Foreign Parts: Refugees and ‘enemy aliens’ who lit up stage

Lucy Mannheim and Marius Goring in Rosmersholm. Courtesy Bristol University Theatre Collection John

Lucy Mannheim and Marius Goring in Rosmersholm. Courtesy Bristol University Theatre Collection John Vickers Archive - Credit: Archant

Charmian Brinson, a professor of German at Imperial College, reviews a history of the exiled German-speaking actors who found fame on the British stage after fleeing Nazi Europe

Jacket Image for Foreign Parts

Jacket Image for Foreign Parts - Credit: Archant

Foreign Parts: German and Austrian Actors on the British Stage 1933-1960 by Richard Dove (Cambridge Legenda)

Richard Dove’s new book is the story of five German-speaking actors – Lucie Mannheim, Gerhard Hinze, Friedrich Valk, Lilly Kann and Martin Miller - who each arrived in Britain during the 1930s as exiles from Hitler. Of the perhaps 78,000 Jewish and/or political refugees from Germany, Austria and German-speaking Czechoslovakia who sought refuge here, around 400 were ‘artistic professionals’ of one kind or another, principally actors. As Dove illustrates in this well-researched and well-written book, actors were at a particular disadvantage in exile because of their reliance on language for their professional life.

This, however, is a study of strong mindedness and, in part, good fortune: all five of his subjects, while overcoming numerous obstacles, made a successful transition to the British stage and screen.

Four of the five actors – Lucie Mannheim, exceptionally, made her debut on the West End stage ahead of the others - benefited from the existence of refugee theatres in North London that operated largely in German. The Free German League of Culture, a thriving refugee organisation with its home, in Upper Park Road, Hampstead, ran its own ‘Little Theatre’ in which Hinze and Valk formed part of the ensemble. The Austrian equivalent, the Austrian Centre, which was certainly as lively as its German counterpart, also ran a theatre, the ‘Laterndl’, in which Martin Miller was a leading light: this started life in Paddington but soon moved to Swiss Cottage, first to Finchley Rd and then to Eton Avenue.

These theatres attracted audiences from amongst the large refugee population of North London but also British supporters such as Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson and Michael Redgrave. One evening, the audience of the Laterndl included Richard Crossman, then in charge of propaganda broadcasts to Germany, who heard Miller give a satirical rendition of a Hitler speech. So impressed was he that he invited the actor to perform it on the BBC German Service. This piece of good fortune proved the start of Miller’s successful British career on radio, stage and screen.

Lilly Kann, having performed in the inaugural production at the German Little Theatre, was invited by Miller to join him at the Austrian Laterndl. Within a couple of years she and Miller were performing together in an Alec Clunes West End production, Awake and Sing, for which both actors received excellent reviews.

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That was the beginning of Kann’s career in Britain. Frederick Valk, despite the usual tribulations of exile, was doubly fortunate in that, he had a Czech passport (and was therefore not labelled an ‘enemy alien’), and also was invited, despite German accent, to join the Old Vic company. Gerhard Hinze, on the other hand, was first interned and then deported to Canada. He returned after an eighteen-month absence to Hampstead, to the Little Theatre, but he too had made it onto the West End stage by summer 1942.

Lucie Mannheim, the exception in this group, was the only one with something of an international reputation when she arrived in Britain; she was already acting on the West End stage by 1935. Her path was smoothed further by her marriage to the British actor Marius Goring through which she obtained British nationality. Mannheim had no need of the little refugee theatres, though like Miller she performed frequently in German on the BBC German Service.

All five actors chose to remain in Britain at the end of the war. By then they had all left Hampstead behind them and were acting on an altogether larger scale. Only the Swiss Cottage Embassy Theatre would tempt them back from time to time, as Dove’s book engagingly illustrates. This is a book that will appeal to anyone interested in the British theatre, as seen through the prism of refugee history.