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Obituary: Sheila Florance

Independent - October 18, 1991

Sheila Mary Florance, actress, born Melbourne 24 July 1916, married 1934 Roger Oyston (died 1944; two sons, and two daughters deceased), 1947 John Balawaider (deceased), died Melbourne 12 October 1991.

SHEILA FLORANCE became internationally known through her performance as Lizzie Birdsworth, the amiable old jailbird in the Australian television serial Cell Block H. Only three nights ago most British viewers prepared to stay up long enough (the late- night serial has almost a cult following) could have seen Birdsworth, an eccentric and, of all the inmates of Wentworth women’s prison, the only obviously likeable character, return to the inside after, typically, breaking the conditions of her parole. She expressed relief at returning to prison food.

Long before Cell Block H, Sheila Florance was one of the London Aussies.

She worked as an actress in England for 16 years, a period which included all of the Second World War. She returned to Australia not long before I, too, became a London Aussie, also for 16 years. We had much in common - I was in England in the Second World War for a short time as a Royal Australian Air Force pilot in 1943 and, years later, as an actor.

I don’t remember working with Sheila Florance until we played the leading character’s parents in the Australian film Petersen - part of the new wave of the Seventies. Then, for a time, I was one of the directors of Cell Block H, working with her from behind the cameras. As actors, we worked together again in the theatre, playing leads in a play in Melbourne.

This year, I invited Sheila to play a guest lead in an episode of the television comedy series Col’n Carpenter which I was producing in Melbourne. This time, she was only just out of hospital after having surgery. But no one would have known how ill she was.

The rehearsal room at the television studio was on the first floor with no access by lift - only stairs, some of which had often doubled for the prison staircase in Cell Block H. At no time did Sheila complain and of course she gave a wonderful performance in the Col’n Carpenter episode as a woman who laughed a lot. Soon she was back in hospital for another operation. She was out of hospital again briefly, but not long enough to attend the ceremony this month where she won the Australian Film Institute’s 1991 Best Actress Award for her performance in the film A Woman’s Tale.

Recently, when I asked how she was doing, she said "You know, one forward and four back." But with no hint of self-pity. To someone else she said, "It’s a fascinating process, dying. But it takes so bloody long."

Last year I was ill myself. The first professional colleague to ring me when I came home from hospital after surgery was Sheila Florance. She always had a tremendous concern for other people, and particularly for newcomers to show business. In her own work she was something of a perfectionist, as I discovered when I was directing her. Directors had to have done their homework.

If tests were to be devised to see just how strong women can be, there could be nothing more severe than the test Sheila Florance faced. In the Second World War she lost a baby daughter, killed in her arms during an air-raid in London. Years later, after the war, another daughter died. Her first husband died in action after D-Day. At the end of the war she married again, this time to a pilot who had been badly wounded. Sheila was to devote her life to nursing him until he died some years ago. Throughout, she worked as an inspiring and brilliant actress.

Many awards came her way for her work in the theatre and on television.

But her first film award was that from the AFI two weeks ago. A Woman’s Tale was largely based on Sheila’s own life and was directed by a great film-maker, Paul Cox. The film is a tribute to Sheila Florance and perhaps, through Sheila, to all women.

Nothing I write can express properly the admiration and love for Sheila Florance felt by so many of us who knew her. Many years ago I had the honour of working with another great actress, Dame Margaret Rutherford.

Florance and Rutherford, though different in appearance, were also similar.

They both worked quietly and energetically, away from the studio, for the benefit of others and for the community. Rutherford did great things for many people without publicity. So did Florance. The influence they had, and will continue to have on me, as on many others, is considerable.

This week at a service of celebration for Sheila Florance in St Kilda, Melbourne, where she was born and lived, the church was packed. She had a full house and a standing ovation.

Charles Tingwell

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