O Lucky Woman! Lois Sutcliffe Smith 1919 – 2016

18 Jun
  • On March 31st my Mother Lois Smith died. This obituary was written by Charles Drazin, a fellow trustee of the Lindsay Anderson Foundation and friend of Lois through the last years of her life


O Lucky Woman! Lois Sutcliffe Smith 1919 – 2016

by Charles Drazin

 I first saw Lois Smith on stage at the Royal Court Theatre in November 1994. The occasion was a celebration of the life of the film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson, who had recently died. She was describing their long friendship. Going back to when they first met in the 1940s, she explained how she had persuaded Lindsay, who had just come down from Oxford, to make a film about her husband’s factory near Wakefield, even though he had no previous experience of film-making. She concluded a funny, touching tribute with an account of Lindsay’s last days, which he had spent in her house in France.

This first memory captures well the person I got to know over the next twenty years. Vital and charismatic, Lois was a natural performer. She told me once that she would have liked to have been an actress. One of the things that drew Lindsay and Lois together was a shared love of Hollywood musicals. I am certain that they both must have seen that Mickey Rooney movie, in which Mickey persuades the kids in his sleepy town to put on a show. ‘How about it, kids!? We’ll get every kid in this town on our side, and we’ll start right now. Whaddya say?’ This was Lois. She had an extraordinary knack for generating enthusiasm, for inspiring people on to great endeavours that they would never otherwise have achieved, whether it was a young Lindsay Anderson or many other people whose lives she enriched through her encouragement.

The daughter of a Bradford family doctor and Lay Methodist Minister, she was born Lois Osborn Martin on 9 August 1919, the youngest of four children by eleven years. Growing up during the Depression was an important formative experience. She watched her father go to lengths to help his often desperately poor patients in a time when only a strong sense of community compensated for widespread hardship.

She used to speak with great warmth of what had clearly been a very happy childhood. One story comes to mind now. Her father, who was the son of a Methodist minister, was about to give his first sermon at the local church. He had a slight stammer, and so was more than usually nervous. When he successfully completed the talk, he asked the congregation, ‘Shall we sing hymn number … ?’ to which his youngest daughter piped up, ‘Yes, Daddy, do let’s!’ I think the story offers a clue to Lois’s own lack of shilly-shallying. Definite, rarely tentative, she knew how to seize the moment.

Two of her siblings, Bob and Esther, followed their father into the medical profession, and Lois herself, after school at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, went up to St Andrew’s University to read medicine, but dropped out after only a year. Whatever the huge admiration and affection she had for her family, it must have been difficult to try to follow in their footsteps when she herself had a creative vocation. This was an area in which they could not help her.

Returning home to Bradford to live with her parents, she became involved in a local arts and film society, and met Desmond Sutcliffe, who had taken over responsibility for managing a large family firm, Richard Sutcliffe Ltd, which, situated in Horbury outside Wakefield, invented and made underground belt conveyors for the mining industry. After a quick romance, the two married in 1939 and had two children, Perry Ann in 1941 and Robin in 1943.

Outgoing and gregarious, Lois was not of a disposition to settle down easily to housewifely domesticity. She was really only content when there was some cause or campaign to pursue.  A suitable opportunity arrived when, in 1947, Desmond commissioned a film company in London to write a treatment for a promotional film to be shown the following year at an industrial exhibition in Earls Court. Rather than accept a pedestrian outline that failed to capture the atmosphere of a Northern factory, Lois said, ‘Why not make a film ourselves? We could form a Sutcliffe Film Unit, and I know the person who could make it.’

This Rooney moment finally worked only because Desmond agreed to support what most other Managing Directors would have dismissed as a silly idea. His act of faith was important not only because it resulted in Lindsay Anderson’s first film, Meet the Pioneers, but also because it established the vital artistic framework within which Lindsay, and such other like-minded film-makers of his generation as Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, would operate, championing the individual over the professional. When a few years later Lindsay wrote the manifesto for the Free Cinema Movement that led to such films as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and This Sporting Life – documenting the North that Lois knew so well – the words offered a codification of what he had already experienced making his first film with Lois and Desmond: ‘No film can be too personal. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude …’


It’s worth quoting Lindsay’s own summary of how his first film began because it brings out so well Lois’s character: ‘She marched in and said that she wanted me to make a film of the works. I told her not to be so damned ridiculous… I was just down from Oxford and was packing my bag to do a post-graduate course, with the vague idea of becoming a teacher. Lois said that was nonsense and that I’d never make a teacher. She said I must make this film… None of us knew a thing about making films. We were all amateurs. When Lois makes up her mind about something, there’s not much you can do about it.’EPSON MFP image

Lois as continuity Girl 1948

Lois went on to collaborate with Lindsay on his next film about Richard Sutcliffe Ltd, which was called Idlers at Work, but her involvement with the Sutcliffe Film Unit ended abruptly in March 1950 when Desmond died of cancer at the age of only 35. Regarded with disapproval by the members of the Sutcliffe family who took over the factory, Lois left Wakefield with her two young children and took refuge with her parents in Bradford.

At the same time she continued to rent the house in the village of Appletreewick in the Yorkshire Dales, which she and Desmond had enjoyed in the last years of his life.

Here she gathered around herself a group of friends in what to seems to have been a kind of Northern salon: her nephew David Waterhouse recalled the exhilaration of being exposed to a world of music, art, argument and jazz. He remembered the first summer after Desmond’s death, when typical of the mix was a post-impressionist Hungarian painter, Jean Georges Simon, known as ‘Jansci’, who was staying, whilst carving the headstone for Desmond’s grave in a tent at the bottom of the garden. Lois had discovered his work with Desmond at a Wakefield art gallery, and had commissioned him to carve a headstone for the grave in Burnsall churchyard.


This wish to pay tribute to people who had mattered in her life was striking. When Jansci himself died many years later, Lois set up a trust to promote his work. The unfailing efforts that followed included several exhibitions of his pictures and a book that was published in 2005. Similarly, it was Lois’s initiative that established the Lindsay Anderson Memorial Foundation, which aimed to foster the non-conformist, socially committed spirit that Lindsay represented.

It was while living in Appletreewick that Lois met and eventually married Mickey Smith, with whom she had a son, Stephen, in 1962. The nature of Mickey’s work as a topographical surveyor meant that over the next thirty years they lived in many different places around the country, including Bristol, London, Saffron Walden and Cornwall. Such a peripatetic life must have caused inevitable family disruption, but it suited the restless nature of someone who found contentment only in an active engagement with the world around her.

In Bristol Lois trained to become a social worker. If it was yet another example of how she actively transformed the lives of other people, at the same she was determined to develop her own creative vocation. In 1990 she went to Batley School of Art, and became an accomplished painter. It was a vocation that she pursued with passion and purpose into her last years, refusing to allow her increasingly poor eyesight to stop her.

Another passion was France. On her sitting-room wall there was a bright, colourful poster of three people dancing the sardana during the fête du Racou, a small Catalan village east of  Collioure that she first visited in 1952 with her children and her friend Eunice Musk[surname?]. The original intention had been to spend a few days in Brittany, but after a week of solid rain, Lois decided to follow the advice of a petrol pump attendant who said that if they really wanted to find the sun, then they should retrace their steps, turn right and drive until they got to the sea. After that first visit, Lois returned to the south of France many times, eventually, in the 1980s, buying a farmhouse in the Périgord.

Free spirit that she was perhaps it was inevitable that she could also be often selfish, capricious and volatile. Her children were fortunate that they could turn to their Aunt Esther, who offered a much needed compensation for her younger sister’s erratic nature. The two remained close through their lives in a mutually beneficial relationship for their children, Esther often having to act as the surrogate mother for Perry, Robin and Stephen, while Lois provided her nephews David, Robert and John with a taste of excitement.

If Lois knew how to make the most of life, she faced much sadness too, whether it was Desmond’s early death, problems of mental instability within the family or her divorce from Mickey in 1984 after years of coping with his alcoholism. But whatever the hardships, a rare resilience and capacity for friendship carried her through. When her family and friends gathered together after her funeral, there were so many wonderful stories about her that it seemed much more natural to celebrate her life than mourn her parting.

One of her friends described visiting Lois in hospital not long before she died. She had expected to find her fading away on her deathbed, but instead she was her old, irrepressible, funny self. ‘It was if she had grabbed the Grim Reaper by the hand and taken him down the pub for a drink.’ Another friend shared the message that Lois had left on her answerphone not so long afterwards: ‘Lois here, . . .  back from the brink… . ! 2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate? Me!!! Cackle’ The comment might have been meant in jest, but it was true. Rarely can anyone have been so appreciated.

When Lindsay died, Lois wrote a long, sensitive account of his last days, which she concluded by quoting two poems. The first, ‘Dirge without Music’, by Edna St Vincent Millay, began, ‘I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground… / With lilies and laurel they go; but I am not resigned.’ And the second, ‘Alone’ by Siegfried Sassoon, ended, ‘Alone … the word is life endured and known. / It is the stillness where our spirits walk / And all but inmost faith is overthrown.’ I think that to be alone was what Lois feared most, but her loving heart and provocative wit were such that she was never alone for long, and will never be forgotten now by those who were lucky enough to have known her.


4 Responses to “O Lucky Woman! Lois Sutcliffe Smith 1919 – 2016”

  1. Lynne Stoppard-Jones June 23, 2016 at 7:11 am #

    Lovely obituary Robin. Though I only met her when she lived in Cliff Street I felt an affinity with her
    Kindest regards
    Ilona’s Mom, Lynne S-Jones

  2. Graham Roberts June 1, 2019 at 8:47 am #

    Horbury Civic Society is considering a blue plaque for Lois. Does anyone know the address where she lived in Horbury? Contact details for Robin Sutcliffe would also be appreciated.

  3. grumpysutcliffe July 8, 2019 at 2:55 pm #

    Hi Graham, my email address is robin@sutcliffeplay.co.uk and of course we would welcome such a move. Happy to discuss and contribute!

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