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The 1930’s Hitchcock actress Nova Pilbeam passed on a few weeks ago, on the 16th of July, 2015. She was 95. This is my tribute to her.


I first encountered Nova at school. She was 14, and starring in Berthold Viertel’s adaption of Ernst Lothar’s book Little Friend. I remember I was channel-surfing (you know, the way one does at 1.00 in the morning when one is unable to sleep – I had school the next day. I was in Year 11, and started late anyway). When I tuned to the ABC, she came into shot, and the first thing that struck me, were her eyes. They seemed to betray intelligence beyond her years (a trait which Alfred Hitchcock was to pick up on after seeing Nova’s performance in Little Friend), and her eyes also seemed to look right through you. I thought “Who is that?


A youthful Nova Pilbeam, in “Little Friend”

The next day I was on the computer, and decided to look up the ABC television guide online and see what the film was. The text said: Little Friend, 1934. Nova Pilbeam, Matheson Lang, Lydia Sherwood. I did a little more searching, and eventually discovered a delightful site, which is (sadly) now no longer updated, and the message board is closed. www.wickedlady.com was my first real foray into the world of British Film. It was here I learnt some more about Miss Jessie Matthews (the site even introduced me to Michael Thornton’s excellent 1975 biography), and Anna Neagle. Through the message board, I got to talk with a few Nova fans, and briefly corresponded with a lady from England who sent me an article written in 1948 entitled Twelve Years After. The writer of the article seemed to be under the impression that, if Nova had been in films in America, finding scripts for her would have been less of a problem and the publicity machine in America was used much more effectively than in Britain, and was able to be launched to great effect at any time to promote the young starlet.

In fact, Nova Pilbeam did make the Atlantic crossing, on the Aquitania. Her name is found on the passenger manifest for September 1934 from Southhampton to New York, and again a month later, on the return crossing from New York to Southampton. Her mother made the trip with her, along with Gaumont-British Studio head Michael Balcon and actor Jack Hulbert. Greeting her at the Roxy Theatre was another child-actor from America, Master Jackie Cooper.

Among the interesting publicity engagements Miss Pilbeam had in New York was a visit to the New York Zoo, in which she posed with some of the inhabitants.

An interview with the American papers revealed that she received some criticism from her younger brother Andrew, upon seeing Little Friend.

Nova Pilbeam & Jackie Cooper

Nova with Jackie Cooper in New York in 1934

When he saw her performance in Little Friend, Alfred Hitchcock said he wanted Nova to audition for the part of the daughter in his new mystery The Man Who Knew Too Much. Upon comparing the original with the 1956 remake, one internet author suggests that, on reflection, remaking the film with Doris Day wasn’t the best of ideas.

Pilbeam-Hulbert Aquitania

Nova Pilbeam & Jack Hulbert, aboard the Aquitania in 1934.

The Melbourne Argus reported in 1935 that the part Nova played in Little Friend was “an extremely complex one for a girl”, and the film reporter from The Argus said that she wasn’t one of the “’our gang’ kind of child actresses”, but described her as “quiet, charming and intelligent”. Having seen Nova in nearly all of her films (only Spring Meeting eludes me), I’d agree with that assessment, having never met her in person.

In the above interview with Margery Pilbeam (Nova’s mother), Mrs Pilbeam made comment on the fact that Nova’s schooling wasn’t neglected while she was away in New York, in fact, Nova hated missing out on school, and made every attempt possible to cater for the fact that she was going to be away. Nova was educated privately in Wimbledon and Blackheath.

In 1936, Nova played in the stage adaption of “These Generations” by Elinor Mordaunt. The Lady of La Paz was set in Bolivia. A film adaption of La Paz was due to be made by Gaumont-British, but never eventuated due to G-B’s financial troubles (from which the studio never fully recovered). Nova went on record many times in the press commenting that she always preferred stage work to film because “…a film is made piecemeal, and one day’s work seems to have no connection with that of the day before”.

In 1938, Miss Pilbeam auditioned for the part of Pan in Sir James M. Barry’s play, Peter Pan. Publicity photos of the time show her in Peter Pan’s feathered cap. Sir James went to her dressing-room after her performance in the London Theatre and complimented Nova, telling her she had played the part the way he had always envisaged Peter Pan to be played. He also asked her if she would like to play Mary Rose, which is perhaps the most difficult of all J.M. Barry’s characters to portray, and “only a superlative actress” is capable of presenting her as Sir James intended.

Nova Pilbeam met her first husband (the great-great grandchild of Lord Tennyson), Penrose Tennyson, on the set of another Alfred Hitchcock film, “Young and Innocent”, released in America as “The Girl was Young”. They were married in Caxton Hall in 1938. “Young and Innocent” was to be Hitchcock’s last film made in England, and he made it as a “farewell” film, showcasing the English countryside (Nova said she loved filming the countryside scenes, and that “Young and Innocent” was perhaps “the sunniest film” she had ever been in).

When war broke out, Pen enlisted into the RAF, Nova helping him to learn Morse Code. In 1941, after a spell in Scotland, Pen sent Nova a telegram, which read “Flying down from Scotland tomorrow. Cheers.” Nova never saw Pen again. His plane crashed two hours after he had telegraphed the message.

Nova made a few films after that, and returned to the stage in 1942 in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Pen’s favourite play. I think she would have found this particular production difficult, because of the obvious emotional connection she had to it, although that’s just this author’s opinion.

Of the films Nova Pilbeam made during this period, 1940-1948, perhaps my favourite would have to be Pastor Hall, made in 1941 (based on the novel by Ernst Toller), for which she received top billing and acted alongside Wilfrid Lawson and Sir Seymour Hicks. The film was groundbreaking in that it was the first film to deal with the issue of Nazi concentration camps, and was made before the full horror of the camps were known. There was some violence in the film, such as the new prisoners being beaten by the guards as they entered the camp, and having Wilfrid Lawson’s character (Pastor Hall) sentenced to lashing as a punishment for denouncing the evils of Nazism. The issue of a young girl being raped by a guard in a work camp and ending up pregnant was dealt with tactfully, although not in anyway in the script attempting to censor the fact that she was pregnant. This film was based on the story of Pastor Martin Neimuller, who was sent to Dachau concentration camp for criticizing the Nazi Party.

The next project Nova Pilbeam worked on, Next of Kin, was to be an Allied propaganda film to warn of the dangers of fifth columnists and of careless talk, but was made instead into a feature film by Ealing Studios, and Nova acted alongside Jack Hawkins, Basil Radford, Thora Hird and Mervyn Johns (with whom Nova would again be cast alongside in her last film, Counterblast in 1948). Churchill apparently tried to have it banned, because he was of the opinion that it would lower morale. He didn’t succeed in this aim.

She was cast alongside Anna Neagle in The Yellow Canary, a film in which Anna Neagle played a double agent, with a few rather clever plot twists. Nova was only cast in two scenes, and she had rather lost her ambition by then.

In 1944, on the 3rd of January, Nova’s younger brother Anthony, who had joined the Royal Air Force as a volunteer, was killed on operations in a Lancaster Bomber over Berlin on his 4th operation. He was 19. He had followed both Nova and their father into the acting profession, and had appeared in small parts at the Theatre Royal Windsor in the early 1940s.

She lent her voice, in 1944, as a narrator for a documentary on art called Out of Chaos (another film which I’ve been unable to trace, except in fragments). The documentary included British actors, Kenneth Clark, Sir William Reid, Anthony Gross and. It also featured the work of a number of British artists, Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. Out of Chaos was written and directed by Jill Craigie.

Nova was Roy Plomney’s guest on the BBC Radio Program Desert Island Discs, in 1945, and although the recording is lost, her choice of music on the day is still available, and gives an insight into her character and personality. Heading the list was Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126 – No. 4 in B minor, which reflected her love of the piano. The next two pieces on the list were Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major, and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F minor. For Unto Us a Child is Born, from Handel’s Messiah, came further down the list, her sixth choice, and last on the list at number 8, was Bach’s Mass in B Minor: Cum Sancto Spiritu.

In 1950, Nova married BBC Radio Journalist Alexander Whyte, and they had a child, Sarah Jane, in 1952. She posed for a photographic portrait in 1950, which showed very clearly that she had kept her looks in the intervening years, and still looked as beautiful as ever.

Nova Pilbeam in 1950

Nova Pilbeam in 1950

In the early 1990’s, she gained the attention of a New York-based artist, Duncan Hannah, who was captivated by her. Mr. Hannah attempted to begin a correspondence with her, but his numerous letters sent to her address in Highgate were left unanswered. After an interview for a book on British film stars in 1990, Nova seemed unwilling to discuss her career any further, although was happy to sign autographs for people who approached her individually. She was occasionally sighted walking her dog near her home in Dartmouth.


Nova Pilbeam with Peter Coke, her co-star in “Cheer Boys Cheer”, on the Pinewood Studios lot.

Ruth Gipps dedicated her Jane Grey Fantasy for Viola and Strings Op. 15, composed in 1940 to Nova, who was a friend of the composer.