The Talented Ms. Hilary

❉ A tribute to Hilary Dwyer/Heath, star and creator of many a memorable cult role.

Space: 1999, image by Cary Nakama.

Picture the scene. Number Six is concerned by the treatment of a female prisoner in the village. He witnesses her being attacked by a new and sadistic Number Two. Unfortunately, the female prisoner (Number Seventy-Three) leaps out of a window, killing herself. Number Six then swears revenge on the new boss and spends the episode not trying to escape, but creating a nervous breakdown in the vile man. You might recognise this as the start of Hammer into Anvil, the best episode of The Prisoner.

Picture the scene. The Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins has come to town. A young woman tries to save her father from witchcraft accusations, only to be attacked by the witchfinder’s deputies. This leads to the death of her father, several townsfolk and most of the rest of the cast as the young woman’s sanity slowly collapses through the rest of the film. You don’t need me to tell you I am talking about Michael Reeves’ last complete film before his death at the age of 25.

Picture another scene. The moon out of orbit, Space 1999. A young scientist tries to use a seance to link his brainwaves to a plant, only to beckon a murderous spirit. It is a ghost from the future, set about to destroy those it believes helped killed the scientist in the future. (And then Day of the Daleks-style predeterminism kicks in.) His girlfriend desperately tries to protect our scientist from his bosses and from the ghostly figure, but, as she doesn’t realise she is in a SF version of Jekyll and Hyde, she is doomed herself to be the tragic victim.

Picture another scene. After a horrific diseased curse appears to be finally defeated, a young woman rushes to find her fiance Julian. Only to find, at the pivotal moment, that he has fallen to the disease and is now as murderous as those he originally fought.

Each of these roles were pivotal to their respective plots. There is no Hammer into Anvil without The Prisoner’s thirst for revenge. The plot of Witchfinder General and the fates of every single character within it all pivot around the character of Sara Lowes. Mateo’s fate in Space 1999 would not have been so effective had Laura not been such a sympathetic character. And Lady Markham quietly holds The Oblong Box together, as no less an authority than Vincent Price put it.

All of these roles were played by the actress Hilary Dwyer. A force of nature as her family put it, she died in March 2020, aged only 74, from the dreaded COVID-19. An actress who specialised in the sort of roles they used to warn people were career killers, Dwyer was a success on screen and in theatre, with extended runs in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, and opposite Tom Conti in Whose Life is It Anyway? She didn’t play weak stereotypes. Her roles were strong women who were, alas, undone by the societies they found themselves in.

In her thirties, she moved away from acting to take up another career, as a TV producer, under her married name of Hilary Heath. In this role, she helped bring to the screen Gary Oldman’s 1997 flick, Nil by Mouth. She was worked on bringing talented female writers to the screen, including the 1986 TV movie of The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy, and a 1995 adaptation of An Awfully Big Adventure by the underrated black humour writer Beryl Bainbridge. Heath’s main interest lay in Daphne Du Maurier, however. She produced the two-part miniseries version of Rebecca in 1997 with Diana Rigg as the terrifying Mrs Danvers, and a whole host of We Are Cult favourites (Charles Dance, Tom Chadbon, Denis Lill) in supporting roles. Jamaica Inn bookmarked her career with a TV movie in 1983 and the production of Emma Frost’s lavish three-part adaptation in 2014.

Diana Rigg won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for ‘Rebecca’ (1997), produced by Hilary.

The press coverage of her death, underwhelming as it was, preferred to focus on the lurid aspects of her life, with extensive coverage of fights with alcoholism and The Times gleefully focusing on a vicious attack by a stranger which nearly led to her death in 2004. But that misses the point, that she fought back from the former to become a Palme d’Or nomine, and she fought back from the latter to return to Du Maurier. She took on the bottle and beat it, and she took on physical therapy to recover from the fall out of a second storey window. Hell, after all of this, in her sixties, she went back to uni, got a Masters degree in psychology, and took up a third career as a CBT therapist, specialising in addiction therapy, to help other people get through some of the shit she had had to deal with.

“She had a total aversion to bullshit”, Charles Dance admiringly told The Times, no matter how much she had to deal with in her own life. That someone with such fire and thirst to fight for the right to be can be snuffed out so easily by coronavirus shows us how vicious that bloody thing is.

So here’s a tip of the hat and a sad farewell to Hilary Dwyer/Heath, star and creator of many a memorable cult role, who more importantly taught us all that it’s not what life throws at you, but how you react.  She was a strong woman that society and life kept trying to undo, but she never stopped punching adversity in the face and trying to help other people until her final illness. There are many actors with far more newspaper clippings who gave the world considerably less.


❉ Hilary Heath (nee Dwyer), 6 May 1945 – 30 March 2020: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0245495/

 Michael S. Collins, who lives in Glasgow, is the editor of Other Side Books. A former Fortean Times book reviewer, Michael was editor of The 40p website, as well as two editions of The Christmas Book of Ghosts. His horror fiction can be found in magazines such as Diabolic Tales and Stupefying Stories, among many others. He has no pet dragons. Honest.

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