In 2023 the disorder commonly known as dyslexia is a regular occurrence in almost every classroom throughout the UK. Yet back in the forties and fifties attitudes towards learning styles were starkly different from the inclusive world of today which proved very difficult for people with the complaint to thrive. Unable to spell her own name until she was nine and only learning to read at the age of twelve, legendary star of stage and screen Susan Hampshire’s early life was extremely difficult. A passion for caring and nurturing made her the perfect candidate for a career in nursing but without a Latin qualification, Susan was forced to tackle new horizons. For this, she recalled her small part in a film when she was just a child but as her career taught her, to perfect drama isn’t easy…
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Making her cinematic debut in the musical movie Expresso Bongo, Susan found herself at the centre of a rock n roll phenomenon in 1959. Having appeared in the original stage version some years previously alongside Paul Schofield at the Savill Theatre before going on a nationwide tour, this was a role that was already known to Susan. Yet being around Cliff offered Susan an insight into the life of one of the most famous men in the world and the hordes of fans who followed him everywhere he went. This was at the height of Cliffmania when he absolutely personified the epitome of pop culture in the era before The Beatles. To be associated with such a megastar was a huge honour for the young actress and unbeknown to her, this was the first in a trilogy of musical blockbusters which would see Susan into the swinging sixties.
Walt Disney remains arguably the most influential figure in the history of cinema and even to have briefly been in his presence seems somewhat incredulous. In 1963 Susan was cast in what was to be Disney’s last feature film The Three Lives of Thomasina alongside Patrick McGoohan. Merely meeting Disney just once when he came to England for the shooting of the film, this was a great moment for the young actress to encounter such an icon. Based in Scotland, Hampshire cultivated her Scottish accent and became acclimatised to the Highland way of life which came in useful for a future role. It might not have been Disney’s most successful movie but The Three Lives of Thomasina put Susan on the radar of probably the most prolific and legendary director and producer in the world.
From this momentous Disney movie, Susan was ready to take on a significant dramatic role and in 1967 she secured her first of her career defining roles as the vibrant Fleur Forsyte in BBC2’s landmark costume drama The Forsyte Saga. Twenty six episodes of a continuing drama had very rarely been seen on British television which made the show so groundbreaking. The character of Fleur was a joy to play as she loved confrontation which made all scenes fascinating. As an actor, Susan believes it’s more interesting to play an antagonistic character rather than an intrinsically good person for the simple reason that it’s more of a challenge. A real contrast with Susan’s own persona, she was able to be more creative with the way she portrayed Fleur which was a complete delight. This, together with the unashamed escapism which the series offered, The Forsyte Saga became one of the most influential dramas on British television and was a landmark for the genre.
Such popularity transformed Susan Hampshire into a star and an invitation to be a guest on the heavyweight Morecambe and Wise Show was assured. No award or prestigious prize could ever rival such an opportunity and throughout the 1970’s this was the show that was the mecca for any celebrity. Appearing on the show not just once but twice cemented Susan’s status and reputation as one of the most prolific television actors of her generation. Making her debut in January 1968 in the musical finale which was a pastiche of King Kong, Susan portrayed Ernie’s love interest in one of his “plays what he wrote” which was the genial brainchild of the legendary Eddie Braben. To have such an iconic show on her CV meant a great deal to Susan and spurred her on to the next chapter of her career.
1967 was a great year for Susan. Beyond The Forsyte Saga, Susan secured another significant role as Becky Sharp in the landmark costume drama Vanity Fair. Adapted from the 1948 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair was one of the first big budget period dramas of its kind and became ‘appointment to view’ television for a large portion of the TV audience. This promptly laid the foundations for the explosion of big budget drama and helped the genre evolve from studio based television to location dominated entertainment which we got accustomed to in the succeeding decades. In retrospect, Susan was extremely grateful for her participation in this iconic series which is still fondly remembered today.
By the 1980’s Susan Hampshire was a household name and one of the most enduring actors and performers in television and theatre. In 1981 she wrote her long awaited autobiography Susan’s Story in which she discusses her battle with dyslexia. Unable to spell her own name until she was nine and only learning to read at the age of twelve, growing up was extremely difficult for Susan and she remembers being teased and mocked for her challenges. Yet she maintains that her diagnosis offers her a unique take on the world which she believes is a blessing and without it, Susan Hampshire wouldn’t be Susan Hampshire so is extremely grateful to be able to think in such a unique way. It’s clear that she has totally embraced her Dyslexia and remains a success story for everyone with the common diagnosis to learn from.
In 1999 Susan reunited with her theatrical co-star Richard Briers for the Sunday night drama Monarch of the Glen. The Scottish highlands had never looked so appealing as Britain fell in love with the McDonald family figureheaded by Briers’ Hector. Susan played the role of matriarch Molly. With a stellar cast including Dawn Steele, Alastair McKenzie, Hamish Clark and Martin Compston, Monarch of the Glen provided a happy time for everyone involved. Over twenty years on, Susan is still in touch with a large majority of the cast and loves to reminisce about this enjoyable time in her career. Knowing Richard Briers from her extensive theatre career,, it was a great honour to be cast alongside such a TV icon. Monarch of the Glen sadly came to an end in 2005 but the memories and friendships created on this series continue to flourish and Susan is extremely proud to have played a dominant role in this.
Beyond drama and entertainment, Susan is a tireless campaigner for Alzheimer’s research which is a disease which remains close to her heart as a result of her late husband Eddie being diagnosed with the disorder which sadly led to his death in 2021. Raising over one million pounds for this worthwhile charity, since being affected by this cruel illness, the legendary actress has devoted her efforts to being an ambassador and shows no signs of slowing down. It was an incredible privilege to meet and interview the legendary Susan Hampshire and wish her the very best of luck with her future endeavours.