Phyllis Neilson-Terry (15 October 1892 – 25 September 1977) was an English actress. She was a member of the third generation of the theatrical dynasty the Terry family. After early successes in the classics, including several leading Shakespearean roles, she spent more than four years in the US, in generally lightweight presentations.
|Born||15 October 1892|
|Died||25 September 1977 (aged 84)|
|Relatives||See Terry family|
Returning to England in 1919 she pursued a varied career, including cabaret, pantomime and variety as well as returning to Shakespeare and other classics. One of her last major roles was in Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables (1954) in which she played in the West End and on Broadway.
Neilson-Terry was born in London, the daughter of the actress Julia Neilson and her husband, the actor Fred Terry. The couple's other child was Phyllis's younger brother, Dennis Neilson-Terry, who also went on the stage. She was educated first at Westgate-on-Sea, and then in Paris, and after that at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she studied to be a singer.
In 1909 Neilson-Terry made her first stage appearance, in her parent's stage company on tour in Blackpool; she played Marie de Belleforêt in Henry of Navarre, under the stage name Phillida Terson. The attempt to disguise her membership of the Terry dynasty was unsuccessful and the following year she abandoned it and reverted to her own name. Her London debut was in the same role, at the New Theatre in January 1910. The following month, when her mother was unwell, she took over the leading role of Marguerite de Valois. The drama critic of The Observer commented that her performance in such a heavy role "must be pronounced very promising indeed".
In April 1910, she played Viola in Twelfth Night in Sir Herbert Tree's company at His Majesty's in a cast that included Tree as Malvolio and her father as Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, a role he had formerly played to the Viola of his sister, Ellen. Her reviews were enthusiastic; The Observer said that expectations were extremely high but "she proved able to justify all, and more than all, the expectations which her effort had aroused," and The Times said that she "won everybody's heart from the first moment of her appearance. Tree, in a post-curtain speech, predicted that she would "add fresh honours to the honoured name of Terry for many a long year."
From 1910 to 1914, Neilson-Terry played a wide range of parts; in the classics her roles included Rosalind in As You Like It (1911), Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Desdemona in Othello and Portia in The Merchant of Venice (all 1912). She also appeared in modern plays, including a revival of Trilby opposite Tree's Svengali. She continued to play the role in revivals in many parts of the world in later years. In 1914 she went to the US, and, having signed a long-term contract, did not return to Britain until 1919. In America she reprised her Trilby, appeared in vaudeville giving songs, recitations and excerpts from Shakespeare, and played Nora Marsh in Somerset Maugham's The Land of Promise.
In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography J C Trewin wrote that it was "unfortunate" that Fred Terry seldom extended himself by taking the great classic roles for which his talent fitted him. The Times's obituarist of Terry's daughter made a similar point about her, commenting that after returning from the US she did not regain the outstanding position she had won for herself as a young actress. As in America, she toured with light variety programmes, and in ephemeral crowd-pleasing plays. Among the latter was The Wheel by J B Fagan, in which she gave her young cousin John Gielgud his first paid acting role, in 1922.
During the 1920s Neilson-Terry toured in South Africa, and appeared in Britain in a range of performance from cabaret to pantomime at Drury Lane. She played in Shakespeare at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park and on tour with Donald Wolfit. In the 1930s she played Lady Macbeth and Queen Katherine in Henry VIII at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. In Gielgud's view, her most notable role of the inter-war years was Queen Elizabeth in Ferdinand Bruckner's Elizabeth of England: "In this play she showed unexpected tragic power in the scene in which Essex bursts into her presence to find her wigless and dishevelled."
During the 1940s her roles included Miss Moffat in The Corn is Green in which Gielgud said she acted "with undiminished grace." In the 1950s her most notable role was Mrs Railton-Bell, the tyrannical matriarch in Rattigan's Separate Tables. She later played the role on Broadway. Her final stage performances were as Lady Bletchley in Frederick Lonsdale's Let Them Eat Cake (1959) and Lady Godolphin in Robert Kemp's Off a Duck's Back (1960).
- Trilby; (1915 Hollywood version, directed by Maurice Tourneur; not the 1914 British version starring Tree).
- The Call of the Blood (1921, Western film) as Hermione Lester
- Tense Moments with Great Authors (1922, Short) as Trilby
- Boadicea (1927) as Queen Boadicea
- One Family (1930, British Empire film) as 'Australia'
- Rx Murder (1958) as Lady Lacy
- The Enchanted April (1958, ITV Play of the Week) as Mrs Fisher
- Ivanhoe (1958, TV Series) as Queen Eleanor
- Pride and Prejudice (1958, TV series) as Lady Catherine de Bourgh
- Look Back in Anger (1959) as Mrs. Redfern
- Conspiracy of Hearts (1960) as Sister Elizaveta (final film role)
- Gaye, pp. 1008–1010
- "Royal Academy of Music", The Times, 13 October 1909, p. 8
- "Obituary – Miss Phyllis Neilson-Terry", The Times, 26 September 1977, p. 14
- "Dramatis Personae", The Observer, 27 February 1910, p. 8
- "His Majesty's – Twelfth Night", The Observer, 10 April 1910, p. 8
- "His Majesty's Theatre", Twelfth Night, 8 April 1910, p. 12
- "His Majesty's Theatre", The Times, 20 February 1912, p. 10
- Trewin, J C. "Terry, Fred (1863–1933)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 24 February 2014 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- Gielgud, p. 51
- Gielgud, John. "Miss Phyllis Neilson-Terry", The Times, 30 September 1977, p. 19
- Tynan, Kenneth. "Mixed Double", The Observer, 26 September 1954, p. 11
- Gielgud, p. 223
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