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Charlotte Cornwell - An Obituary

Charlotte Cornwell – Actress


Born April 26, 1949; died January 16, 2021 


 Charlotte Cornwell, who has died aged 71, was an actress of fearlessness and class, who combined tenures with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre with a TV career that tapped into a more contemporary grit. Beyond acting, as a political activist and champion of justice, she was, as fellow actor Ian McKellen described her in a tribute on Twitter, ‘indomitable’.


Cornwell found fame in Rock Follies (1976), Howard Schuman‘s Fringe theatre styled musical drama that charted the fortunes of girl group, The Little Ladies. 

Cornwell played Anna, the most strident and driven of the group, which also featured Julie Covington as the punky Dee and Rula Lenska as the aristocratic Q. 


With a soundtrack of songs scored by Andy Mackay of Roxy Music performed by the programme’s three lead actresses, the show broke TV’s largely naturalistic mode. This helped it win three BAFTAS, while its soundtrack album topped the charts. 


A second series, Rock Follies of ’77 (1977), continued in an even more fantastical vein. Despite being blighted by a TV technicians’ strike, the sequel proved equally successful.


Cornwell later returned to music when she took the lead role in No Excuses (1983), The Long Good Friday writer Barrie Keeffe’s eight-part TV adaptation of his play, Bastard Angel (1980). In No Excuses, Cornwell reprised her stage role as Shelley Maze, a strung out rock singer who retreats to a country house, where she eventually faces up to her demons.


The programme threw up some new demons too, when Cornwell sued tabloid TV critic Nina Myskow for libel, after Myskow described Cornwell in print in what Cornwell called a “vulgar, vindictive personal attack”. Cornwell was awarded £10,000 damages, but on appeal ended up paying considerably more in legal costs.


The experience didn’t dampen her ardour, however, and she went on to play some of her greatest stage roles, both in the UK and in America, before returning home for another stint with the RSC.


Charlotte Elizabeth Cornwell was born in Marylebone, London, the younger of two children to Jean Gronow (nee Neal) and Ronnie Cornwell, who had been imprisoned for fraud. Her elder brother, Rupert, was a noted journalist. She had two elder half brothers, Tony and David.



David became better known as novelist John Le Carre, who predeceased her in December 2020. It was he who first suggested she become an actress, and based the main female character in his 1983 novel, The Little Drummer Girl – an actress with radical political leanings called Charlie – on his half sister. 


The 1984 film version of the book starred Diane Keaton as Charlie, while a 2018 TV version featured Florence Pugh in the role. Cornwell went on to appear in another Le Carre adaptation, when she played Charlotte in the Tom Stoppard scripted film of The Russia House (1990).


Cornwell went to Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, and initially turned down an offer from the RSC, who only offered her bit parts. She began her career instead at Bristol Old Vic, where over three seasons she played leading roles in plays including Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and The Tooth of Crime, by Sam Shepard.


She finally joined the RSC on the back of Rock Follies after Terry Hands offered her the part of La Pucelle in Henry VI. As well as Bastard Angel, she played Rosalind in Trevor Nunn’s production of As You Like It, and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. She also appeared in a production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. 


At the National Theatre, she played Anna Petrovna opposite McKellen in Wild Honey, Michael Frayn’s version of Chekhov’s first play, Platonov. Also for the NT, she played Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, and appeared as Elsa Barlow in Athol Fugard’s play, The Road to Mecca (1985). 


Cornwell combined acting with political activism. She was involved in Artists Against Apartheid and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, and for a time was Vice Chair of actors union, Equity. With fellow actress Annette Crosbie, she also co-founded Greyhounds UK, the pressure group she set up to help stamp out the abuse of greyhounds in the racing industry. 


In 1998, Cornwell toured America with McKellen in a National Theatre production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Taking to the climate having toured there before, she moved to Los Angeles in 2000, staying for twelve years. While there, stage appearances included Master Class, by Terence McNally, Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Guest roles on TV included The West Wing. 


For eight years, she also taught acting at the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts, where she became a professor, and was an inspirational force who was instrumental in the creation of an MFA acting programme.


Cornwell eventually returned to both the UK and the RSC, where she played Gertrude in David Farr’s production of Hamlet, and The Countess in Nancy Meckler’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well.


Latterly, Cornwell was active in setting up the Fearless Choices’ Young Actors Project, a free fifteen-month acting project for young people from low and no income families. Cornwell’s belief that arts education should be available to all gave voice to a cause that combined her passion for acting with an unflinching belief in social justice and equality that never left her. 


She is survived by her daughter Nancy, to her former partner, Kenneth Cranham. 

The Herald, March 1st, 2021




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