In the foreword to Davina Whitehouse’s autobiography An Acting Life, Kate Harcourt calls Whitehouse not only a “mentor for me, for my generation, and the generation after that”, but also “foremost among those who helped to encourage and develop the New Zealand ‘voice’” — in all senses of the word.
Davina Whitehouse was born in England in 1912, as Eileen Elia Smith. Her Scottish father David was already sick, and when he died two years later she was renamed Davina, in his honour. Ten years later her “still young and very beautiful” mother remarried a poetry-keen ex-soldier.
According to her autobiography, Davina “seemed to have sprung from the womb determined to be an actress”. At boarding school she played Peter Pan in the school play, flying confidently out a window then unexpectedly witnessing one of the lost boys urinating offstage. She fell and dislocated her knee.
Aged 15, she was one of several 100 auditioning for one of 30 places at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Upon graduating two-and-a-half years later, Davina Craig was plunged into “the soul-destroying task of getting a job”.
It was 1929; television hadn’t been born, radio was in its infancy, and films were about to embrace sound. Three years went by before her lucky break: British matinee idol Ivor Novello spied a photo of her playing a ragged beggar in one of her rare acting roles, then offered her a part on the spot in touring play I Lived with You. Impressed by her talent, Novello expanded her comic part as Maggie the Maid, and it was enlarged again when it became a film, winning Whitehouse media praise.
Whitehouse was signed to a longterm contract at Twickenham Films, during a fruitful period when the studio was busy pumping out ‘quota quickies” 24-hours-a-day. Whitehouse would appear in more than 40 films between 1933 and the outbreak of war. Often she was typecast in comic servant roles, but there were also larger parts in comedies Annie, Leave the Room! and The Private Secretary.
During World War II she continued to act in London, sometimes timing her lines between explosions. Then theatres were closed down entirely. She also fell in love with future husband Archie Whitehouse.
In 1952 Archie bought four tickets — for the couple, and their two sons — to New Zealand. Initially Whitehouse was dubious. But after the depression of post-war England, she was soon won over by the miracles of free doctors, good schools and the “wonder of total employment”.
Whitehouse quickly got her first job on a radio drama, earning 30 shillings an hour, and was soon acting and directing on a wide range of productions. In the days when the authorities "did not encourage New Zealander writers or writing", James K Baxter’s Jack Winter’s Dream was one of the few by a local. She later became executive producer of radio drama. Often filling in for men with less experience who had won promotion first, she would resign as acting head of drama in 1977.
When Downstage began in the 60s, many of those on stage came from the radio drama stable, including co-founder Tim Elliott, Ken Blackburn and a young John Clarke. Aside from acting at Downstage, Whitehouse also played the postmistress role in Bruce Mason’s Awatea.
In 1972 she starred in early television play An Awful Silence. Shot in colour, but broadcast in black and white, the sci-fi tale won her a Feltex Award for acting, in the days before each gender got separate awards. In 1977, just as it came time to retire from radio, Whitehouse was flown from her Kapiti home to Auckland, to be interviewed for chat show Two on One. Afterwards the gregarious actor was asked to join singer Ray Woolf as co-host.
Retirement opened many avenues. In 1978 Whitehouse began what would become a four year stint on the board of the newly created Film Commission, just as Kiwi movies entered their renaissance. Overcoming early worries that she would be called upon only when it was time to pour the tea, Whitehouse soon brought her experience to bear on scripts and production. She was a keen proponent for funding the legally-troubling Beyond Reasonable Doubt. She also cameoed in films Sleeping Dogs and Solo.
Over an eight-year period, Whitehouse was also flying every six weeks to Dunedin to appear in chat show Beauty and the Beast. A week’s worth of episodes were recorded over a weekend. Alongside her various Kiwi gigs (including Close to Home and Country GP) she was also jetting regularly across the Tasman, after Awful Silence director David Stevens invited her to appear in Crawfords series Matlock Police. Her many Australian roles include ‘risque’ soap The Box, playing a 72-year-old drug-smuggling granny in Prisoner, and TV movie The Night Nurse, which saw her glorying in the part of a murderous old opera diva. Night Nurse won her a Sammy award.
In early 1989, ex Downstage colleague Janice Finn invited her to join the third season of Gloss. She played the “wealthy, elderly, horsey, eccentric” Dorothy Dunbar-Jones. She also cameoed as the fortune-telling Spanish grandmother in Peter Jackson hit Braindead.
Whitehouse proved her mettle with her last sizable screen role, after Fiona Samuel wrote her a half-hour solo piece for series Face Value. In the House Rules episode, she played a woman forced to reflect on 22 years working as a housekeeper. Though initially worried about taking on the demands of such a big role in her 80s, Whitehouse found it “one of the happiest productions” of her entire career.
Davina Whitehouse died on Christmas Day, 2002 soon after turning 90. Her many honours included a Rudall Hayward award for her contributions to film, an OBE in 1985 for services to theatre — and the extended rollcall of Kiwi actors who turned up to sing her praises, on an episode of This is Your Life.
Davina Whitehouse, Davina - An Acting Life (Auckland: Reed Publishing, 1999)
Linda Herrick, 'First lady of acting, rules!' (Interview) - Sunday Star-Times, 21 May 1995
'Davina discusses her art and her agony'(Interview) - Kapiti Observer, 31 August 1981
Gloss Season Three press kit