BIOGRAPHY: Rita Webb
Rita was not her mother's first child. Her mother Rose already had twin sons Leslie Joseph & Gordon Louis Durlacher from her first marriage to a man named Samuel Durlacher seven years previously. Rita's Brother Henry Richard was born 2 years later in 1906.
One can just imagine Rita, with green eyes and ringlets of bright red hair,joyfully entertaining her family. Her brother Henry always called her "Bunty" and their mother loved the theatre and likewise her daughter had ambitions at a young age to become an actress.
She once told reporters "At school the other youngsters were always laughing at things I said or did, but I could never understand why, but I always wanted to be an actress, I was an actress when I was three"
But however joyous the mood of the house was, it would come to an abrupt end when her mother died of breast cancer in 1908. Rita would always remember her father Gus taking her mother to the theatre in her wheelchair.
Rita doted on her father and in a letter written to the BBC in 1950, Rita signed her name "Olive Rita Webb" and added. "I don't usually use the "Olive", as it was my father's favourite name, & he is no longer around. Sentimental I know - - - But then that's another little part of - Rita Webb.
She would always remember him with fondness, calling him "My darling Dadda". Her father eventually settled down with another woman, it seems that their step-mother treated the two children badly and eventually this would lead to Rita leaving home around the age of 15. It is assumed that around this time she changed her name to Rita, telling reporters that she became a chorus girl at the Metropolitan theatre in the Edgware Road..
The twins were not to be a part of Rita's life, after Rose's death they were sent to live with their Grandma Julia and lost touch. Many years later Rita and Henry tried to track them down, but they were unsuccessful in their search.
Top left Rita's maternal grandmother "Julia Kyezor" Top right Rita's Paternal Grandparents Rosa Jane webb &r "Henry Richard Webb" . Middle Rita's parents "Rose & "Gus" Bottom left Rita's twin brothers Gordon & Leslie. Bottom right Rita in her 20's & brother Henry
Rita made her way in life. What she did in the years leading up to her acting career are unclear but by 1926 Rita had met Lionel Stanley Thompson a Pharmacist whom she called Thommie.
They married on Saturday 27th February 1926 at Brixton registry office, Rita was living at 218 Brixton Road. Rita's father was present at the wedding; he would die six months later. What effect this had on the 22-year-old must have been devastating. Rita and Thommie did not stay together for very long, although they never divorced. Many years later when Thommie died Rita was shocked that he was still alive, and had thought that he died years earlier.
Around 1938 Rita's life changed forever when she met the love of her life Al "Mr Banjo" Jeffery it is likely that the couple met while both were appearing in Music Hall. Rita told reporters in 1972 "When I first met him I thought he was a silly so-and-so. But he played like a divine God".
Rita always called him "Jeffie", and he called her "Podge" the couple eventually set up home together at 66 Chepstow Road, Bayswater, where they would remain for over 40 years.
Rita could not have children. She told Jeffie that if ever he wanted children she would understand if he left her to find somebody else who could. But Jeffie loved his "Podge" with all his heart. He bought her a wedding ring, although they never married due to the fact that Rita and Thommie never divorced. This was not an issue for either of them. Although when Jeffie was approached by Rita's agent, Peter Campbell for Rita as a subject on "This Is Your life", the reply came back a firm No! Peter told me "When I got a quiet moment with Jeffie one night at Chepstow Road, I handed him a note that said "ring me as soon as you are alone". When Jeffie rang and was told of the plan, Jeffie told him that she would not do it due to the marriage status.
Rita would later make light of the story and would tell reporters "Did you ever hear of an actress refusing to be on "This Is Your Life?", well you have now, because' I bleedin' well did!"
Despite not being officially married the couple were regarded as one of the happiest in show business and could not bare to be apart for long. They loved the countryside and would often go off fishing together, and enjoyed there holidays to 'Lamorna Cove' in Cornwall. in 2013 Miranda contacted me telling me the times Rita and Jeffie would visit Holme in Norfolk at her Grandparents camp site, Miranda told me "Rita loved crabbing, we would take proper equipment, Rita would put her hand and arm in the hole" Rita would call her Grandad Kenny"Pops"
she also supplied these two great pictures to share on this site!
Above Rita's husband Thommie and inset Thommie with his sister & Mother in 1926
In the beginning they had many lodgers living in the house. Some stayed for many years. The actress Sandra Dorne lived there for a while in the early 50's. Their final lodger an old jewish man named Leopold Grimish lived in the house for over 13 years, no more lodgers were taken on after his death around 1970.Rita had found her happiness with "Jeffie" which would last for the rest of her life.
By the 1940's Rita was appearing in many theatre productions, including numerous shows for Unity Theatre.
In 1949 she began writing to the BBC for work, she would use headed paper, with her name printed in red ink in the centre, with two boxes on either side one with her phone number (BAYSWATER 6856) and the other with Variety, Concert and Cabaret printed in black ink, this would change to Stage, Screen, Radio and Television after she got her first broadcast.
Most of the early letters consisted of the same, they were always hand written, starting with "I am wondering if you could use me in any of your forthcoming productions. I am a character actress, height 5ft 2" age 37, (she was 45) stout build, specialising in cockney studies, (later letters she would add "Although I can play straight equally well")
After numerous letters to several BBC producers, she got her first part in a radio play "Pastoral Symphony". It was a small part, one which unbeknownst to her would become a pattern of her career.
Rita auditioned for the BBC TV soon after on 4th August 1949 and was described as a "Incredible looking character with bright red hair, dumpy figure and flop nose" assets that would eventually make her "The best known unknown in the business"
Her letters could be cheeky as well, writing to Royston Morley on January 23rd 1950 Rita writes "I wrote to you on Jan 12th & you answered my letter, telling me you were not casting a play at the moment, "but would certainly remember me when you were". in tonight's "Evening News" I read that you have a production next month about a "Bayswater Boarding House". I live in a real Bayswater boarding house, on top of which i'm an excellent actress! What about it Mr Morley, won't you give this gal a chance?
By 1951 after writing to nearly every producer at the BBC and only one TV credit to her name Rita was at breaking point. Writing to Holland Bennett she said "I do not wish to whine Mr Bennett, but I am an intelligent person, & I think a good actress, & I feel that after trying so hard, one should be given a little encouragement, I note also that you mention that I have appeared once on television, quite, hence my letters, I want to appear more!!
Thankfully for Rita the producer Robert Barr started to use her in several of his productions. She wrote him "You are a wonderful producer, besides being a very nice "bloke"!! Don't forget that series & your Cockney Fatty. My very best regards. Rita".
Her letters could be highly amusing when asking for work. Writing to Cleveland Finn on 6th September 1951 Rita wrote "Congrats to a new television producer!! I haven't a television, as owing to the fact you omitted to give me any work, I haven't been able to put down the first payment"
Rita also wrote to producer Holland Bennett again, after six pages finishing with "Now to bed & dream of a great producer needing a great actress, & whilst he the producer was thinking of Vivien Leigh, Bette Davis & others of that ilk, he happened to glance up, & there was a beautiful redhead-Rita webb, on the television screen in front of him, that's whom I want, sign her immediately, he cried. What are you laughing at Mr Bennett, if Christine Norden can be picked out of a cinema queue, & one or two others out of a 'fish queue', why can't I be picked out of a television queue?"
Eventually all the letter writing, annoyed, amusing or otherwise payed off as she became well known among producers who began to give her parts in their productions..
TV & FILM
Rita's TV break was in a programme called "War on Crime". Slowly but surely she began to get parts. Her next big break came in film when the actress Sandra Dorne got her an interview with the producer of a film she was appearing in called "Hindle Wakes".
Rita told the director she was in "White Corridors" as the Matron (After seeing a poster of the film in a shop window in Wardour Street) she got the part as the landlady Mrs Slaughter at the wage of £25 a week! She also got a non-speaking bit part in "Moulin Rouge" after being dared by Dorne to ring up the studio and ask to speak to the Director John Huston.
Her TV work was becoming larger every year. ITV was on the air by the end of 1955, which meant more programmes and more job opportunities. Especially for bit part players like Rita Webb. Her appearances in several theater plays and Feature Films also kept her busy, and off the bread line.
With Sidney Poitier On the set of "To Sir With Love"
The private side of "Auntie Rita" from family super 8 films of the 60's
"Podge" & "Jeffie" brew up in the kitchen at 66 Chepstow Rd
As the 50's rolled into the 60's Rita was in great demand as a straight character actress and comedienne. She had many good parts in tv plays and series. Ken Loach, Ken Russell, Arthur Haynes, Benny Hill, Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes and Warren Mitchell to name but a few used her to great advantage in their TV shows.
Both BBC and ITV companies offered her parts. And although they were small and not starring roles, it seemed to suit Rita down to the ground, and she had it seemed cornered the market for ugly old hags.
TV would remain her most lucrative medium, although she would turn up in Film, Radio and Theatre productions throughout her career. Starring alongside such names as "Sidney Poitier", "Elizabeth Taylor", "Gary Cooper" and "James Mason."
However she did lose out on a few plum roles in her time. Most notably "The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle" starring the punk band "The Sex Pistols" From an article in 1977 with the heading "Rita Is Joining The Punks!" it was claimed that she was to have played the part of Johnny Rottens mother. The part eventually went to fellow character actress "Irene Handl"
Another surprise is that she was never asked to join the Carry-On Team" in any of their many feature films. A great shame as she had worked with so many of the "Team" on differant shows and would have been an excellant and highly amusing addition to the cast in these popular films.
In the final years of advertising in "Spotlight" Rita did not list her acting credits. Instead she wrote "If you don't know me, you must be a native of another land, whereupon I will come and see you, should you so desire".
In the 1980 edition of "Who's Who on Television" Rita claims to sign her letters "Dame Rita Webb" and although she declined to divulge her age (because she says she is perpetually young) she divulges her vital statistics as 48in bust, 46in waist, 52 in hips, 4ft 10ins tall: weighs 15 stone, dyed red hair: all her own teeth. Now you can't accuse Rita of being vain now can you.
Rita also had a great love for life outside of show business, and she adored children and animals. She had a great love and affection for her Brother's children, Louise, Richard and Geraldine. Rita would take them out on day trips, spend every Christmas with them and just simply be their loving Auntie! She cared about her family tremendously. The family's home movies of Rita splashing in the sea with her niece and nephew. Picking heather in the countryside or having fun on a lido shows what a lively, fun loving and down to earth person she was. Yes "Thursdays child has far to go", and Rita Webb, born herself on a "Thursday!" went just far enough. Without losing any of her ability to always be herself.
The stage advert 1973
Rita Webb was admitted to The Samaritans women's hospital in Westminster, and was diagnosed with having cancer.
Rita died on Sunday 30th August 1981. In her will she left everything to Jeffie calling him "My darling companion and Lover"
Her funeral was held at Kensal Green cemetery, where she was cremated and her ashes scattered in the Garden of Remembrance.
A service of remembrance was held in Covent Garden on 13th October 1981 at St Paul's Church. Reverend John Arrowsmith took the service.
The actor Andrew Ray, who had worked with Rita many times, including her first appearance in "Dixon of Dock Green". paid tribute to Rita in a heart felt appreciation speech, saying "Rita Webb may not have been a house hold name, but she was certainly a household face and body"
Hymns included "Glory, Glory Hallelujah". The actor Patrick Holt read "Death Shall Have No Dominion" by Dylan Thomas.
Finally Jeffie played a fitting tribute to his beloved "Podge" with the Help of Ted Andrews they played a 'Banjo medley' which incorporated Rita's favourite song "Sparrer's can't sing"
It was a song which she herself sang in "The Londoner's" stage production of 1972. It was a fitting tribute to a full and varied life to a lady who against all the odds became, "Britain's Best Loved Character Actress!"
See the Foreword page for more information on how this site came about.
Photo and information copyright Geraldine Lewis and Louise Webb
additional photo's and information supplied by Marg and Allan Dale and Aaron Smith
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