Davina Whitehouse’s career in performance spanned 70 years, from theatre and film roles in Britain between the 1920s and the 1940s to radio, theatre, television and film roles in New Zealand from the 1950s to the 2000s. In New Zealand she was widely recognised as an energetic advocate for local production and a generous mentor to her fellow actors. She was a gregarious, larger-than-life grande dame, a talented caricaturist, known for her wit and joie de vivre, and a working mother at a time when that was not the norm. While she played some lead roles, most of her work was as a character actor.
Eileen Eliza Smith was born on 16 December 1912 in Brentford, west London, the daughter of David Smith, the Scottish managing director of the United River Plate Telephone Company, and his English wife Florence Clara King. Eileen’s father died when she was two, and she was informally renamed Davina in his memory.
Davina and her sister Mavis were raised by their mother in London during the First World War, and spent a year in California shortly afterwards. Davina enjoyed a privileged and happy childhood, and the family’s prospects were strengthened by her mother’s marriage to the wealthy James Leonard Thompson in 1924. Davina’s stepfather introduced her family to Christian Science, and though Davina later left the church she continued to subscribe to its theories that ‘one’s body is an embodiment of one’s thoughts’ and that women had ‘a very strong place’.1
As a child Davina was often taken to the theatre, and her early desire to be an actor was reinforced when she played Peter Pan at boarding school. In 1927, at age 15, Davina won a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, from which she graduated in 1929 with an acting diploma. She took the stage name Davina Craig.
After struggling to find work, her first professional performance was as an extra and second understudy in a 1931 stage production of J.B. Priestley’s The good companions with John Gielgud in the lead role. An important break came when she was cast as Maggie the maid in the stage romantic comedy I lived with you, written by and starring matinée idol Ivor Novello. She was also cast in the play's film adaptation (1933), and Twickenham Film Studios subsequently signed her to a long-term contract.
Over the next few years Davina was part of the growing British film industry, acting in many ‘quota quickies’, films made to be the second feature on a double bill. When that contract ran out she signed to act in Herbert Wilcox Productions films. Although she had diverse roles, the comic Cockney maid in cap and apron was her stock-in-trade. In those early years Davina met and at times worked with the cream of British and American acting, including Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, John Mills, Gracie Fields, Googie Withers and Ida Lupino.
Davina continued to work during the Second World War, often living in London where she negotiated the dangers of the Blitz. On 12 May 1941 she married widower John Henry Archibald (Archie) Whitehouse, who had been involved in the development of broadcasting at the BBC and EMI and was now undertaking secret radar development work at EMI.
The birth of sons Quentin (1942) and Stephen (1945) brought a break in Davina’s career, before she eventually returned to acting work under the name Davina Whitehouse. Archie then decided, without consulting his wife, that the family would emigrate to New Zealand. Davina later recalled being heartbroken by the decision, viewing it as the end of her career and a breaking of ties with her family.
Davina was 39 when the family arrived in New Zealand in 1952, settling at Point Howard in Wellington’s eastern bays. The country had few professional theatre companies at that time, and television did not begin until 1960. The principal employment for actors was in radio, which provided the country’s dramatic entertainment. Davina auditioned successfully for Bernard Beeby, Head of Radio Drama for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, and began a 25-year career in the popular medium.
As well as performing in radio plays (often in lead roles), short stories and serials, she adapted and dramatised books for serialisation and wrote and directed short radio plays for Broadcasts to Schools. At a time when women were paid less than men for doing the same job, and less qualified men were promoted over them, Whitehouse successfully fought for equal treatment and was appointed New Zealand’s first woman radio drama producer in 1958. In 1976 she represented New Zealand at an International Radio Drama Conference in Yugoslavia. A year later, with the public service retirement age set at 65, her radio career ended. She became a naturalised New Zealand citizen in 1977.
Live theatre remained Whitehouse’s abiding love, and in her early years in New Zealand she joined the Hutt and Wellington repertory theatres, acting in and directing plays and revues. The professional theatre company Downstage was formed by a group of radio actors in 1964, and in 1968 Whitehouse was cast as postmistress Miss Gillhooly in Bruce Mason’s Awatea, alongside Inia Te Wiata. She later described it as one of the most wonderful experiences of her life, not least because of the introduction to Māoritanga it gave her.
Whitehouse increased her theatre work after Archie’s death in 1973, performing on stage well into her seventies. She later said of this period: ‘my most fruitful, fulfilled years, my thoroughly happy selfish years were from 60 to 80. I did everything I wanted.’2 She took part in national tours and stage productions, including at the Mercury Theatre in Auckland, the Court Theatre in Christchurch and Downstage in Wellington. At times she worked from her house in Titirangi, Auckland, but she lived principally in the Pukerua Bay, Wellington, home she and Archie had bought in 1963.
Having established her New Zealand reputation in radio and stage drama, at 60 Whitehouse received a Feltex Award for her first television role, in the feature-length thriller/science fiction production An awful silence (1972), where she played a retired teacher. It was the first time Whitehouse had acted in front of a camera since her British film career ended 30 years earlier.
The award brought her to the attention of Australian producers, resulting in a trans-Tasman television career for which she commuted frequently to Australia for almost a decade. Highlights were the Grundy television film The night nurse (1978), a mystery horror for which Whitehouse won a Sammy for Best Actress for her lead role as a murderous diva, and six episodes of the cult series Prisoner, as elderly drug-runner Maggie May Kennedy (1983).
In 1976 Whitehouse joined the New Zealand panel advice show Beauty and the beast, chaired by host Selwyn Toogood, where, in her mid-sixties, she was the first older woman to fill a television role usually reserved for younger faces. This role lasted eight years. She also co-hosted the television chat show Two on one (1978) with pop star Ray Woolf. Davina cemented her reputation as one of the country’s most experienced actors with roles in New Zealand’s first soap, Close to home (1982), and then in Country GP (1984/1985), Gloss (1989) and Marlin Bay (1989). In 1995, aged 82, she starred in her last major role, a lengthy television monologue, Face value – house rules, for which she was nominated for a New Zealand Film and Television Best Actress award. Her final television appearance came in 2001, when she played a crone in an episode of the space fiction series Dark knight.
Whitehouse’s New Zealand film career was less prolific but nevertheless significant, with roles in the short film Stealing home (1991) and features Sleeping dogs (1977), Solo (1978), Lie of the land (1985, never released) and Braindead (1992). She also appeared as herself in Peter Jackson’s 1995 mockumentary Forgotten silver.
In 1978 she joined the New Zealand Film Commission and for four years enjoyed working in a different area of the local film industry. Noteworthy films made during her tenure included Sons for the return home (1979), Beyond reasonable doubt (1980), Smash Palace (1981) and Vigil (1984).
In 1985, Whitehouse was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to the performing arts, and in 1987 she was the subject of the television documentary show This is your life, hosted by Bob Parker. In 1997 she was awarded the New Zealand Film and Television Awards’ Rudall Hayward Award for lifetime achievement in films. Her autobiography Davina: an acting life was published in 1999. Aged 89, Whitehouse performed her last role in 2002, voicing a character in a New Zealand-made animated television series.
Davina Whitehouse died after a series of strokes on 25 December 2002, at the age of 90. Local and international obituaries recognised her contribution to the dramatic arts in New Zealand, celebrating her as one of the country’s most respected actors. While she brought a powerful cultural influence with her from the United Kingdom – and proudly maintained the rounded vowels of her British elocution-training – she also helped create a climate in which New Zealand’s professional theatre and radio drama could develop with a distinctive local ‘voice’.