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Remembering Susannah York

Film-maker Anthony Fabian on his collaborations, and friendship, with the late actress.

Marianne Faithfull brought Susannah York and me together.

It was mid-1999 and I was casting a short film I was planning to direct called Jean, about a woman haunted by her former self. For several months I pursued Ms. Faithfull for the title role, but she remained elusive. Finally, I turned to another ’60s icon…

Two weeks later, I had a call from Susannah’s agent, Lindy King: “She’s is intrigued – but wants to meet you first.” 

We met at her comfortable Victorian house in Wandsworth, with a garden the size of a park. She had just bought some fish fillets and was in a quandary about how to skin them. 

“Put some salt on your thumb and index finger,” I suggested, “You’ll be able to grip the skin and easily pull it off. Shall I do it for you?”

She looked at me with wide eyes, tempted … but we had only just met, and she had her pride: she’d do it herself.

I had always admired Susannah’s poise on screen, in films such as The Greengage Summer, Tom Jones, The Killing of Sister George, Images, The Maids, The Shout, and had seen many of her stage performances. Before we started working together, a mutual friend had told me: “She can be tricky… But treat her with respect and you’ll be fine.”

There was never any trickiness. I thoroughly enjoyed the preparation work with Susannah – getting her costume right (cut on the bias, she explained, more flattering to her figure) and discussing the props, make up, etc. The twist was that Susannah’s character, Jean, is actually a male-to-female transsexual. Susannah relished exploring all aspects of human sexuality through her work and was fearless.

Jean went on to win awards and our friendship blossomed. We ended up making another short film, Prick, a few years later and she narrated my first (Township Opera) and third (While the Music Lasts) documentaries; she enjoyed voice-over work and was very good at it. She was also good with words and came up with the title of my first feature film – Skin.

One of the many things I loved and admired about Susannah was her energy: always busy, never wasting a second. Even in the last week of her life, she wanted constant stimulation. Visiting her in hospital, I was concerned she might be exhausted by my cheerful chatter and asked if she wanted to rest. “There will be plenty of time for sleep,” she said soberly.

In the last decade of her life, the film work slowed down, but she never stopped working - she did a lot of theatre and toured around the country. I saw as many of her shows as I could, including the tiny jobs in pub theatres and other fringe venues, supporting new or lesser-known writers. And then there was her one-woman show, The Lives of Shakespeare’s Women (if no one was casting her, she’d devise her own play). She loved to work, but also knew how to live outside of work, was a devoted mother and grandmother, as well as a committed activist, dedicating herself to the campaign to free Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower who was locked away for 18 years for giving away Israeli’s nuclear secrets. She had a tremendous sense of right and wrong. Everyone who met Susannah knew she treated people fairly and was kind to all, regardless of their status.

The last year of her life was pretty tough… She had her first cancer scare in June 2010, then immediately went on to do a successful run of Quartet by Ronald Harwood, starring opposite Tim West – an elegiac and amusing play about retired opera singers which I found very moving.  (It will soon be a film starring Maggie Smith in Susannah’s role.) But her health was clearly deteriorating.

On January 6, 2011, I received a text from Susannah saying we probably wouldn’t be able to celebrate her birthday on the 9th as planned – she was ‘very unwell’ and would be going into hospital the next day for some tests. Saturday the 8th, seeing her in hospital for the first time, I was shocked. She was a ghost of her former self. Her daughter, Sasha, said, “Mum, Tony’s here.” She turned her gaze towards me and with a slight smile said, “How lucky am I?”

It was heart-breaking, but said so much about her spirit. I once asked her why she wasn’t bitter about her career having lost its lustre. She shrugged and said, “I had my time in the sun… for a long time.”

She will continue to shine bright and will never be forgotten.

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