My mother, Vanessa Rosenthal, actress and writer, who died at age 78, worked for 55 years in film, television and radio, but her first love was theater.
She was acclaimed for her performances in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (2002) and the National Theater tour of The Importance of Being Earnest (1999, in which she played Miss Prism). Her last role, before Covid, was as Irene Ruddock in Alan Bennett’s A Lady of Letters, at what then became the Leeds Playhouse. She has had stints on television shows such as Emmerdale Farm, Heartbeat and The Royal, and her film work has included Wetherby (1985) with another Vanessa (Redgrave).
She later wrote for radio and theatre, including 28 plays for the BBC, some broadcast at the Afternoon Theater and Woman’s Hour. In 2008, she created Writing the Century for BBC Radio 4, a story of the 20º century told through unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs. One of her pieces, Bye Bye Miss American High, was nominated for a BAFTA in 2001. She and her piece 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 advocate for the arts. Exasperated by the lack of opportunities for older actors, in 2000 she founded the theater company Yellow Leaf with Alan Meadows and Chris Wilkinson. The company has written and staged many plays across the country and in 2013 traveled to Jerusalem, where it presented my mother’s play Karen’s Way, an exploration of Kinderstransport, to full houses.
Vanessa was born in Manchester. Her mother Hilda, a Lancaster of Anglican origin, had converted to Judaism in 1938 to marry Leonard Rosenthal, a general practitioner of Russian descent. At the time, this was highly unusual and a shock to both communities. My grandfather’s family performed Shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, on the eve of their wedding. This was a love game that weathered the storm of disapproval. However, Vanessa’s quest to belong was an essential part of her life.
She attended Manchester Girls’ School, where her determination to act grew, before moving to London, and the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1962.
Leeds became Vanessa’s home after she met, and in 1966, she married Jim Walsh, who became secretary of the University of Leeds in 1971. They had two daughters: my sister, Emilia, and me. Somehow, my mother managed to merge their lives as an actress and the registrar’s wife – in college circles she was considered somewhat of an exotic.
During confinement, 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 cared for friends and strangers alike.
Jim died in 2008. Vanessa is survived by her partner, Nigel Mace, and Emilia and me.