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The Lady Vanishes by Ethel Lina White

by Brenda Blethyn

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Part One 14:15
Part Two 13:40
Part Three 13:35
Part Four 13:43
Part Five 13:44
Part Six 13:58


Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in 2006.

The Oscar nominated actress BRENDA BLETHYN reads a new six-part abridgement of Ethel Lina White’s classic 1930’s railway thriller THE LADY VANISHES.

Best known as the basis for Hitchcock´s classic early film, The Lady Vanishes, Ethel Lina White´s novel “The Wheel Spins” (later renamed as “The Lady Vanishes” following the popularity of Hitchcock’s movie) is a gripping and accomplished work in its own right. The plot is deceptively simple, and the premise - a woman meets an engaging stranger during a long railway journey who later disappears leading to mystery and deception - is classic. It´s easy to see why Hitchcock found this novel so compelling and so well-suited to his particular brand of filmmaking.

Read by one of the UK’s most popular actresses, the twice Oscar nominated Brenda Blethyn, “The Lady Vanishes” promises to take you on a thrilling journey – asking not just who-dunnit, but why and how!


Ethel Lina White was born in Monmouthshire, England, in 1876. She was employed for some years by the government at the Ministry of Pensions in London and began writing fiction in the 1920s, making her debut with the mainstream novel The Wish-Bone (1927). After two more mainstream novels, Twill Soon Be Dark (1929) and The Eternal Journey (1930), she moved into the thriller and mystery genres, where her popularity flourished for the next 14 years. Starting with Put out the Light (aka Sinister Light, 1931) and Fear Stalks the Village (1932), she began building a reputation as a brilliant storyteller in the field. Her third novel, Some Must Watch (1933), about a mute servant in a household that is stalked by a killer, later caught the eye of Hollywood producers, but it was her sixth novel, following The First Time He Died and Wax (both 1935), that first brought White to the screen, in rather convoluted fashion.

In 1936, she published The Wheel Spins, which was licensed by Gaumont British studios, to be made into a movie by director Roy William Neill, under the title Lost Lady. A disastrous attempt at shooting location footage in Central Europe, however, led to a shelving of the project for a year, at which time it fell into the hands of Alfred Hitchcock. The director was normally loathe to take on projects that had already been in the hands of others, but the story was too tempting. The result was The Lady Vanishes (1938), which is usually regarded as the pinnacle of Hitchcock's British period. The novel told the story of an innocent elderly English governess, working in the household of the royal family of a small European country, who chances to spot the leader of that country in a place that, officially, he isn't supposed to be anywhere near; as we later learn, this is information that could jeopardize his control of the country. The woman is kidnapped as a result, and nearly killed, but for the intervention of a young Englishwoman. The screenplay to the Hitchcock movie, authored by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, added elements of espionage to the plot, but retained the basic threat to the young heroine. Hitchcock's own analysis of White's plot brought it back to its modern origins, the story of the Vanishing Lady, which dated from the Paris Exposition of the 1880s.

White wrote eight more thrillers, ending with They See in Darkness (1944), which was published in the year of her death, at age 68. Curiously, there was a flurry of film activity involving her books around the time of her death. Her 1942 novel Midnight House (aka Her Heart in Her Throat) was picked up by Paramount Pictures and producer John Houseman, who were looking for a vehicle with which director Lewis Allen and leading lady Gail Russell could follow up their 1944 triumph The Uninvited -- the resulting film was titled The Unseen (1945), based on a screenplay co-authored by Raymond Chandler. Around that same time, director Robert Siodmak, working very much in a Hitchcock-like mode, brought Some Must Watch to the screen as The Spiral Staircase, starring Dorothy McGuire. White is primarily remembered today by mystery buffs -- both The Lady Vanishes and The Spiral Staircase were remade in the 1970s without too much success.


The plot is deceptively simple, and the premise-a woman meets a mysterious stranger during a long railway journey-is classic. It's easy to see why Hitchcock found this novel so compelling and so well-suited to his particular brand of filmmaking. The protagonist of the story is a young woman named Iris Carr, who suffers a blackout just before she is to board her train for a railway journey across Europe to London. It is an ominous beginning to what will be a very disturbing trip. On board, the still-woozy Iris befriends Miss Froy, a fellow Englishwoman who is a little eccentric, but who seems mostly agreeable and benign. Miss Froy is the "Vanishing Lady" of Hitchcock's title, and she mysteriously disappears while Iris is napping. Her inexplicable departure throws Iris into a mind-bending mystery that will make her alternately question her sanity and the designs of the people around her. For when she asks about the vanished Miss Froy, everyone on board the train adamantly denies ever having seen the woman. Although Iris is tempted to believe that Miss Froy must have been merely a vivid hallucination, perhaps an aftereffect of sunstroke, a few stray, inexplicable details suggest that something much more sinister may be going on.... Gripping as the plot is, the novel's true strength is the masterful way in which White subtly builds tension and creates a brooding, ominous atmosphere that hangs over even the most ordinary scenes. She has, therefore, been compared to Edgar Allan Poe, although White also has much in common with Wilkie Collins, Patricia Highsmith and Mary Higgins Clark. Unlike traditional mystery stories or whodunits, which generally open with a crime, White's novel trades on our anticipation of a future transgression and the eventual explanation of unusual events. As a result, The Lady Vanishes/The Wheel Spins is charged with an electric atmosphere of expectancy that keeps the reader captivated from beginning to end.

Hitchcock made the book the basis for his 1938 movie “The Lady Vanishes” – fondly thought of by many Hitchcock fans as his farewell to the British film industry before heading off to Hollywood. The film starred Margaret Lockwood as Iris, May Whitty as the disappearing Miss Froy and Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, who would go on to co-star as bumbling twits in several other movies. The movie was re-made in 1979 by Anthony Page and starred Elliot Gould, Cybil Shepherd, Angela Lansbury and Arthur Lowe. Sadly this version was not received so well by critics or audiences alike!


Brenda Blethyn was born Brenda Bootle on 20th February 1946 in Ramsgate, Kent. She was the youngest of nine children, her father was a mechanical engineer. Her parents took her to the movies weekly, introducing her to the magic of the cinema. At school she excelled in maths, graduated from technical college and then worked as a secretary and book-keeper in a bank. After the breakdown of her marriage to graphic designer, Alan James Blethyn who she met when they were both working together for British Rail, she decided to give-up her job. Having saved-up enough money she applied to Guildford drama college, for which she was accepted, and from that moment has never looked back. She was 27 at the time and, realising the risk she was taking, didn't tell her parents just in case it didn't work out as she could always go back to shorthand and typing.

Obviously Brenda's big risk paid off and after some early stage experience with the Bubble Theatre and at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, she joined the Royal National Theatre in 1975 where she worked with many of the UK's most acclaimed theatre directors. Her work at the National included Tamburlaine and Bedroom Farce which were both directed by Peter Hall; The Passion and A Midsummer's Night Dream, directed by Bill Bryden; The Beaux Strategem and The Provok'd Wife, directed by Peter Wood; and Tom Stoppard's Dalliance. She then went on to join The Royal Shakespeare Company where her work included Tales From the Vienna Woods and Alan Ayckbourn's Wildest Dream. She has also worked at the Manchester Royal Exchange where she has played Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House and Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday. She has also played Mrs. Chieverly in Oscar Wilde's Ideal Husband.

Brenda's British television career started in 1980 when she appeared in the BBC2's playhouse presentation of Mike Leigh's Grown-Ups as Gloria, this was followed in 1981 when she made a guest appearance in the comedy series Yes, Minister alongside Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne. She then gave a couple of classical performances in the BBC Shakespeare series, playing Cordelia in King Lear (1982) directed by Jonathan Miller, alongside Michael Horden's as Lear and Anton Lesser as Edgar. She then played Joan in Henry VI, Part One (1983) alongside Peter Benson as Henry VI. In 1983 Brenda played Angela Foley in the first of the television adaptations of the PD James novels, Death of an Expert Witness in which Roy Marsden played Commander Adam Dalgliesh; and in 1984 she moved into comedy when she played the part of Alison Little in Chance in a Million with Simon Callow and Bill Pertwee. In the same year she made a number of guest appearances in Alas Smith and Jones with Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones; and Who Dares Wins with Julia Hills and Rory McGrath. Her next comedy role came in the form of The Labours of Erica with Clive Merrison in 1989.

Brenda then moved into the big screen making two films during the period between 1990 and 1992, the first being the Jim Henson film of Roald Dahl's The Witches in which she played Mrs. Jenkins, other parts were played by Rowan Atkinson, Jane Horrocks and Anjelica Huston (1990). The second film was the Robert Redford movie A River Runs Through It in which she played Brad Pitt's mother, Mrs. Maclean.
In 1993 she returned to television when she played the part of Gwen in the TV drama The Bullion Boys alongside Tim Pigott-Smith and David Jason; and the part of Margaret Amir in the mini-series The Buddha of Suburbia with Naveen Andrews as her son Karim. In 1994 Brenda played the terrifically funny character Miriam Dervish in the comedy series Outside Edge with a cast which included Josie Lawrence, Robert Dawes, Timothy Spall and Michael Jayston. This earned her Best Comedy Actress in the 1994 British Comedy Awards but also saw the end of Brenda's television appearances for the next five years as she was to finally to well and truely make her name in the world of film.

In 1996 Brenda was cast as Cynthia Rose Purley in Mike Leigh's Secret's and Lies for which she won a Golden Globe Award and a BAFTA Film Award, and was nominated for an Oscar. At the time Brenda's comments about the role were "I was a novice as far as film was concerned. I'd been working over 20 years at the time, and then all that happened". In 1997 she returned to the screen to play Shirley in Michael Frayn's comedy Remember Me? with Imelda Staunton and Robert Lindsay. In 1998 she appeared in five films - with Julie Walters and Kris Kristofferson in the British comedy/ drama Girls' Night; the Australian drama In the Winter Dark with Ray Barrett; the Irish drama Night Train with John Hurt and Lorcan Cranitch; the romance Music From Another Room with Jude Law; and finally the role of Mari Hoff, which won her another Oscar nomination, in Little Voice with Jane Horrocks and Michael Caine. In 1999 Brenda made a brief return to television in RKO 281 but then swiftly returned to the big screen in Keeping Time with Peter Fonda. Her biggest film in 2000 was Saving Grace in which she played Grace Trevethyn (right), a wealthy widow who discovers that she is £300,000 in debt, thanks to her late husband's failed business ventures, but with the help of her handyman they come up with a plan to grow a marijuana in her greenhouse. In 2001 she appeared as Mrs Delaney in On the Nose with Dan Ackroyd and Robbie Coltrane; as Julia Montgomery in Daddy and Them with Billy Bob Thornton, Jamie Lee Curtis and Ben Affleck; as Jane Marks in Lovely and Amazing; as Mrs. Louise Tutwiler in Yellow Bird; and The Sleeping Dictionary with Bob Hoskins, which she filmed in Malaysia. She also appeared on television as Auguste Van Pels in Anne Frank with Ben Kingsley. In 2002 she will be appearing in Pumpkin as Judy Romanoff; and Plots with a View as Betty Rhys-Jones alongside Alfred Molina, Christopher Walken and Lee Evans. She will also be supplying the voice of Mrs. Fairgood in The Wild Thornberry's.

In the 1990 Brenda returned to the stage when she appeared on Broadway in Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends for which she won the Theater World Award for Outstanding New Talent; she also won Best Supporting Actress in the British Drama Awards for her performance in Neil Dunn’s Steaming in 1996. She was also nominated for an Olivier Award for Michael Blakemore's Benefactors at the Vaudeville Theatre. In 1997 she appeared at the Donmar Warehouse in Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus directed by Sam Mendes.

Brenda shares her home with long-time boyfriend Michael Mayhew, an art director for the England's National Theatre, which is where the two met. He tries to join her on movie sets when he can. They live in the same "unfashionable" southeast London neighborhood that she moved to five years ago, and she still plans to keep a foot in the theatre as it is her first love. Brenda is an ambassador for the Prince's Trust charity.

In October 2002 Brenda returned to the West End when she appeared at The Strand Theatre in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs Warren’s Profession directed by Peter Hall. Brenda played Mrs Warren.

In 2002 Brenda played Jewel Phillips in the movie Sonny alongside James Franco and Nicolas Cage. This was followed by Plots With a View in which she played Betty Rhys-Jones. In 2003 she played Aggie Bullard in The Sleeping Dictionary with Bob Hoskins; and Aunt Millie in Blizzard Whoopi Goldberg and Christopher Plummer.

Brenda returned to UK television screens on Monday 17th November 2003 in a new six-part drama series, Between The Sheets. The new series, written by Kay Mellor, followed the sexual intrigues and relationship breakdowns of a group of couples. Hazel (Brenda) and Peter (Alun Armstrong) seem to have the perfect marriage, but Peter has had a string of affairs with women employed at his lap-dancing clubs and Hazel, despairing of a loveless 30-year marriage, announces that she is leaving him on the day of their daughter`s wedding. Elsewhere, Alona Cunningham (Julie Graham) comes home in a seductive mood following a night out celebrating a friend`s divorce, but her partner Paul (Richard Armitage), a probation officer, seems preoccupied by thought of one of his former clients, Tracy Ellis. The series also starred Vinette Robinson, Liz Smith, Gaynor Faye, Robert Glenister and Norman Wisdom. You can read the Radio Times Interview with Brenda by visiting the RT Interview page.

In 2004 Brenda returned to the big screen when she played Polly Cassotto in the Kevin Spacey movie, Beyond The Sea, which is a study of "Mack the Knife" singer Bobby Darin (Spacey) specifically, and his relationship with his wife Sandra Dee (Bosworth). She also appeared as Annette in A Way of Life and in a comedy romance entitled Piccadilly Jim with Hugh Bonneville and Tom Hollander.

It was also in 2004 that Brenda returned to British TV screens once more when she appeared in the one-off ITV drama Belonging in which she played middle-aged Jess Copplestone who is left to look after the elderly relatives of her husband Jacob and to make a new life for herself, after he leaves her for a younger woman. The drama also starred Kevin Whately as husband Jacob, Rosemary Harris, Anna Massey and Peter Sallis. In October 2004, Brenda opened on Broadway at the Royale Theatre in 'night Mother in which a distraught woman tells her mother that she has come to a critical moment of decision. The play also starred Edie Falco and ran until 9th January 2005.

Brenda's projects in 2005 included On a Clear Day a drama in which she played Joan with Peter Mullen, Ron Cook, Billy Boyd, Shaun Dingwell and Jodhi May; Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Donald Sutherland and Dame Judi Dench; Clubland; Pushers Needed with Maggie Smith and Claire Danes; and the voice of Mama Heffalump in Pooh's Heffalump Movie.


released December 29, 2010

Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in 2006.

Written by Ethel Lina White
Read by Brenda Blethyn
Abridged by Neville Teller
Music by SNK Music
Produced & Directed by Neil Gardner

(c) A Ladbroke Productions Release


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