Monday, 17 June 2013

In Search of Vanessa Howard

About eight years ago I picked up a copy of a film called ‘MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY’ (1970), a curious horror comedy about a dysfunctional family with a penchant for macabre games. Although she didn’t receive top billing it was the pretty, vivacious young actress playing the eponymous Girly who really made the piece. Her name was Vanessa Howard and she had the aura of a star.


Howard was born in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, on 10th October 1948. Originally named Vanessa Tolhurst she was orphaned by the age of three and she and her older sister were raised by adoptive parents. Both girls were keen performers and for a time Vanessa attended the Phildene Stage School in London. According to later press sources this led her screen debut in Judy Garland's last picture, I COULD GO ON SINGING (1963), although I've never been able to conclusively identify her in the released version.

Leaving school at fifteen she declined the opportunity to join her sister at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in favour of practical experience. Her first professional job was as a dancer and singer for Clarkson Roses's Twinkle company for a summer season of a revue-style show at the seaside resort of Llandudno. Later engagements included  a brief spell with the Players' Theatre, performing in their well-renowned Old Time Music Hall, and a one-year tenure as a singer and dancer with the George Mitchell Singers (Mitchell is perhaps most infamous now as the creator of The Black and White Minstrel Show), which in turn led to some early tv appearances. 

Her breakthrough came in 1966 and the West End musical 'On the Level'. Although not a huge critical or commercial success the ambitious production, written by Ronald Millar with music by Ron Grainer, drew considerable attention and though Howard's was only a small role it led to further opportunities. A few months later she was appearing opposite David Tomlinson in a play called The Impossible Years.

On Christmas Day 1967 Howard co-starred with Cliff Richard in a musical version of Aladdin on British television;  it was the first of around a dozen major screen performances that she made over the next six years. Most of these were in relatively obscure films; creaky horrors such as ‘THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR’ (1968) alongside Peter Cushing, or as Peter Cook’s wife in the political satire ‘THE RISE AND RISE OF MICHAEL RIMMER’ (1970). Some of these have since acquired cult status, others which one could argue justly remain forgotten.

So what is it about Vanessa Howard in particular that distinguishes her from the abundance of pretty young actresses who were trying to make a living in the floundering British film scene of the late 60‘s and early 70’s? Perhaps because there’s an archness to her best performances; a subversive mischief that draws attention to itself. Unlike some of her contemporaries with similarly ephemeral careers Howard doesn’t seem content to simply gaze, pout and draw attention to her charms. Watch her in the two black comedies that could be considered her two signature parts - the aforesaid ‘... GIRLY’ and ‘WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL?’ (1972) - and there’s an awareness that it’s all just a game. A bit like the young Malcolm McDowell during the same period, Howard walks the fine line between stylised acting and hammy excess.

Sadly however Howard didn’t enjoy enormous popular and critical acclaim, nor the patronage of high-profile directors. Some of this can be attributed to plain bad luck; as the British film industry nosedived several of her more noteworthy films received little to no distribution. 


She'd met Hollywood producer Robert Chartoff around 1968, while he was based in London working on director John Boorman's LEO THE LAST (Vanessa makes the briefest of cameos in that film).  Romance blossomed, and a beguiled Chartoff left with his first wife, Phyllis Raphael, to be with her (Raphael later recounted the experience of being stranded in a strange town in a memoir: Off the King's Road). Given the professional frustrations Vanessa had experienced perhaps it’s understandable that by 1973 she decided to cut her losses and relocate to domesticity in the US. Understandable but also sad, because there are enough glimpses in her handful of roles to suggest she still had so much more to offer.

The last footage I’ve seen of Vanessa Chartoff, as she now was, is at the 49th Academy Awards in 1977, where she can briefly be glimpsed celebrating with her husband as he (and Irwin Winkler) won the Best Picture Oscar for 'ROCKY'. In later years, following her separation from Chartoff in the early eighties, Vanessa focused her energies into raising her son Charley and also became involved in programs to help divorced homemakers back into the workplace.

I’d always hoped, given the minor cult status of her films, that a latter-day interview with Vanessa might surface someday but must confess to not giving it much further thought. That was until last year when re-watching her early role as the quirky Audrey in the coming-of-age comedy 'HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH' I happened to search her name on Google and learnt that she’d died in 2010, aged just 62, due (I later discovered) to complications resulting from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Hearing of any death can be a sobering experience but what really struck me in the days and months that followed was that Vanessa Howard, or Vanessa Chartoff, or however you wish to define her, remained such an enigma to me. I’d love to write a proper tribute to a woman whose acting work I felt merited greater consideration than it’s previously received, but it’s impossible to get the full measure with so little to go by.

If you knew Vanessa Howard, either here in the UK in the earlier part of her life, or later after she settled in California, I’m very keen to hear your recollections if you’re willing to share. Please get in touch on richardhalfhide at gmail.com or visit the Facebook page at the link below.



Vanessa Howard Chartoff



         
           


7 comments:

  1. I heard her son charley has also died.

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  2. Hi Anonymous, could you tell me where you heard this?

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  3. To prevent any further needless speculation I have it on good authority Charley Chartoff is not dead.

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  4. The comparison with Malcolm McDowell isn't one that would have occurred to me, but it's a very good one. Vanessa was a very special talent among late 60s/early 70s starlets, and far and away the most beautiful of Jamie's conquests in "Here We Go 'Round The Mulberry Bush". What a shame that she just seems to have become another Hollywood trophy wife, as the depressing "Rocky" Oscar Awards footage shows, celebrating the very mainstream commercial cinema that utterly negated the kind of films in which she had flourished.

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  5. Sadly, I have no additional information to offer regarding Vanessa Howard. I'd just like to say that I really enjoyed your tribute, and I share your interest in this very talented - and criminally underrated - lady.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks very much. Since this blog post was published I've written a longer article, based on further research and interviews with those who knew Vanessa, which was published in issue #169 of The Dark Side in September last year (still available from the publisher, I should image).

      There was quite of bit of detail I had omit for reasons of length, and further information continues to come to light, so my plan is to post a 'definitive' article on Vanessa in due course. In the meantime, the Facebook page continues to attract followers and is often the best place to look for the most recently unearthed information on Vanessa's life and career.

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    2. Thanks for the reply - have ordered The Dark Side 169 and look forward to reading it. Equally, I look forward to reading any upcoming information about this fascinating and under-appreciated actress. :)

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