Ruth Cracknell AM 1925-2002

Ruth Cracknell

Ruth Cracknell

Ruth Winifred Cracknell was born on 6 July 1925 at Maitland, NSW.

Cracknell’s first professional engagement came in 1945 in a radio series called Ask Anne Carter.

She made her Independent Theatre debut in January 1949 in a character part in a musical play, The Melody that Got Lost.

She was in London for two years, working in radio for the BBC.

 

Dame Crackers

Gordon Chater recalls working with Ruth Cracknell and Warren Mitchell in Rodney Fisher’s production of The Dresser in 1981: ‘It was during the rehearsal period. At morning tea the conversation turned to Ruth only being with us for the Sydney and Melbourne seasons. Warren was appalled at this and started criticising Ruth, using words such as “amateur” and “insult”. Ruth regally waited until Warren had exhausted his vitriol then drew her right leg back and threw it forward, sending her shoe flying the length of the very long room. It was a marvellous gesture. Rodney said, “And now we’ll do Act Two”.’

Ruth Winifred Cracknell was born on 6 July 1925 at Maitland, NSW. Educated at North Sydney Girls High School, she started her working life as a clerk in the offices of the Ku-ring-gai Council, but when she was 17 a friend took her to see Edna Spilsbury’s Modern Theatre Players’ production of George and Margaret at St James’s Hall in Sydney. It was ‘love at first sight’ – she wanted to be an actor. She enrolled in Miss Spilsbury’s classes and made her stage debut with her fellow students in a one act play in a small, forgotten suburban hall.

Cracknell’s first professional engagement came in 1945 in a radio series called Ask Anne Carter. More radio work followed. In 1946 Cracknell began studying with Doris Fitton’s drama school at the Independent Theatre in North Sydney. She made her Independent Theatre debut in January 1949 in a character part in a musical play, The Melody that Got Lost. She participated in John Alden’s Shakespeare productions at the Independent, and remained with him when he moved his company into St James’s Hall. Her ghoulish Goneril in King Lear was a particular triumph. When Alden moved out, Sydney John Kay moved his Mercury Theatre in; Cracknell appeared in a number of Mercury productions, including Arms and the Man and Strindberg’s The Father. In December 1952 27-year-old Cracknell headed for England.

She was in London for two years, working in radio for the BBC. She auditioned successfully for the Old Vic Theatre Company, but family commitments forced her to return to Sydney, where she rejoined the Independent. Her performance there in Peter Ustinov’s The Love of Four Colonels inspired English director Lionel Harris to cast her in the title-role in The Duenna, Julian Slade’s musical version of Sheridan’s play, at the Phillip Street Theatre, in which she co-starred for the first time with Gordon Chater. This was in 1955, and it was a turning point in her career: for the next four years she created a cavalcade of comic characters in a string of William Orr’s Phillip Street revues – now-legendary romps such as A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a Good Lie Down, Cross Section and But I Wouldn't Want to Live There. Many years later she appeared at Orr’s Music Loft in Manly in Crackers, written for her by John McKcllar, who had scripted most of her Phillip Street material.

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Biographical references

Gordon Chater: The Almost Late Gordon Chater, Bantam Books, 1996
Ruth Cracknell: A Biased Memoir, Viking, 1997
Ruth Cracknell: Journey from Venice, Penguin, 2001
Lynne Murphy: ‘Ruth Cracknell AM’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995