Vanessa Rosenthal obituary

·3-min read

My mother, Vanessa Rosenthal, the actor and writer, who has died aged 78, worked for 55 years in film, television and radio, but her first love was the theatre.

She was acclaimed for her performances in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (2002) and the National Theatre’s tour of The Importance of Being Earnest (1999, in which she played Miss Prism). Her last role, before Covid hit, was as Irene Ruddock in Alan Bennett’s A Lady of Letters, at what by then had become the Leeds Playhouse. She had stints on television shows such as Emmerdale Farm, Heartbeat and The Royal, and her film work included Wetherby (1985) with another Vanessa (Redgrave).

Later she wrote for radio and stage, including 28 plays for the BBC, some broadcast on Afternoon Theatre and Woman’s Hour. In 2008 she created Writing the Century for BBC Radio 4, a history of the 20th century told through unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs. One of her plays, Bye Bye Miss American High, was nominated for a Bafta in 2001. She and her play Exchanges in Bialystock were chosen to represent the UK for the European Broadcasting Union in 2003 in Helsinki. She was writer in residence at King’s College London in 2013.

Vanessa was a passionate supporter of the arts. Exasperated at the lack of opportunity for older actors, in 2000 she founded the Yellow Leaf theatre company with Alan Meadows and Chris Wilkinson. The company wrote and performed many plays nationwide and in 2013 travelled to Jerusalem, where they presented my mother’s play Karen’s Way, an exploration of the Kinderstransport, to full houses.

Vanessa was born in Manchester. Her mother, Hilda, a Lancastrian from an Anglican background, had converted to Judaism in 1938 to marry Leonard Rosenthal, a GP of Russian decent. At that time, this was highly unusual and a shock to both communities. My grandfather’s family sat Shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, on the eve of their wedding. This was a love match that withstood the storm of disapproval. Nevertheless, Vanessa’s quest to belong was an essential part of her life.

She attended Manchester girls’ high school, where her determination to act grew, before heading to London, and the Central School of Speech and Drama, in 1962.

Leeds became Vanessa’s home after she met, and in 1966 married, Jim Walsh, who became registrar of Leeds University in 1971. They had two daughters: my sister, Emilia, and me. Somehow, my mother managed to merge her lives as an actor and wife of the registrar – in university circles she was regarded as somewhat exotic.

During lockdown my mother wrote her autobiography, Inside Out (A Life in Stages), documenting her life’s work and her journey of reconciliation with her Jewish faith, as, in her own words, “an insufficiently Jewish Jew”. She was a glorious storyteller, intellectually curious, always interested in whoever came into her life and passionately caring for friends and strangers alike.

Jim died in 2008. Vanessa is survived by her partner, Nigel Mace, and by Emilia and me.