x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Played her part to perfection

Jill Angela Henriette Balcon was born to a movie mogul father who disapproved of her entering show business. She married the poet Cecil Day-Lewis and passed her love of acting to their son, Daniel Day-Lewis.

Jill Angela Henriette Balcon's marriage to Cecil Day-Lewis estranged her father.
Jill Angela Henriette Balcon's marriage to Cecil Day-Lewis estranged her father.

Her life may have been overshadowed by the prominent men within her family, but the actress Jill Angela Henriette Balcon, who has died aged 84, nonetheless carved out a solid career during the late 20th century on screen, stage and radio, where her well-modulated tones became instantly recognisable. If she was better known perhaps for her supporting role as the wife of the one-time poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis - as notorious for his womanising as he was celebrated for his lyrical verse - it was a part that she played to perfection, despite its not inconsiderable demands.

Balcon first met Day-Lewis, who was 21 years her senior, in 1948. A professor of poetry at Oxford, not only a married man but also involved amorously with the novelist Rosamond Lehman, Day-Lewis was, by all accounts, utterly magnetic. Balcon herself was a remarked beauty. The artist Jacob Epstein was so taken with her that he made a bronze sculpture of her head. She had first laid eyes on Day-Lewis in 1937 as a pupil at Roedean School, where the poet had visited to judge a poetry recital competition. More than a decade later, on her 23rd birthday, the two appeared on the radio programme Time for Verse. The following year they met again at the English Festival of Spoken Poetry in London.

Three years later, they were married, an act which estranged Balcon from her formidable father, Sir Michael. He was enraged that his daughter should be named in the press as the co-respondent in the adulterous Day-Lewis's divorce, and thwarted in his hope that she would marry a rich industrialist. The co-founder of Gainsborough Pictures, Michael Balcon had given Alfred Hitchcock his first directing job. He later joined MGM before transforming Ealing Studios into the most famous British studio in the world, but was dismayed when his daughter wished to follow him into the industry. Her cinematic debut was in 1947 when she played Madeline Bray in Nicholas Nickleby, an Ealing Studios production. Various screen roles followed, but the stage soon became Balcon's preferred platform.

The newlyweds lived in relative penury once Day-Lewis had paid alimony to his ex-wife, Mary. Invited by friends to holiday at Lake Garda, the couple were forced to sell a pair of silver coffee pots to pay their fare, but their shared humour and love of poetry and political discourse made their marriage a happy and successful one. Feted on London's literary scene, they often appeared together on stage to give public poetry readings and radio broadcasts.

Day-Lewis's appetite for infidelity remained undimmed by his marriage to Balcon however, and she was inevitably hurt by his discrete affairs. The cruellest of all was his infatuation with her friend, the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard, who recalled the details of their affair in her memoir, Slipstream. Widowed at 47, Balcon edited several posthumous collections of Day-Lewis's poetry and performed at various festivals and events in an effort to maintain his reputation. After the interruption of children - the cookery writer and documentary maker Tamasin and the actor Daniel - she had returned to work as an actress. Her final film role was as Lady Bracknell in Oliver Parker's An Ideal Husband (1999) alongside Cate Blanchett and Minnie Driver. In 2003 she starred with Daniel in Deadheading Roses, a radio play commissioned for the BBC in celebration of her 60-year career.

Jill Angela Henriette Balcon was born on January 3, 1925. She died on July 18. She is survived by her daughter and son. * The National