Glynis Johns obituary: veteran British star of Mary Poppins and Miranda

Johns, who has died aged 100, had a long-running career in film, TV and theatre, playing the mermaid in Miranda and the suffragette mother in Disney’s Mary Poppins.

8 January 2024

By Josephine Botting

Publicity portrait of Glynis Johns for Mad About Men (1954) © Group Film Productions. Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Interviewed in March 1973, Glynis Johns reflected on the advice her father, actor Mervyn Johns, had given her early in her acting career at the age of 12. “He said ‘Always listen for your cue,’” she recalled. “That is good advice both on stage and in life. Listen for your cue and then act on it.”

By this time, Johns’ cues had taken her in many different directions. She had appeared in over 50 films, had survived cancer, and her fourth and final marriage, to American author Elliott Arnold, was nearing divorce. She summed up her marital history wryly: “For me, most relationships with men have been like pregnancies. They last about nine months.”

Yet on a professional level, she had hit a new peak, having just won a Tony Award for her performance on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Sondheim, who described her voice as like “an unmade bed”, famously wrote the show-stopping song ‘Send in the Clowns’ especially for her, and she included it in her Desert Island Discs in 1976.

Johns was born on 5 October 1923 in South Africa, apparently on a train transporting her theatrical family as they toured the country. She was the fourth generation of performers on her father’s side, while her mother was an accomplished pianist, and she made her stage debut at three weeks’ old.

Johns (right) with Deborah Kerr in Perfect Strangers (1945)
© Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Dance was an early passion, and her first professional performance was in a children’s Christmas show at the Garrick Theatre in December 1935. This brought her to the attention of actor Leo Genn who encouraged her to audition for the part of Napoleon’s daughter in the play St Helena. After seeing her in The Children’s Hour, Alexander Korda snapped her up for London Films, and her first screen role was in South Riding in 1938 as Ralph Richardson’s daughter.

Film roles dried up when war broke out, and she considered learning secretarial skills as a fall-back; luckily Michael Powell intervened and she replaced Elisabeth Bergner in his 1941 war drama 49th Parallel, kickstarting her film career.

The British film industry was not quite sure where to place the 5 foot 4 inch husky-voiced actor, but she eventually graduated from minor roles. Ealing Studios and Alexander Korda respectively gave her excellent supporting parts in The Halfway House (1944) and Perfect Strangers (1945), two very different but equally powerful reflections on the British wartime experience.

Her first top billing came in 1948 in Miranda, as a mermaid who inadvertently captivates every man she meets. The film was a huge hit, and its success hinged firmly on her performance, which skilfully balanced childlike innocence with a heavily suggestive flirtatiousness that raised a few eyebrows at the time.

As the eponymous mermaid in Miranda (1948)
© Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Her stature and youthful looks meant that femme fatale roles rarely came her way, and she tended towards fun-loving or practical types. Yet her talent and versatility saw her move between drama, comedy and musicals, and between film, television and theatre during the seven decades of her career.

As suffragette Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins (1964)
© Preserved by the BFI National Archive

High points included a move to Hollywood in the mid-50s, appearing in The Court Jester (1955) with Danny Kaye, a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for The Sundowners in 1961, and her much-loved performance as Winifred Banks in Disney’s 1964 film Mary Poppins. Throughout the 1970s, her theatrical career burgeoned, her performance in Terence Rattigan’s Cause Célébre winning her the Variety Club actress of the year award in 1978.

Among the lows were the closure of Enid Bagnold’s play Gertie on Broadway after just four nights in 1952, mounting debts over back taxes in the early 60s, the break up of four marriages and two engagements, and a battle with alcoholism. Her first marriage, to Anthony Forwood, produced her only child, Gareth, who predeceased her in 2007.

Yet Johns remained resilient, turning to Christian Science and yoga and espousing a healthy lifestyle based on a macrobiotic diet. As she approached middle age, screen roles cultivated her endearing, slightly eccentric qualities. She even got her own US sitcom entitled Glynis, a screwball precursor of Murder She Wrote, with Johns as a sleuthing would-be writer. In 1983, she appeared in Cheers as the upper-class mother of Shelley Long’s character Diane.

Johns approached every role with energy and focus, and her irrepressible humour and vivacity ensured her popularity. While the peaks of her screen career are memorable, a film industry that fully appreciated her talents would have given her many more of them, and it was the theatre that brought her the genuine celebrity she deserved.

Her spirit and determination got her to her 100th birthday, celebrated last year at a Hollywood retirement home. “I do sometimes feel very disappointed that I’ve achieved more as an actress than as a person,” she once confessed. Yet the outpouring of affection that greeted the news of her passing has sparked a well-deserved celebration of those achievements, which continue to bring joy to audiences of all generations.

  • Glynis Johns, 5 October 1923 to 4 January 2024
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