❉ Foster Hitchman chats with the actress who played Lavinia in the BBC’s 1973 BBC Sunday tea-time drama.
Fifty years ago, the BBC broadcast a six-part dramatisation of the classic 1905 novel A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Originally adapted in 1917 with Mary Pickford, and made famous in 1939 by Shirley Temple, the 1973 adaptation was a critical success and attracted much praise for its fidelity to the original novel – a rare occurrence when it comes to adapting literature to the screen.
The distinguished strong female cast included Deborah Makepeace, making her screen debut in the lead role of the virtuous and imaginative heroine, Sara Crew. Alongside her was TV star Ruth Dunning playing the archetype of the wicked school mistress, Miss Minchin, and future British TV star Lesley Dunlop (Angels, Doctor Who, May To December, Where the Heart Is, Emmerdale) as the dim-witted Ermengarde. But perhaps one of the most bold and memorable performances came from Alison Glennie in the role of Lavinia. An Edwardian mean girl who probably could’ve given Nellie Olsen a run for her money.
In an exclusive interview, Glennie shares her memories from working on the series with Foster Hitchman…
Before being cast in the series, were you familiar with the original novel, or even the 1939 Shirley Temple adaptation?
I had read and loved ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett but likely did read the book of ‘A Little Princess’ when I knew that I was going to be auditioning for it. I don’t believe that I had seen older film versions of it.
What do you remember about the casting process? Were you always up for the part of Lavinia, or did you audition for other characters as well?
No, I was up for the part of Lavinia from the start of the casting process. Both Lesley Dunlop, who was cast as Ermengarde, and I attended the same stage school, Arts Educational in London. A number of girls from Elmhurst Ballet School also auditioned for roles in the TV drama and several were cast.
In the story, Lavinia is one of the key antagonists and rival to Sarah. Did you have fun playing a somewhat “villainous” role?
Yes, I had no trouble channelling intensity and was often cast as the baddie.
One of the things that period pieces are known for are their costumes. Which are beautiful but can often be notoriously uncomfortable. Were any of your costumes uncomfortable? And what about the hairstyles, how did you feel about those ribbons they had you wear in your hair?
I believe the BBC excelled at costume drama but luckily for me we were playing children, so did not have to endure corsets, which I have found intolerable to wear in other productions. Funny you should ask about the ribbons in our hair, I did not like wearing those and felt silly, being on the threshold of adolescence and aiming to retain an air of ‘cool’.
Ruth Dunning (as Miss Minchin) and Deborah Makepeace (as Sara Crew) in a feature article for Radio Times, February 16th, 1973 (Scan courtesy of Graham Wood).
Can you share your memories of your co-star Deborah Makepeace, who played Sara Crewe?
Deborah was one of the girls cast out of Elmhurst Ballet School. We had separate chaperones during production and would not have spent that much time together on set or in rehearsal. I was saddened to learn of Debbie’s early demise in the nineties.
What are your recollections of your co-star Ruth Dunning, who played Miss Minchin?
In the early seventies, I think that there would have been a good deal of separation between the adult cast members and the children, so I did not get to know her well.
What was it like on set? I would imagine that since it was a strong female cast, and many of you were around the same age, that it was fun.
I became good friends with Catherine (Kate) Lock, also from Elmhurst, and we continued to spend time together in adulthood. Kate ended up writing for TV as well as performing. Lesley Dunlop and I both lived in south west London, so would meet up outside of school. I missed out on a family holiday that year due to the filming schedule and was lonely having to lodge with my chaperone for a fortnight.
Marcia Mae Jones (who played Lavinia in the 1939 adaptation) said that over the years she got a lot of hate mail due to the way her character treated Shirley Temple’s character (Sara Crewe). Did you have any experiences similar to that since you played the same unsympathetic character?
No, I do not remember receiving any hate mail. Do people send ‘hate mail’ to child actors? However I can tell you that persistently being cast as the baddie did take its toll. These characters do tend to have more meat to get your teeth into as an actor but depending upon ones own style of acting, it can result in internalising too much negativity and inhabiting dark places for too long.
What’s your favourite memory from working on the series?
We shot several external scenes on location in the historic city of Bath, UK, due to the Georgian architecture. I was a very adventurous tomboy in my younger days and recall that when we were staying in a hotel and each had our own rooms, that I thought it was fun to climb out of my upper floor window and knock on Lesley’s window next door, to access her room and hang out with her! Insane antics, given that one false step would have seen me plummet to my certain death. Certainly the production team would not have been aware of any of this, imagine the insurance nightmare?
Do you stay in touch with or still see anyone from the series?
I have remained in touch with both Catherine Lock and Lesley Dunlop but we have not seen each other for a good number of years. Stage school is a unique experience and such a rarified atmosphere, that only people who have a lived experience of it can understand what that childhood was like. I remain close friends with many from those early years, these old friends are important.
There’s been a persistent rumour circulating that the BBC wiped the master tapes after its initial broadcast. Can you confirm or deny this, or elaborate on anything else you might know about the status of its preservation?
Well, I can say that I was in touch with a BBC researcher in the early nineties, who had viewed a VHS tape of the series at the BBC, so the master was certainly not wiped at that stage.
EDITOR’S NOTE (03/03/23): Radio Times columnist, television historian and former BBC TV producer Richard Marson reliably informs us via Twitter “that the serial has never been lost; the master tapes were retained and digital copies made further down the line.” Hurrah!
It’s been over 100 years since the original novel was published, and all this time its remained such a classic. Why do you think the story is still so popular?
Good storytelling that draws on identifiable archetypes and recognisable human experiences, will always stand the test of time, as readers/viewers can identify with the characters and situations.
In terms of your career, what does A Little Princess mean to you? Do people still bring it up or talk to you about it?
Working on a series is a joy, as it allows time for one’s own fictional character to develop alongside the performers growing relationships on set and a fuller understanding of the other cast members.
I was lucky enough to have performed in three series, in the seventies and eighties: A Little Princess (BBC), Horse in the House (Thames TV), Kessler (BBC). I became a full-time drama student at Arts Educational the following year, at a precociously young age. Not something that I would necessarily recommend in hindsight but it was absolutely what I needed to do at that time in my life. I do believe that the BBC adaptation was considered very faithful to the book, so people do still have fond memories of the series. Thank you for your continued interest.
For more info and updates on Alison Glennie, visit her official website and follow her social media pages:
❉ Official Website: https://alisonglennie.com
❉ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/alison_glennie/
❉ Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlisonGlennie
❉ Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/100045061939808/
❉ Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/alisong
❉ ‘A Little Princess’, by Frances Hodgson Burnett and dramatised in six parts by Jeremy Paul, was directed by Derek Martinus and broadcast on BBC One from Sunday 18 Feb 1973 to Sunday 25 March 1973. Click here to sign the petition to release A Little Princess (1973) on DVD!
❉ With credits including journalism writing, radio personality, lyric video producing, social media publishing, and graphic design, in 2019 Foster Hitchman released two independent film projects. The first was Lynne: The English Rose, which told the story and paid tribute to British actress, Lynne Frederick. The second was a three-part mini web series, Foster’s Features Interview with Julie Dawn Cole: All About Julie, where he interviewed British actress and star of the original Willy Wonka film, Julie Dawn Cole.
Header image source: 31 May 2021, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.