Anne Hailes: Talented actress Bella Emberg dreamed of another sort of stardom

Actress and comedienne Bella Emberg, who died last week

THE tributes to actress and comedienne Bella Emberg are fulsome, documenting as they do her lifetime in theatre and her appearances on television. But I know another side of this most delightful woman, a sadness that few people appreciate and something you will not read in the tributes.

We rehearsed and played together some years ago and once the ice was broken we became firm friends. I was playing the part of the countess and Bella the housekeeper in the musical Beauty and the Beast.

She taught me a lot about comedy, how a joke falls into three parts, timing, learning lines, how to get up and get on with it when you slip on the stage – she was a godsend to someone like me who was completely new to the stage.

We met on the first day of rehearsals in the garden of the Tower Theatre in Islington; she was sitting alone on a bench taking no part in the arrival of the cast including the whirlwind that was Lionel Blair dressed from head to toe in white. Well, it was July.

In some trepidation I decided to approach her. She was very offhand. I asked her was she not happy to be involved with the show.

“I am not happy with the English cricket team,” she barked. “Neither am I,” I replied.

That opened the conversation, when I told her I had played cricket for Ulster Women against Yorkshire Ladies this great cricket fan mellowed. When I told her I was a member of the Ladies Taverners, one of her favourite charities, that raises money for disabled children, she almost fell on my neck.

After that we shared a lot of time together – at rehearsals, during our two weeks in the Grand Opera House in Belfast and then three weeks in the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. It was there she confided in me that she had always wanted to study the universe, to become an astrophysicist and some day work on space programmes at Nasa.

But, she said, she was considered stupid at school. She didn't achieve, her exam results were rubbish and so a career at Cape Canaveral was out of the question.

It was like something out of a play. I was totally silenced at the thought of this lovely woman never having the chance to fulfil her dreams. But there was more to the story.

“I always had difficulty learning scripts and one day I was finding it particularly hard because there was a sentence in French. I just couldn't get it so Russ [Abbot, who played Cooperman to her Blunderwoman in his late 80s-early 90s TV comedy sketch show] said he'd help me go over it. Then what he said both shocked me and delighted me. ‘Bella,' he said, ‘I think you might be dyslexic'.”

It transpired that she was; this was what was holding her back from achieving at school and fulfilling her ambition and no-one realised. Although she was a huge success in repertory, on television, in shows like Dr Who and Prisoner Cell Block H, played to a TV audience of 18 million viewers in The Russ Abbott Show, appeared with Benny Hill and in the Royal Variety Show, as well as in many straight acting roles, I found it the saddest thing that she still hankered after a different kind of stardom.

I'll miss her Christmas cards and our phone conversations that left me feeling happy to know her. Indeed I was very happy to know her.

Local Artist In Demand

ALAN Quigley's painting 3 Lunching Legends is causing quite a stir. A trio of talent, Rick Stein, Keith Floyd and James Martin sitting by the sea, the hills of Donegal in the background and a fish course on the table.

Alan explained the story behind the painting. Originally Bill Baker, Stein's close friend and renowned wine merchant, was in the painting and Alan hoped Stein would like it and perhaps add it to his personal collection of Quigley works or hang it in one of his famous restaurants, Sandbanks in Dorset, Padstow in Cornwall or Winchester.

But there was a sadness in the content and it saddened Stein so Bill was removed and James Martin set in!

It's an interesting concept – the two well-known, busy, vibrant chefs and, in the middle, bleached out Floyd who died in 2009. According to Alan, who has become a close friend of Stein and his former wife Jill, the chef and restaurateur is a fast eater, so his plate bears bones and a fish head, while Martin is so engrossed in the conversation he hasn't even started.

The ghostly Floyd, as was his habit, is raising his glass of wine, ignoring his uneaten slice of cake in the colours of his famous red and cream 2CV, a car now owned and driven by Martin. With such attention to detail and storyline, the title of this iconic painting could well have been Wheels Within Wheels.

Here in Northern Ireland there is great interest in 3 Lunching Legends, especially among restaurateurs and hoteliers. However, it may well travel to English to appear alongside other Alan Quigleys on the walls of one of Steins restaurants. Who will end up with this 50” by 40” oil on canvas? Now that it's framed and ready to go, it won't be long before the public will be able to view it in some prime position.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe from just £1 for the first month to get full access


Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: