Just over thirty years ago, on the 27th November 1978, the death of a largely-forgotten South London actress passed almost unnoticed, with little mention in the press at the time. Susan Shaw had been a fine, very popular and pretty young British film actress, but her post-War 1950s heyday was, even in 1978, a distant era and she had not made a film for nearly twenty years.
The story of the rise and fall of this likeable and talented West Norwood-born and bred girl is both a proud and a deeply sad one. Susan was born Patsy Sloots on 29th August 1929. She grew up at No.6 Hamilton Road, West Norwood, SE27. The family lived above a hairdresser’s in a small row of terraced houses with a few small shops at one end and a pub (‘The Bricklayers Arms’, which is still there) on the corner opposite Susan’s house, one of a number demolished in 1964 to make way for the Vincennes Estate.
Her film career started just after the end of World War Two, as she recalled in an article in the Picture Parade, Film Annual 1950: “As I travelled up to London (to work) every day from my home in West Norwood, I used to read every film magazine I could lay my hands on. I was mad about cinema, but not about my work. I wanted something romantic, something glamorous, but had to comfort myself reading the success stories of others who’d risen from humble beginnings like me. Little did I realize that, within a year or two, I myself would become a star of British pictures! It all seems like a dream”
Signed to the Rank Organisation, one of her first films was one of British cinema’s finest It always rains on Sundays (1947), a realistic, yet poetic depiction of backstreet London life; a valuable historic document as well as a fine thriller. She also starred in gems like London Belongs to Me (1948), based on the novel by Norman Collins, Quartet (1949) and the excellent atmospheric Pool of London (1951), filmed largely on location in Southwark (plus one scene at the old Palace of Varieties, Camberwell. In the film she played a young woman who becomes romantically involved with a West Indian seaman, ground-breaking stuff then. One of her co-stars, UK-based American actor, Bonar Colleano, became Susan’s second husband. She and the handsome New Yorker became the golden couple of the British film world, a sort of Post-War Posh and Becks, but Bonar tragically died in a car crash in 1958. Susan never got over his death.
Her career fell into terminal decline as she fell deeper into alcoholism and depression. She died on Monday 27th November 1978, aged forty-nine, the cause of death being the all-too-familiar alcoholic’s one of cirrhosis of the liver. Dying penniless, her funeral was paid for by the Rank Organisation.
Susan Shaw’s story is one of the saddest in British film. She rose from a working-class South London background to become one of the most popular and beautiful British actresses of the 1940s and 59s, but the misery of the last twenty years of her life made her death a merciful release.
(with thanks to John Coulter)
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