First published in Cape Times 8 June 2010

The epitome of beauty and grace, worldly, funny, and possessing a deep artistic sensibility, are just some of the attributes ascribed to the late Shelagh Holliday by her colleagues and friends.   Shelagh Holliday; actress, wife, mother, grandmother and friend to many, passed away on 28 May.  At age 79 one could say she had a great innings.  Holliday is fondly remembered for her roles in Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Athol Fugard’s A Lesson From The Aloes, as well as Hay Fever by Noël Coward, and many more.   During her illustrious career she raked in no less than three Best Actress Awards and twenty-two nominations for her performances.

South African born Holliday trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London until 1952, and she married her husband, Robin Holliday, in 1953.  She was a voice teacher before finally landing her first leading role at the age of 35.  Her closest friend and fellow actress Diane Wilson remembers this fondly, “Shelagh was very elegant and very tall and her career did not really take off until later, because in those days all the young parts were given to women who were around 5 feet tall, even in London and New York, they were tiny girls,” Wilson recalls. “So she started to get decent parts reasonably late in life.”   Wilson who is a consummate actress herself, she has scooped numerous Best Actress and Fleur du Cap Awards and even a Lifetime Achievement Award, lovingly recollects Holliday as a mentor, a role model and a sister. “I first met Shelagh when we were in a production of Taubie Kushlick’s, The Women, by Clare Booth Luce in 1960 in Johannesburg,” says Wilson, “However, we became really close in 1966 when we discovered we were both pregnant; me with my son Matthew and Shelagh with her daughter Cassandra, Cassi.  Our babies were born within weeks of each other.  After that we were inseparable; as were our children. Matthew has since named his daughter Cassi.” 

The two women naturally gravitated towards each other as they discovered they had similar tastes in theatre and books, and also similar values. “She had the most beautiful voice,” remembers Wilson. “Voice was very important in those days. Nowadays they want you to mumble on television otherwise they say it sounds too theatrical.”

Wilson recalls a magical time with Shelagh when they were both cast by Michael Atkinson in Fallen Angels in 1982. “We played so wonderfully against each other in Coward’s famous play,” Wilson recalls. “The play is delightfully witty, bitchy, and stylish and since we shared the same sense of humour we had a great time.  Of Holliday’s theatrical skills Wilson says, “There is no-one like her.  She was completely distinctive.  She had a high camp quality in comedy and she was heartbreaking in tragedy.”

According to Wilson, Holliday had a perfect life. “And a perfect husband with four perfect children as well as the career that she wanted.”  Today Shelagh’s four children are very successful in their own right having followed careers as varied as an MBA businessman in the States, an Osteopath in London, a doctor in Bryanston, Johannesburg and a poet, with three of her own children, in England. 

Some of Holliday’s awards and nominations include her performances in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, and A Lesson from the Aloes at the National Theatre in London.  For the latter she was nominated Best Actress by the Society of West End Theatre Awards as well as by The Laurence Olivier Awards.  She also won the South African REPS Best Actress award for the same part.

Holliday scooped Best Actress awards for her work in The Secretary Bird, which was awarded by the Gallery Club, and Separate Tables which was awarded by the Critics’ Circle. 

Diane Wilson and Shelagh Holliday in Fallen Angels in 1982, costume design by Dicky Longhurst - Copy

Murray McGibbon, Professor of Theatre at the Indiana University, agrees with Wilson when he says, “Essentially a private, family orientated woman, Shelagh’s career could have soared to considerable international heights had she not been so devoted to her late husband Robin and her children, Mark, Shaun, Cassy and Kerry.” Having worked closely with Holliday, McGibbon says, “She was a director’s dream in that she took what I gave her and brought back to the rehearsal room something beyond anything I was ever capable of inculcating or suggesting.  She was hugely inventive and creative – a very ‘giving’ actress.”
Dicky Longhurst who designed Holliday and Wilson’s dresses for Fallen Angels, remembers Holliday as, ‘gracious, beautiful, kind, generous and stylish -my Kate Hepburn.”

Diane Wilson has created a Facebook memorial page for Holliday.  Poignant and humorous,   anecdotes, photos and memories of a woman who fiercely embraced life and all in it are pouring into the page.  Tessa Holliday has the last say, “She has always been my inspiration and will remain so until I die.  Shelagh was an amazing grandmother to me and I can’t believe I will never again sit and watch Singing in the Rain with her.  I know that I will never forget her, and I hope that no-one else will either.”
The End

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