Barbara Jefford, brilliant classical actress who delighted audiences over seven decades – obituary

She played virtually all the major Shakespearean roles and others with the RSC, National and commercial theatre, and in film and television

Barbara Jefford in Coriolanus at the Gainsborough StudioF
Barbara Jefford in the Almeida production of Coriolanus at the Gainsborough Studio, 2000  Credit: Alastair Muir

Barbara Jefford, who has died aged 90, was an actress of immense range and power who played most of Shakespeare’s heroines and villainesses with the RSC, the National Theatre and in the West End.

From her earliest days, through a career that lasted 70 years, she was adept at putting her own interpretation into these roles rather than following stereotypes.

“When I was cast as Ophelia,” she told the radio interviewer Studs Terkel during a 1958-59 Old Vic tour of the US in Hamlet, “I had terrible doubts and misgivings about it because of the way it’s usually played.

“I’m not an ingénue to look at and never have been. I’m tall and physically strong, and always have given the impression of being older than the way she’s usually played, and see no reason why she shouldn’t be played more maturely.”

She returned to America in 1962 to play Lady Macbeth, one of those “pretty nasty women” which she relished inhabiting. She regarded this one as “the best wicked lady”, explaining: “I would like to think of her as a very human person who is, about halfway through the play, appalled at what she’s done, appalled at this monster she’s created.” 

Barbara Jefford as Cleopatra with John Turner as Antony, 1977

Her career in Stratford-upon-Avon began in 1950 when, aged 19, she was thrust into the spotlight by Peter Brook in his production of Measure for Measure as Isabella opposite John Gielgud’s Angelo – and she immediately made an impression.

The Stage praised her “calm, youthful assurance” and Kenneth Tynan wrote of her lengthy pause in the final scene that “those thirty-five seconds of dead silence were a long prickly moment of doubt which had every heart in the theatre thudding.”

During that first run in Stratford, from 1950 to 1954, Barbara Jefford ticked off a string of major Shakespearean roles, from Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII and Desdemona in Othello to Rosalind in As You Like It and Lady Percy in Henry IV.

Then in five years at the Old Vic from 1956 she turned in assured performances as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Regan in King Lear, Viola in Twelfth Night and the title role in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, playing the heroine as “a simple girl” and using a dialect from her own Devon-Somerset roots to emphasise the character’s rustic roots.

Barbara Jefford in Fellini's And The Ship Sails On, 1983 Credit: Shutterstock

Barbara Jefford had to wait until 1965 to play Gertrude, in a production of Hamlet by the National Theatre during its early years based at the Old Vic after Laurence Olivier founded the company in 1963.

With the RSC she toured Britain as Mistress Quickly in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (1980); Volumnia opposite Charles Dance in Coriolanus at the Barbican and on tour (1990); and Countess Terzky in Schiller’s Wallenstein at the Barbican’s Pit theatre (1993).

She could be the highlight of an uneven blockbuster production. In Peter Hall’s All’s Well That Ends Well at the Swan Theatre (1992), her fine performance as the benign Countess, appalled mother of Toby Stephens’s Bertram, impressed the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer as “deeply affecting”; and her return in 2000 to the role of Coriolanus’s mother – this time with Ralph Fiennes – in Jonathan Kent’s Almeida production was hailed by critics as “superb” and “magnificent”.

Coriolanus at the Gainsborough Studio, 2000: Barbara Jefford and Ralph Fiennes with Emilia Fox just visible in the background Credit: Alastair Muir

One of her relatively infrequent appearances in the cinema was as Hippolyta in Peter Hall’s 1968 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the big screen played second fiddle to the classical stage which was Barbara Jefford’s natural home.

She did reach a popular audience, however, in James Bond movies. She was heard in From Russia with Love (1963) as the voice of Tatiana Romanova, the blonde beauty assigned by the Soviets to seduce Sean Connery’s 007. The Italian actress Daniela Bianchi took the part, but even though she took English-language classes in preparation, the producers decided to over-dub Barbara Jefford’s clear tones.

She was later called on to dub the lines of two other “Bond girls”, English actresses in these instances. They were Molly Peters, as the health-farm nurse Patricia Fearing in Thunderball (1965), and Caroline Munro, the wicked helicopter pilot in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

Barbara Jefford’s vocal talents had been spotted before she ever stepped on to a professional stage, however. As a teenager she recited poetry and won drama awards at festivals in the west of England and was spotted by a local newspaper as “a very talented elocutionist”.

Barbara Jefford as Lady Anne in Richard III at the Old Vic, circa 1956 Credit: Chris Ware/Keystone/Getty 

Barbara Mary Jefford was born at Plymstock, Devon, on July 26 1930 to Percival, a bank manager, and his wife Elizabeth (née Laity); she grew up in Glastonbury and attended Weirfield School, Taunton.

After taking classes at the Hartley-Hodder School of Speech and Drama at Clifton in Bristol, she trained at Rada, winning its top award, the Bancroft Gold Medal, for her performance in the title role of Bernard Shaw’s Great Catherine.

“This very lively piece of acting,” observed the Telegraph’s W A Darlington, “was a good deal better than that given by Madeleine Carroll when she created the part of the autocratic young Empress. Miss Jefford is a very promising young actress, who has yet to learn to unleash her power without shouting.” While at Rada, Barbara Jefford won other prizes and acted in children’s plays on radio.

She made her professional stage debut in 1949 with a small part in Our Town at the Dolphin Theatre, Brighton. After playing Bertha in Frenzy at the Q Theatre that year, her first proper London role, she gained valuable experience at Dundee Repertory Company (1949-50) with parts that included Lydia Languish in The Rivals.

As Molly Bloom in the film Ulysses, 1967 Credit: Alamy

Alongside her performances in London and Stratford, Jefford took Shakespeare and the classics to Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Chichester and other provincial theatres.

Her outstanding film role was as Molly Bloom, the wife of Milo O’Shea’s Leopold, in Ulysses, Joseph Strick’s 1967 dramatisation of James Joyce’s novel. One reviewer enthused that she “oozes earthy femininity”, another that she made “the obscenities sound really musical”.

She worked with Federico Fellini on the director’s haunting period drama And the Ship Sails On (1983), playing a soprano on a voyage to disperse the ashes of a colleague; with Roman Polanski on The Night Gate (1999), as a baroness involved in the mystery of an ancient book’s Devil-summoning secrets; Terence Davies on The Deep Blue Sea (2011), playing the contemptuous mother-in-law of Rachel Weisz; and with Stephen Frears on the real-life story Philomena (2013), taking the role of a vindictive nun forcing Judi Dench’s Irish Catholic teenager to give up her young son for adoption.

On television, she was seen in Porterhouse Blue (1987) as the rich and self-righteous Lady Mary, wife of Ian Richardson’s master of a Cambridge college; and in the first series (1991) of The House of Eliott as Lady Lydia, aunt of the two orphaned sisters establishing their London fashion house in the 1920s.

In Pygmalion at the Old Vic with Tim Pigott-Smith Credit: Alastair Muir

In 1965 Barbara Jefford was appointed OBE, then the youngest recipient of the honour.

At the time she was appearing in the erratic playwright David Mercer’s Ride a Cock Horse. On one occasion Mercer drunkenly told the producer, Michael Codron: “You’ve got to get Barbara Jefford into my bedroom tonight. It’s the management’s duty!”

Codron recalled: “All I could think of to say was, ‘Don’t be silly, she’s an OBE.’”

Latterly she became a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph’s letters page, writing last year on the effect of a hen’s diet on the colour of the yolk, describing eggs bought from a smallholding near her holiday home in Normandy:

“The chickens were (very) free range and were fed entirely on table scraps and odds and ends from the owners’ tiny market garden. The colour of the yolks was extraordinary – an amazing, almost lurid, brilliant orange – and the flavour of the eggs was exceptional. They have been our benchmark eggs ever since.”

Barbara Jefford married, first, the actor Terence Longdon in 1953; the marriage was dissolved in 1961. She is survived by her second husband, the actor John Turner, whom she married in 1967.

Barbara Jefford, born July 26 1930, died September 12 2020