to Sydney and remaining appearing in theatre roles, she began appearing in plays for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and taking on regular television and film roles.[3] Clifford became a highly recognizably actress in her latter years appearing in everything from soap opera, miniseries, telemovies and films. She made her television acting debut in 1971 as a guest star in the series Dynasty (not related to the American production)[4] and The Godfathers in 1971.[5] While touring in New Zealand in 1972, Clifford fell ill and was unable to perform for the first few shows. Being under a "no play, no pay" policy with the theatre company, meaning payment would be withheld from an actor during an illness, she was forced to remain in her Wellington apartment with no means of support. Clifford was then in her late-70s and, with rent money and doctor bills piling up, Michael Craig, and Honor Blackman and other members of the company raised enough money to financially support Clifford until she was well enough to rejoin the cast.[6]

In 1978, she guest starred on legal drama Case for the Defence.[7] A year later, she appeared in the popular series Prisoner (also known as Prisoner: Cell Block H) in a brief but memorable role as Edie Wharton,[8][9][10][11][12] an elderly woman imprisoned for vagrancy.[13] That same year, she made another guest appearance on another soap opera the Nine Network series The Young Doctors. She took a three-year absence to return to the theatre full-time but, then in 1981, began playing the guest role of Miss Bird on A Country Practice. She appeared in supporting roles including the sitcom Mother and Son and Five Mile Creek throughout the 1980s.


She started to feature in small roles in films from the 1980s onwards, firstly the historical drama film Careful, He Might Hear You (1983).[14] She spent the next decade starring in a variety of supporting roles in film. These included Where the Green Ants Dream (1984),[15] The Coca-Cola Kid (1985),[16] Double Sculls (1986), The Year My Voice Broke (1987) and Barracuda (1988).

Return to theatreEdit

In 1990, the 92-year-old Clifford starred in the latest version of her one-woman show A Nightingale Still at It in Berkeley Square. She was awarded the John Campbell Fellowship for her contribution to theatre two years later.[17]

Later roles in television and filmEdit

She returned to serial A Country Practice playing 2 different roles; Freda Spinner and Mrs. Grainger between 1990 and 1993;[18] in that same year, she starred in films This Won't Hurt a Bit and Frauds (1993)[15][19] Clifford suffered a heart attack in 1995, and was fitted with a pacemaker, she died in Sydney, Australia on 7 April 1996, at the age of 97.


Clifford had a long career in England, particularly in theatre before emigrating to Australia in 1954; the following documents her Australian credits only, where Clifford had a successful career in television and films as an actress and also appeared in theatre, as well as was a theatre director and teacher in Australia. She made her stage debut in 1955 and her screen debut in 1959 in TV series Spotlight, the first production in Western Australia, and her final film appearance in 1993.

Year Title Roles
1959 Spotlight Performer
1971 The Godfathers Miss Lovelace
1971 Dynasty
1975 Behind the Legend Mrs. Aeneas Gunn
1976 The Young Doctors Agnes Brewer
1978 Case for the Defence
1979 Prisoner Edie Wharton
1981 A Country Practice recurring roles Miss Bird/Freda Spinner (1990)/Mrs. Grainger
1982 1915 (miniseries) Mrs. Stanton
1983 Careful, He Might Hear You (film) Ettie
1984 Mother and Son Old lady at nursing home
1984 Where the Green Ants Dream (film) Miss. Strewlow
1984 Five Mile Creek Mrs. Watkins
1984 Sweet and Sour Mrs. Green
1985 The Coca-Cola Kid (film) Mrs. Haversham
1986 Double Sculls (TV film) Mrs. Fenwick
1987 The Year My Voice Broke (film) Gran Olson
1987–1988 Rafferty's Rules (TV series) Mrs. Murdock
1988 Barracuda (TV film) Mrs. Hennessey
1990–1993 A Country Practice Freda Spinner (1990)/Mrs. Grainger (1993)
1993 This Won't Hurt a Bit (TV series) Lady Smith
1993 Frauds Mrs. Waterson (film)


  1. ^ a b "Colleen Clifford interviewed by Barbara Blackman". 1985 – via National Library of Australia.
  2. ^ Gray, Darren, Colleen Clifford: a biography. ISBN 9781495938320
  3. ^ a b Hough, David. A Dream of Passion: The Centennial History of His Majesty's Theatre. Perth: UWA Press, 2004. (pg. 170–171) ISBN 1-920843-09-4
  4. ^ Storey, Don (2008). "Dynasty Episode Details". Retrieved 28 June 2009.
  5. ^ Storey, Don (2008). "The Godfathers Episode Details". Retrieved 28 June 2009.
  6. ^ Craig, Michael. The Smallest Giant: An Actor's Life. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2005. (pg. 173) ISBN 1-74114-565-1
  7. ^ Storey, Don (2008). "Case for the Defence Episode Details". Retrieved 28 June 2009.
  8. ^ Terrace, Vincent. Television, 1970–1980. San Diego: A.S. Barnes, 1981. (pg. 161) ISBN 0-498-02539-X
  9. ^ Terrace, Vincent. Encyclopedia of Television Series, Pilots & Specials: 1974–1984. Vol. 2. New York: Zoetrope, 1985. (pg. 333) ISBN 0-918432-61-8
  10. ^ "Location Spotting – C". Prisoner Cell Block H Escapees. 2002. Archived from the original on 24 September 2009. Retrieved 27 June 2009.
  11. ^ "Prisoner (1979–1987?)". OZTV Credits. 2004. Retrieved 28 June 2009.
  12. ^ Hurst, Steve (12 June 2008). "Steve Hurst's reviews of Prisoner: Episodes 41–50". 1979 in Review. Archived from the original on 19 February 2009. Retrieved 28 June 2009.
  13. ^ "PCBH Characters, Section 11". 3 March 2001. Retrieved 28 June 2009.
  14. ^ Variety's Film Reviews: 1983–1984. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1986. ISBN 0-8352-2798-7
  15. ^ a b Lentz, Harris M. Science Fiction, Horror & Fantasy Film and Television Credits: Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000. (pg. 1116, 1669) ISBN 0-7864-0951-7
  16. ^ Willis, John. Screen World 1986 Film Annual. Vol. 37. New York: Random House, 1986. (pg. 159, 175) ISBN 0-517-56257-X
  17. ^ Dockers, M.G.; Betty Blundell (2003). "1898". Ladies First: Celebrated Women from the 7th to 20th Century. Archived from the original on 4 July 2007. Retrieved 28 June 2009.
  18. ^ Zuk, T. (1998). "A Country Practice: Episode Guide (1993)". Australian Television Information Archive. Retrieved 28 June 2009.
  19. ^ Willis, John. Screen World 1994 Film Annual. Vol. 45. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2000. (pg. 275) ISBN 1-55783-201-3

Further readingEdit

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