In the early 1950s religion entered Nora's life in a significant way. Her son Francis had for some time been developing a strong interest in the Bible and religious thought, and with his encouragement she attended lessons that culminated in her being confirmed. On 5th October 1951, at the age of 49, she took her first communion at the Church of St. Simon Zelots in Lennox Gardens, Chelsea, and for the rest of her life held a strong religious faith. Eighteen months later she was starring in Oscar Wilde's A Woman Of No Importance at the Savoy Theatre with Clive Brook and Athene Sayler and was most disappointed when all her religious speeches in the play, which were deemed to be too melodramatic, were cut!
The play was a great success. Even Sir Winston Churchill (then the Prime Minister again) and Lady Churchill came to see a performance and wrote a letter to Esmond from No. 10 Downing Street saying: "Let me congratulate you on the brilliant acting of your wife. I thought the whole play most engaging and I am old enough to feel the call of bygone days. Yours sincerely, Winston Churchill." Nora had it framed and displayed in her sitting room.
Playing her son in A Woman Of No Importance was a young actor called Peter Barkworth. They became good friends and spent a great deal of time together. In fact Nora became quite infatuated by him and Esmond pulled her leg about it, as indeed did other members of the cast. The friendship endured and Nora and Peter worked together on numerous other projects, including her playing his mother twice more on television.
Also at this time Nora and Esmond acquired a weekend home in the country - a thatched cottage in the village of Weston Turville near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, which they christened Nora's Ark. They went there every weekend for many years with Nora spending much time working in the garden and Esmond painting and listening to music. They were regulars at the local pub, The Chandos Arms, and the landlord and his wife, Dick and Beryl, became firm friends.
The long run of A Woman Of No Importance came to an end and soon afterwards Nora was on her way to Rome, to Cinecitta Studios, to play Hecuba in the film Helen of Troy, with Robert Wise directing. The cast included Stanley Baker, Janette Scott, Harry Andrews and Brigitte Bardot. Esmond also went along as he had been invited to coach a French actor (Jack Sernase) to improve his English accent. In fact Esmond ended up in the film too, taking over as the High Priest from an Italian actor who couldn't remember his lines.
Nora as Sister Tia and Sylvia Sims as Sister Mitya in the
1960 film Conspiracy of Hearts.
More television requests came Nora's way - she featured in A Woman of Property with Fay Compton and John Schlesinger (before he became a famous director) - then back to the theatre for Fools Paradise at the Apollo Theatre with Cicely Courtneidge. Then off to Zermatt in Switzerland to make a Disney film, Third Man On The Mountain, directed by Ken Annakin. Esmond accompanied her for a holiday and, as with Helen of Troy, ended up in the film!
At about this time Nora was approached by an old friend, Phylis Konstam, who was married to Bunny Austin, a well known tennis player in his day and a member of the Oxford Group, by then renamed Moral Re-Armament (M.R.A.), whose influence had helped Nora come to terms with Esmond's blindness when he had first been injured. The Austins owned the Westminster Theatre, together with another couple - Peter Howard and his wife Doe - where they put on plays that reinforced the messages of M.R.A. They were keen to expand their work into mainstream West End commercial theatres and wanted Nora to act in one of their productions. She refused initially as she did not feel the part they had in mind suited her. However, they agree to write a new play with Nora in mind - Music At Midnight - and this time she was happy with the part - the wife of the Prime Minister. She was instrumental in encouraging commercial actors to become involved in the project, hesitant as some were about the religious aspect of M.R.A. Nevertheless the play was a success and enjoyed a long run. Nora wrote: "We had a good press and most wonderful attendance, the pubic coming and enjoying it in spite, or perhaps because of, its moral message." During the run of Music At Midnight, Nora had her "fifty years in the theatre" celebration performance.
When the West End run finished, Music At Midnight toured around Scotland and England, and with sponsorship from oil magnate Bunker Hunt they went on a three-month tour of America, beginning in Los Angeles. The opening night (10th December 1962) was a great success and at the reception afterwards Nora met, amongst others, Charlton Heston, Joel McCrea and Mrs Anthony Quinn. Her ex-husband, Edward Ashley, took her to lunch and she also met King Vidor and Michael Wilding.
Nora meets General and Mrs Eisenhower before a
performance of the M.R.A. play Music At Midnight
in Palm Springs, California.
From Los Angeles they moved on to Palm Springs where General and Mrs Eisenhower came to see the play and Nora met them before the show.
The subject was of particular interest (about a Prime Minister and his wife and the human conflicts in a political crisis). Then on to San Francisco, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Amarillo, Wichita Falls, Poncha City, Bartlesville, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Louisville, Boston, Philadelphia and finally New York. Esmond came over to be with her and they both appeared in a film version of Music At Midnight, although it wasn't a success. Nevertheless Nora had spent a whole year involved with the play and regarded it as one of the happiest times of her life. The M.R.A. movement continues to this day but is now known as Initiative of Change (IofC).
As Mrs Willowden in a 1968 television production of Jack The Ripper.
She was hugely proud to be associated with a production that is still considered a great achievement in television drama. By the end of the decade she was finding the long hours of rehearsing very tiring. One of the last films Nora made, working again with Esmond, was Anne of the Thousand Days. They played a married couple - Kingston and Lady Kingston - whose duty it is to look after Anne Boleyn during her imprisonment in the Tower of London. Richard Burton played Henry VIII. He and Esmond had worked together before - on stage in Monserrat in the early 1950s and on the film The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in 1965. They liked one another and enjoyed each other's company. Elizabeth Taylor was frequently on the set and Nora was introduced to her. She found her much prettier off screen, slimmer with beautiful legs and a lovely face. "She used to sit and watch Richard act and the first time I saw her I didn't recognise her. I had expected a much bigger woman."
In 1975 Nora accompanied Esmond to Spain where he was filming Robin and Marion with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, both of whom she found charming. On their return home they were invited by Michael Elliott, Esmond's son-in-law, to play in T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, which Michael ran. This was the first time Nora had performed in the round, an experience she thoroughly enjoyed. A year later they returned to Manchester to perform together for Michael in another T.S. Eliot play, The Cocktail Party, this time in Manchester Cathedral while the Royal Exchange was being renovated. This proved to be her final performance and on their return to London, after sixty years working in the theatre, Nora retired.
As Katherine Schratt in the 1974 production Fall of Eagles -
one of many TV and stage projects in which Nora appeared
with Esmond over the years.
Whereas Esmond was happy to continue working for as long as anyone would employ him as an actor, Nora was content in her retirement. After a bout of bad 'flu, they decided to sell their house in Bywater Street and moved into a flat in nearby Cranmer Court, a large block overlooking Sloane Avenue. When Esmond died in 1987, Nora continued living there for another thirteen years, for some of the time with her son Francis. She died at the age of 98 on 1st May 2000. Just four days later, in California, her second husband Edward Ashley also died. Nora's funeral took place at St Simon Zelots Church, where she had been confirmed nearly half a century earlier. Her coffin left the church to the accompaniment of The Stylistics singing "You Make Me Feel Brand New". In her unpublished autobiography, I Saw Stars, Nora wrote:
"I have had a wonderful life. I have done those things that I ought not to have done and left undone
those things that I ought to have done. There is much I remember with regret and shame, but I would
willingly live my life all over again."
(1902 - 2000)