Jill Balcon: A life less ordinary

The actress Jill Balcon was the daughter of a movie mogul and the wife of a poet laureate. Now she is about to play the lover of her son, Daniel Day-Lewis

By Matthew Sweet

26 September 2003

One afternoon in the mid-1960s, Tamasin and Daniel Day-Lewis came haring down from their playroom to tell their mother about something they'd just seen on television. It was Nicholas Nickleby, a picaresque melodrama with atmospheric chiaroscuro cinematography, a ripe cast of British heavyweights, and an ingénue making a memorable debut in the role of Madeleine Bray, the young woman determined to save her ailing father by consenting to be married alive to the monstrous patriarch Ralph Nickleby. It was also the only Dickens adaptation produced by Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios. "They couldn't believe," reflects Jill Balcon, 57 years after her first exposure to the klieg lights, "that I'd ever been so young."

In her long career as an actress, Balcon has been most consistently celebrated for her finely modulated voice. I can attest that even when on the phone to the council to complain about its inability to collect her rubbish, her voice sounds like a solo on the cor anglais. On the stage, she survived the experience of playing Zenocrate to Donald Wolfit's Tamburlaine in Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, despite his habit of bashing her head about during the death scene. On the screen, she relished a vicious dormitory scrap with Jean Kent in Good Time Girl (1949), and the honorific roles that Derek Jarman bestowed upon her in Edward II (1991) and Wittgenstein (1993). She also modelled for Jacob Epstein, who importuned her in the Caprice restaurant and asked if he might immortalise her head. (The finished work is now lost, but if you have a piece of Jill Balcon in your conservatory, she wants to hear from you: "If I'm still on this earth, let me know.")

She lives in the kind of Hampshire cottage customarily featured on thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles. A self-portrait by Daniel, stark and moody and angular, hangs in the hallway, a Christmas present during one of the family's impecunious periods. (The frame, of course, is also her son's work.) There's a fish pool in the garden, by which her friend and neighbour Alec Guinness would sit, in order to be on the safe margins of social gatherings. (At dinner parties, she remembers, he would always insist on sitting nearest the door.) Her kettle is on the blink, so as we sit down in the music-room to discuss her career, she consoles herself with a cup of last night's cold coffee.

"I didn't want to be in it at first," she says, recalling her debut in Nicholas Nickleby, "because I was just getting started and the last thing I wanted to be was the boss's daughter. I thought it would be awkward being around Ealing in a professional capacity. It's difficult to be taken seriously if you come out of that sort of stable." Jill Balcon bears a strong resemblance to her father - she could be nobody else's daughter - but her relationship with him was frequently explosive: "I was very frightened of him at times. I wasn't beaten or anything, but I was frightened of his wrath. He was a formidable figure in the home."

Their points of difference were legion. Her father was dismayed by her choice of a career, and though he paid her drama-school fees, she has no recollection of him ever praising any of her performances: "I remember when I went to work at the Bristol Old Vic. He said: 'Couldn't you find a job in London?'" He disapproved more deeply of her choice of a husband: Cecil Day-Lewis, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a married man, and the lover of the novelist Rosamond Lehmann. When Balcon read a front-page story in London's Evening Standard, naming his daughter as co-respondent in Day-Lewis's divorce case, the portcullis crashed down. He refused to attend the wedding ceremony, or the reception at the Ivy. Charles Tennyson, the grandson of the Victorian poet laureate, gave the bride away, and Jill Balcon's cleaning lady, Mrs Pizzey, was a witness.

I ask her about her war experiences. She recalls how she exchanged a few hot words in a train compartment with the captured German airman, Franz von Werra, whose cross-country flight became the subject of Roy Ward Baker's film, The One that Got Away (1957). (Her father went to great lengths to ensure that this detail of the fugitive's story did not appear in the press reports of Von Werra's apprehension.)

She recalls her nights in the basement of her parents' apartment block, trying to sleep under a blue electric light, with the bombs exploding overhead. "I can remember going out to the Hungaria restaurant and spending the night under a table in one of the worst air raids of the war. We came out alive. But where Swan and Edgar's was, where Tower Records is now in Piccadilly Circus, there were sheets of glass covering the pavement, and water mains bursting everywhere."

She breaks off, slightly surprised that I'm interested in this part of her life. "I don't think my children have ever asked me about it," she notes. "Maybe they've seen so many movies, or they think it's boring..."

It hasn't stopped other people pumping her for her reminiscences. "It's very chastening," she observes, "to be a footnote in so many people's lives." More than a footnote, perhaps, but rarely the heroine. In Elizabeth Jane Howard's memoirs, she appears as the best friend with whose husband the author pursues a guilt-wracked affair. In a recent biography of Rosamond Lehmann, she figures as the depressingly young and vivacious new mistress who displaces the subject in the affections of her lover. In Sean Day-Lewis's Cecil Day-Lewis: An English Literary Life, she is the Other Woman who takes Cecil away from Sean's mother, Mary Day-Lewis. ("Jill Balcon comes into the picture," wrote Mary Day-Lewis in her diary. "Everything has the feeling of a nightmare.")

This is the book that has given her the most discomfort. "I encouraged him to write it because I felt it would be a good way of dealing with his grief," she contends. "I'm a great one for the truth, and there are 18 inaccuracies in the chapter on Cecil's death alone, and nobody was prepared to alter them." It concerns her that readers will assume - as many of her friends did at the time of publication - that her presence in the acknowledgments suggests that the book represents her own views of her late husband. "I had made a plea for one or two things to be cut for decency's sake," she says, "but they weren't."

I point out that her stepson's preface concedes that a Freudian analyst reading the book would probably conclude that it was the product of the son's desire to slay his father. "I haven't had Freudian analysis," she ventures, "but I did tell him to be careful that, in not wishing to smother [Cecil] with praise, he didn't condemn him. And that's exactly what happened. Cecil emerged as simply awful." It is the undignified details that stick in the mind: Cecil hiding in the lavatory to peruse adulterous correspondence; Jill Balcon's discovery of a note from a later lover, which fluttered from his pocket on a family holiday; the alliance that Rosamond Lehmann and Mary Day-Lewis formed against the man who done them wrong. "We both felt," Lehmann told Sean Day-Lewis, "we were nothing but obstacles in the way of his desires and determination. No kindness, no courtesy, sympathy or (apparently) conscience."

The poet laureate's widow views this with a psychoanalytical eye: "I think that, in a way, a son who has not made it as his father did, has to assassinate him. I don't think that Cecil was without fault. That would be ridiculous. But it's how you do it." Daniel Day-Lewis's dynastic marriage to Rebecca Miller, the daughter of Arthur Miller and the late Inge Morath, has guaranteed Jill Balcon a place in the index of many more biographies to come. Perhaps she should be grateful that her daughter Tamasin did no more than step out with Martin Amis.

We move into the kitchen. My hostess has decided that before she runs me back to the station, she will make me lunch. Alec Guinness, she says, maintained that an omelette should be cooked for 55 seconds, exactly the same time it takes to recite a Shakespearean sonnet. I sit down at the dining-table which, I learn, was crafted by Daniel at woodwork lessons at Bedales. Compared to the two-tier triangular egg-rack that I brought proudly home to my parents, this is a Grinling Gibbons. When Daniel Day-Lewis decided to become an actor, it was a terrible loss to the world of marquetry. Everything you've read about his cobbling skills is also true, according to his mother's description of the exquisite pair of shoes that he made for his mother-in-law, Inge Morath, during her final illness.

I had thought that Jill Balcon might be reticent about discussing her children. They are, however, her favourite subject. She tells me how, during their childhood in Greenwich, Daniel sang at a local church for two bob a time; how Tamasin went roller-skating at the Woolwich Road baths and came home highly decorated. "She used to go off with her little case of sandwiches every Saturday morning. She was the champ..." Mementos of her family are visible all over the cottage. In the kitchen, I notice a saved piled of Tamasin's cookery columns; Daniel's face staring from a magazine rack; a poster for Stars and Bars tacked to the back of a kitchen unit. She admits that she sees her children and grandchildren - particularly Cashel and Ronan, Daniel's sons with Rebecca Miller - less often than she'd like. Though Daniel phones every weekend, he manages meetings only a couple of times a year. In the time between, she keeps tabs on him via newspaper profiles. "Some of these journalists are very clever. They have insights into him that I would never think of."

October, however, offers a double pleasure. Her next acting role will be in a Radio 4 play entitled Deadheading Roses, to be broadcast around Christmas, in which Daniel has been persuaded to participate. Will he play her son? "No," she smiles, "my lover." It is her greatest regret, she says, that neither her husband nor her father lived to see Daniel's success; that they knew him only as a rather troubled teenage boy. Her wish conjures up a mental image of Cecil Day-Lewis and Michael Balcon, walking down the red carpet to the premiere of Gangs of New York, their differences forgotten in admiration of their heir.

"They would have been so proud of him," she reflects. "If only they could have known." Or, if only, perhaps, they had rushed downstairs to tell her that her son was on the television, looking impossibly young.