The names Samuel Beckett and The Omen don’t normally crop up together in the same sentence. However, they have certainly done so over the past few days as tributes have been paid to actress Billie Whitelaw, who unfortunately passed away on December 21st. Whitelaw was a close collaborator with legendary Irish playwright Beckett from their first meeting in 1963 until his death in 1989; and she was also a considerable film presence whose most noticeable (if not subtlest) role was as Mrs Baylock, the demonic and psychotic nanny of the equally demonic and psychotic Damien Thorn, son of the Devil, in the first of The Omen movies in 1976.
Whitelaw’s association with Beckett saw her appearing in such works as Play, Eh Joe, Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby. The one I’ll always remember her in, though, is Happy Days, a TV version of which I saw back in the 1980s. Its central metaphor is no more subtle than the character of Mrs Baylock in The Omen: a prattling woman of some maturity disappears piece by piece into a mass of sand. In the first act, she’s buried to her waist in the stuff, while by the second act she’s up to her neck in it. But it’s also a hard-to-forget metaphor and it definitely sums up Beckett’s bleak view of life, the universe and everything. (When trying to account for Beckett’s unrelentingly grim outlook, I’ve always liked the theory forwarded by Irish singer, musician, boozer and raconteur Shane McGowan. He attributed Beckett’s gloom to the fact that he was the only man in Ireland who’d ever wanted to play cricket for Ireland.)
Hard-to-forget too is Whitelaw’s turn in The Omen. After arriving in the Thorn household, her first salutation to Damien is, “Have no fear, little one. I am here to protect thee!” And she certainly shows her devotion to the Satanic little tyke when she disposes of his hapless mother, played by Lee Remick, by shoving her out of a hospital window with the result that she crashes through the roof of an ambulance passing below. Her final hissing, spitting, downright-animalistic confrontation with Damien’s ‘official’ father, Gregory Peck, is memorable too. In fact, Whitelaw’s Mrs Baylock is one of the great evil minions in horror-movie history. (Incidentally, in 2006’s nondescript remake of The Omen, the one thing the filmmakers got right was the recasting of Mrs Baylock. For the remake, they hired Mia Farrow – who of course had past form with Satanic children, having played Rosemary in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968.)
The Omen aside, Whitelaw’s movie CV was pleasingly varied. In 1960’s The Flesh and the Fiends, directed by John Gilling and the best cinematic telling of the story of notorious Edinburgh body-snatchers-cum-serial-killers Burke and Hare, she played the luckless Mary Paterson – a prostitute whose body turned up on the dissecting table at the Edinburgh Medical School under the nose of a horrified medical student who’d only very recently spent an evening with her. The same year, she appeared in Val Guest’s Hell is a City, the grittiest and hardest-boiled British crime drama before Mike Hodge’s Get Carter in 1970; while in 1967 she played Hayley Mills’ mum in Roy Boulting’s Twisted Nerve, one of those warped, sleazy psychological thrillers that British cinema was adept at turning out at the time. Another warped and sleazy piece she appeared in was 1972’s strangler-on-the-loose thriller Frenzy, the nastiest film in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre. And 1990 saw her play Violet Kray, mother of the London East End’s favourite homicidal gangster siblings, in Peter Medak’s The Krays.
She also turned up on television. Back in the 1950s she played the daughter of Jack Warner’s title character in Dixon of Dock Green, the first British TV cop-show of any note. In 1980, she provided Michael Elphick’s romantic interest in the BBC’s morally-dodgy but entertaining Nazi comedy, Private Schulz. My favourite TV memory of her, though, dates to 1977 when she appeared in Supernatural, a stagey but atmospheric Gothic-horror anthology show that was scripted by her husband, the dramatist Robert Mueller. In the two-part Supernatural story Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion, she played a woman who during her youth had been used and abused by a series of powerful men and eventually, to spare them embarrassment, ‘married off’ to a brutal aristocrat living in a remote mountain castle. After the aristocrat dies mysteriously, she invites those former beaus who’d mistreated her – played by Ian Hendry, Edward Hardwicke, John Fraser and Charles Kay – to her castle. What they don’t know is that the aristocratic husband didn’t really die, but got infected with something that leaves him hairy and bloodthirsty when there’s a full moon. And Whitelaw intends to use him, like a monstrous attack dog, to right a few wrongs.
I last saw Billie Whitelaw when she was playing a villainess in 2007’s Hot Fuzz, the second of the ‘Cornetto’ trilogy directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. At the movie’s climax we see her blazing determinedly at Pegg and Frost with an AK47. Which I think was as good a way to bow out as any.
(c) Working Title