Dinah Sheridan

Star of Get Cracking
by Eleanor Dugan

Did you know that Dinah Sheridan, the quintessential English rose, had a Russian father and a German mother? "But I'm pure Hampstead," she explains with her distinctive musical laugh.

As George's leading lady in Get Cracking (1943), Miss Sheridan does not appear until thirty-eight minutes into the film. But the moment she does, her intelligence, radiance, and spirited grace convince us that George must be a very extraordinary fellow indeed to be worthy of her devotion.

Dinah Nadyejda Mec was born September 17, 1920 in Hampstead to talented photographers James and Lisa Mec. (Her parents 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. Soon after, she went on tour as Wendy to the Peter Pan of Jean Forbes-Robertson and, later, Elsa Lanchester, with Charles Laughton as Captain Hook.

When it came time to choose a stage name, she hesitated. "With our family name pronounced 'mess,'" she told the Vellum, "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."

As a teenager, she continued her career in repertory and had her first film lead in Irish And Proud Of It, 1936. She was nineteen and had appeared in seven films when World War II broke out in September, 1939.

Dinah put war work ahead of her career to became Chief Ambulance Driver for the Welwyn Garden City Council and secretary to the city Surveyor and Sanitary Inspector. And, 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 I presumably posed no threat!"

The young actress soon learned that "if I was on call, [Beryl Formby] was also on call. She would not leave George alone anywhere near the leading lady. From a comedy point of view, I learned a lot. But I felt so sorry for George!" Beryl Formby was always a distinctive presence on the set. Dinah remembers character actor Ronald Shiner commenting, "With the amount of jewels Beryl wears, we don't need any lights when she's on the set!"

One scene in Get Cracking has modestly-pyjamaed Dinah in a bed which George hides under. The scene was rehearsed with a stand-in for George, and only when the cameras were ready to shoot did George suddenly appear. "I suppose Beryl kept him away," she says.

On another occasion, Dinah overheard a revealing exchange between George and another actor on the set. "You have a wonderful married life," the older man commented. "How do you do it?" George replied, "I can't say that it's all roses. If you have chicken every day, you get tired of it by Friday." (At that time, only rich people ate chicken; everyone else settled for rabbit.)

Of her experiences as a Formby leading lady, she says, "All the young actresses seemed to work with him at some point, and it was always said that if you played opposite George Formby, you seemed to go on to better things."

During the 1940s, Dinah's marriage to Jimmy Hanley produced two very gifted children, Jeremy, born in 1945, and Jenny, born in 1947. (Another daughter sadly died at birth.) But the marriage was dissolved in 1952.

In 1953, Dinah Sheridan completed shooting on a film called Genevieve, about an antique 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. 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 now made twenty-four films without achieving stardom. When the President of the Rank organization, Sir John Davis, proposed on the condition that she give up acting, she decided to accept. "He said, 'You'll never have to worry or struggle again -- just take care of the children' -- he had three and I had two. I loved children, and we were married in 1954."

Then Genevieve opened to rave reviews, many of them for 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," she says, "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 legless pilot, 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 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."

The Railway Children (1971) remains one of her fans' favourite films -- and hers too. "A totally unexpected phone call came from Lionel Jeffries, an actor I had always admired but never worked with," she says. "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 I had become a Grandmother for the first time. Jason is now twenty-eight, but his 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," she says. "We were a very happy family. Over my desk hangs a poster from The Railway Children that my husband had framed for me. It is so lovely to see the children smiling as they run down the railway track."

 In 1968, Dinah Sheridan appeared in 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," she says. They married in 1986, and Merivale died in 1990. They had stretched his ten years to twenty.

She and Merivale had been good friends for twenty years with another couple, American Aubrey Ison and his English wife, Liz. Both John Merivale and Liz Ison died the same year. "Aubrey and I 'held each other up,'" she recalls. "Two years later we were married.

"Aubrey was 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, that Aubrey and I can talk about those times without any sadness. We have a photo on the sideboard that Aubrey calls 'My Two Wives.' It is a shot of Liz and me having breakfast when we were all in good health."

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 model and has appeared in films and many TV shows, presenting and hosting a children's program, "Magpie," for six years.

Jeremy and Jenny have presented their mother with five grandchildren. Jenny has two sons, ages 12 and 14. Jeremy has one son from his first marriage and a son and stepdaughter from his second marriage. "I call them 'His, Hers, and Theirs,'" says their grandmother affectionately.

The Isons have now given up their English home base and settled permanently in the southern California desert of the U.S. Dinah Sheridan hasn't entirely retired. "My husband and I go to London three or four months each summer to escape the desert heat," she says. "Last summer [1998] I did a radio play, and will do more this summer." But life in California keeps her busy. In Palm Desert, she serves as Handicap Chairman of the Ladies' Putting Club. "Because of double hip replacements, I don't play regular golf, but we do lots of putting with delightful people. It's most enjoyable."

Fifty-seven years after she inspired George Formby to create a war-winning secret weapon in Get Cracking, she still possesses her own potent secret weapon: charm. Adding natural grace, dignity, humour, and an eternally youthful zest for life, Dinah Sheridan continues to add to her legion of admirers who have applauded since she first stepped on a stage sixty-seven years ago.

Dinah DSheridan passed away on 26th November 2012. Please follow this link to read her obituary.
Dinah Sheridan obituary

1935 - I Give My Heart
1936 - Irish and Proud of It (first film lead)
1937 - Landslide
1937 - Behind Your Back
1937 - Father Steps Out
1938 - Merely Mr. Hawkins
1939 - Full Speed Ahead
1942 - Salute John Citizen
1943 - Get Cracking
1945 - For You Alone
1945 - 29 Acacia Avenue
1945 - Murder in Reverse
1947 - The Hills of Donegal
1948 - Calling Paul Temple
1949 - The Huggetts Abroad
1949 - The Story of Shirley Yorke
1949 - Dark Secret
1950 - No Trace
1950 - Blackout
1951 - Paul Temple's Triumph
1951 - Where No Vultures Fly
1952 - The Sound Barrier
1953 - Appointment in London
1953 - The Gilbert and Sullivan Story
1953 - Genevieve
1971 - The Railway Children
1980 - The Mirror Crack'd

1932 - Where the Rainbow Ends (age 12)
1934-38 - Peter Pan (as Wendy & Peter)
1940-42 - in repertory
1967 - Let's All Go Down the Strand
1968 - A Boston Story (w/Tony Britton)
1969 - Out of the Question (w/Gladys Cooper, Michael Dennison)
1972 - Move Over, Mrs. Markham (w/Tony Britton)
1973 - The Card (w/Jim Dale)
1974 - The Gentle Hook
1976 - The Pleasure of His Company (w/Douglas Fairbanks Jnr)
1977 - In the Red
1977 - A Murder is Announced (w/Dulcie Gray)
1978 - Half Life (Canada/England tour w/John Gielgud)
1981 - Present Laughter (w/Donald Sinden)
1984 - The Apple Cart (w/Peter O'Toole)

1936 - Picture Page (first broadcast)
1937 - The Maker of Dreams (w/Robt Helpmann)
1938 - Gallows Glorious (1st 3-act play on TV)
1969 - Play of the Month: An Ideal Husband
1971 - Play for To-Day: Alma Mater
1973 - Ooh La La
1973 - The Swish of the Curtain
1974 - Just Liz
1974 - Sink or Swim
1975 - Doctor Who Special: The Five Doctors
1976 - Picture Page, 100 Years On
1976 - Play of the Month: Loyalties
1977 - The Birth of Television
1979 - Sykes: The Insurance Money
1980 - Hammer House of Horror, The 13th Reunion
1982 - All for Love: Fireworks for Elspeth
1985 - Winning Streak
1983-1990 - Don't Wait Up (six series, BBC, w/Tony Britton & Nigel Havers)
1986 - Crosswits (numerous episodes)
1990 - Us & Them
1991 - Keeping Up Appearances
1992 - Lovejoy, "The Prague Sun"
1992 - All Night Long (BBC series)
1992 - Countdown (numerous episodes)