George Formby's Leading Ladies
Every Formby leading lady has at least one unique characteristic. Spunky Peggy Bryan portrays George's only on-screen wife, married to him throughout most of the picture. (Polly Ward weds George in the final moments of Feather Your Nest.) Peggy is also the only costar who switches hair color mid-film.
Sweet, smart, sexy, and assertive, Peggy Bryan was an ideal foil for the more intelligent character George played in his final film for Ealing. The musical cadences of Peggy's voice reveal her extensive Shakespearian background, and she photographs superbly. Turned Out Nice Again was her first film. Sadly, she would make only two more--one a classic--before marrying and semi-retiring.
Margaret (Peggy) Eileen Bryan was born in Birmingham on January 3, 1916, the daughter of Nellie Miriam (Gray) and George John Bryan. She attended Windermere College and became an elocution teacher at Highclare College, Sutton Coldfield. Though no one in her family had a show business background, she acquired considerable amateur stage experience and finally decided to try for an acting career. She applied to the London Academy of Music and Drama and was awarded a 6 month scholarship.
Her first professional appearance was on December 16, 1937 as Puck in a scene from Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal performance in aid of King George's Actors Pension Fund. In 1938, she performed at Regent's Park, London, repeating the role of Puck and playing Ariel in The Tempest, with Philip Merivale as Prospero. West End roles followed in April Clouds and Glorious Morning in which she succeeded Jessica Tandy. 1939 saw her in three shows, The Springtime of Others, Q, and The Fanatics. In 1940, she appeared in 5 Shakespearean plays at Stratford on Avon.
Director Marcel Varnel and screenwriter Basil Deardon spotted her on stage, possibly at one of the Shakespeare performances, and hired her to be George's leading lady in his next film, Turned Out Nice Again.
A curious legal situation almost stopped this film. It was based on the play As You Are by Hugh Mills and Wells Root. Unfortunately, Mills had been in Paris when the Nazis marched in early in World War II, and he had been interned. Unsure whether Mills was dead or alive, his agent refused to authorize a motion picture version on his behalf. Producer Michael Balcon reached an agreement with Mills' family, and the production went forward. (Happily, Hugh Mills survived to write many more plays and films.)
Peggy Bryan's nemesis in Turned Out Nice Again is her mother-in-law-from-hell, played by beefy Scottish actress Elliot Mason, a sort of surrogate Beryl Formby who devotes her time preventing any canoodling between the married couple. The two women compete for dominance over George, a sort of parable for the struggle between old and new Britain. Bryan represents the modern woman with both beauty (posing in see-through step-ins) and brains (using her business savvy to save George's bacon.) Her droll delivery of the line, "Modern women don't want reliable brassieres," is delicious. Picture Show magazine, in its August, 1941 issue, lauded her as "Britain's newest face."
Her next film was My Wife's Family, another farcical fable about wife versus mother-in-law. This time, Peggy had third female billing under Patricia Roc and Chili Bouchier. However, critical praise went to character actress Margaret Scudamore as the mother-in-law and to the 20-year-old Joan Greenwood, appearing in her second film.
Peggy returned to the stage for James M. Barrie's The Little Minister, 1942; The Professor's Love Story, 1943, and Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (1943). In 1945, she appeared in the 6-part horror classic, Dead of Night, playing "Mary" in the golfing segment. One more stage role followed. Then Peggy Bryan, not yet 30, seems to have left professional life. She may have appeared in television in the early 1950s, but no credits have been confirmed.
Like many other delightful actresses, Peggy Bryan chose marriage over career, wedding cinematographer Wilkie Cooper. Cooper, born October 19, 1911 in London, had been a child actor, then a cameraman, and finally Director of Photography for 70 films, including The Foreman Went to France (1942), Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950), Geordie (1955), Mouse on the Moon (1963), the special-effects classic Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Cromwell (1970).
Reviewing Turned Out Nice Again, noted film historian William K. Everson called Peggy Bryan, "charming." He commented that, "biographical material on her is practically non-existent, but the resemblance to Jane Bryan, a Warner starlet of the same period is so strong that one can't help but conjecture as to whether there was a relationship there." However, this is highly unlikely.
Peggy Bryan Cooper died January 12, 1996, aged 80, in Ferring, West Sussex. She was survived by her husband and (as her friend, Rosemary Scott D'Albie, recalls) three sons. Wilkie Cooper, now 90, did not reply to requests for an interview about his talented wife, so details of her later life are unknown. However, she remains a glowing presence in her films, a lady of beauty, presence, and vivacity, with a unique combination of strength and sweetness that make her the perfect representation of the New Woman of Britain.
Star of Turned Out Nice Again
When we last met vivacious Peggy Bryan in her Autumn 2001 Vellum profile, she had brightened the British stage and screen for 7 years, then married cinematographer/director Wilkie Cooper and vanished from the press. Few details could be found about her later life
Fortunately, her son Gavin Cooper and his wife Pat dropped by Blackpool during the GFS Winter convention and filled us in on the post-show business years of this delightful Formby leading lady. “I was born in 1946,” he recalls, “and my brother, Jonathan, followed in 1949. Of course, I was much too young to be aware of her career at the time, but I believe that she continued to do some radio work and appeared in a Camay commercial even after my brother was born, However, she soon devoted herself entirely to my father’s career as he switched from director of photography to directing. I remember that she’d sometimes be off on location with him while my brother and I stayed home with the nanny.
“One intriguing thing is that he filmed part of the cult classic One Million Years BC (1966with Raquel Welch)in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. That’s where my wife and I now live since I retired.” Gavin’s wife adds, “It’s a volcanic island and parts are incredibly beautiful and barren – very suitable for a prehistorical setting.”
Despite having two professional parents, neither son chose a career in show business. Jonathan, now living in Sussex, is in the building trades. Gavin was an estate agent and building society manager before his recent retirement. Peggy took great delight in her granddaughter Martine (“Marty”) by Jonathan and her two stepchildren from Gavin’s marriage.
Peggy Bryan Cooper was in ill health the final 20 years of her life, but survived to just past her 80th birthday. She died in West Sussex on January 12, 1996. Her widower, Wilkie Cooper, celebrated his 90th birthday on 19 Oct, 2001. Thank you, Gavin and Pat, for filling in our information on the later years of this delightful actress.