Our very own grande dame, Ginette MacDonald

Davina: An Acting Life
Davina Whitehouse
Reed, $34.95,
ISBN 0 7900 0706 1

That much bandied-about word “Icon” is used rather too often in New Zealand to deify anyone who has stuck their head over the punga pallisade, who in the course of their own life is perceived to have Made a Difference to ours by pursuing their own dreams with determination and vigour, and influencing the rest of us as a Role Model (another rather jaded epithet).

Davina Whitehouse has definitely made a difference to the acceptance of professional theatre, radio, television and film as a legitimate means by which to earn a living in Aotearoa. As a sometime thespian and former acolyte of the indefatigable Davina (“Dav” to all who know her well), I scarcely need her biography to be reminded of her trailblazing and doughty struggles to be accepted on her own terms, as a talented woman with strong ideals and opinions, coping as an educated immigrant with persistent xenophobia. A few years back, following a snivelling journalistic criticism in the Evening Post of Davina’s “Pommy” voice narrating a radio series on notable New Zealand women, I became part of a group of actresses who were forced to write to that organ in support of Davina’s grand contribution to our own lives and careers.

Davina Smith was born in London six years before the Armistice. She remembers sighting T E Lawrence in the Victory Parade. In 1920, as was the peripatetic wont of upper-middle-class Brits, her widowed mother whisked Davina and her sister Mavis to California for a year. Aboard the SS Baltic, little Dav met Charlie Chaplin on the First Class deck and observed Irish immigrants being checked for disease before being herded into steerage. She vowed she would never travel that way – egalitarian New Zealand was a long way in the future. In San Francisco Davina went to school and revelled in the less orthodox ways of America: bobbing her hair, wearing denim overalls and rollerskating.

Back in London, her mother married “Uncle Leonard”, a land-owning toff, and Dav settled into a seemingly idyllic upper-class childhood of prep school and holidays at home in the large country house in Huntingdonshire where Uncle Leonard had no fewer than four maids installed (and a gun collection that the Home Guard said was far too good to waste on the Germans). At 15 and with the benign approval of her family (Davina’s father had “artistic” connections), she successfully auditioned for RADA and spent two years there in company with Celia Johnson. Her family knew Lady Ottoline Morrell and the gawky leggy adolescent Davina was invited to tea in Gower Street with Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf et al.

After graduating in 1929 and changing her name to Davina Craig, her first jobs were dubbing the inadequate voices of silent movie stars in the new “talkies”. She soon caught the eye of actor/manager Ivor Novello and was cast as “the maid”, beginning a long and agreeable stint of maid typecasting in British plays and films.

As a contract player to Twickenham Films, she rubbed shoulders with Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, Gracie Fields, John Mills, Ida Lupino, Margaret Rutherford, Ralph Richardson and Peter Ustinov in a golden age of British cinema. Along with Alastair Sim, the young Davina Craig was tipped as a rising star “whose servant character studies are genius”. Years later, watching television at home in Pukerua Bay, Davina had the extraordinary experience of watching young actors on Whose Line Is It Anyway? satirically improvising lines to an early British talkie – and, cavorting on the screen, was the very young Davina Craig as the comic maid.

During World War II Dav stayed in London, still filmmaking though now for the Ministry of Information. She provides wonderful girlish descriptions of the Blitz in letters to her sister Mavis in Canada: “Say what you will, Hitler is the best laxative I know”; “We are making Mummy a super pair of air raid pyjamas”; “The day we opened [in a new comedy] France capitulated.”

During an air raid she comforted the widowed neighbour Mr Whitehouse, who worked for the BBC and helped to develop the nascent television industry. As the bombs fell all around, John Henry Archibald (Archie) Whitehouse and Davina fell in love, and they were married in 1941. They both shared a strong love of boating and the sea. In a truly beautiful letter on the eve of his wedding, Archie wrote to Davina: “You mustn’t lose your strong religious observance which has done so much to keep your penetrating wit and critical faculties unshrewish and charitable.”

Post-war, Davina’s career in British television was flourishing, but Archie’s was not. In 1952 they sailed with their two young sons to New Zealand on the SS Rangitikei. Davina was heartbroken. On sighting the ramshackle houses and corrugated roofs of New Zealand, she wondered if anyone here loved the theatre, would speak her language – well, if they didn’t then, they do now.

Over the past 50 years Davina has come to love this country, and we her. She has been a radio drama actress, rising to executive producer and overcoming the prevailing discourteousness towards women in positions of authority. She was at the coalface of early New Zealand television production, has been the doyenne of the new flourishing theatre scene, has won prizes in New Zealand and Australia for her acting, had her own talk show and featured on This Is Your Life.

When her beloved Archie died in 1973, Davina wrote her first and only poem (“and I shall nevermore be kissed”). She finally became a New Zealand citizen and continues to work in a flourishing industry. I produced her, performing at the age of 83, in a moving 30-minute television monologue written especially for her by Fiona Samuel. I shall never forget her last line, where she, as a housekeeper to a strait-laced elderly barrister now deceased, was recalling their last argument during which he said that if everyone did exactly as they pleased, then the world would fall apart. Davina’s line, said simply and quietly in front of a tower of 70-odd years of experience, was, “And I said, would it? Would it fall apart, or would it be … wonderful?” The normally taciturn sound operator removed his earphones and quietly said to me, “It is an honour to be part of this production.”

Davina has honoured us with her presence in New Zealand. As Icon and Role Model, Grande Dame and Earthy Pragmatist, she has indeed Made a Difference.

She shall evermore be kissed.

Ginette MacDonald is a Wellington actor and producer.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category