The Inimitable Irene

Mrs. Crevatte: ‘What’s this ‘orrible thing?’
Hancock: ‘That, is a self-portrait.’
Mrs. Crevatte: ‘Who of?’

I have probably quoted that line from the 1961 film ‘The Rebel’ more times than any other . The marvellous dialogue from the writers, the great Galton & Simpson, was rarely bettered in my humble, and that coupled with the joy of its delivery, by in that case we have two of the finest stepping up, Tony Hancock and the wonderful Irene Handl, is hard to beat.

I have long been an admirer of Irene’s ‘scene stealing’ work from films such  ‘I’m Alright Jack’ and ‘The Italian Job’ and her numerous portrayals of an ‘old mum in a crossover apron’ as she once called it, has meant she is very fondly remembered by many.

Funnily enough, despite the many Cockney landlady/cleaner type roles she found work in, she was  born into a world of middle class money and privilege, in Maida Vale in 1901.  Father was Frederick a banker from Vienna and Mother, Maria, a French woman (or  German mother depending who you listen to) from ‘old’ money. Both parents were naturalised UK citizens and they had an older daughter Liane. Comfortably off, the family had a chef and a housekeeper  and Irene attended local schools in Paddington and Maida Vale, though she said later…

‘I never stayed at any school more than half an hour. I never learnt a thing.’

Upon leaving school permanently, she lived at home, without the need to find a job, and instead travelled with her Father, often to New York and she also lived for a while in Paris in her late teens. Her mother Maria died at 40. 

‘I thought, perhaps foolishly, that I ought to stay with my father and keep his home as perfect as it always had been.’

So, Irene took over the running of the home. However, Frederick thought she should have a life outside and so she studied at the Embassy Acting School under the guidance of the sister of Dame Sybil Thorndike. Irene went on to make her stage debut at the late age of 36 and
she became a familiar voice on the wireless, on ‘Hello Playmates’ with comedian Arthur Askey.

She began to appear in the first of many films to come, from the 1940s (they totalled to over 100 by the end of her career.) Perhaps her most famous early role, was  in ‘Brief Encounter’ from 1945, in which she appeared playing a cello in a tea dance trio one minute, and a cinema Wurlitzer the next.

Other highlights include  ‘Miss Gale’ in ‘The Belles of St.Trinian’s’ in 1954 and ‘I’m Aright Jack’ in 1959, as Mrs. Kite married to Peter Sellers’ beautifully judged portrayal of union rep Fred Kite.

‘You wanted a strike? You’ve got one! Perhaps when you feel like going back to work, I will!’

She was Bernard Cribbens’ mum in ‘Two Way Stretch’ again alongside Peter Sellers, in 1960, and in the same year popped up as Mrs. Harker-Parker, in ‘The Pure Hell of St. Trinians.’ Later work included ‘Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment’ in 1966 and second-hand clothes shop owner, ‘Mrs Gimble ‘ in ‘Smashing Time’ from 1967.

‘Come in here, them little mods, asking for animal paws, and while your backs turned, a nice bit of skunk vanishes up their knickers…’

and she did a lovely turn as ‘Mrs Peach’ in ‘The Italian Job’ in 1969.

I shouldn’t let her do that, dear. Gives them ideas…’

Much later on, she appeared in ‘The Great Rock and Roll Swindle’ in 1979 and ‘Absolute Beginners’ in 1986.

Alongside her healthy body of film work, she would also perform constantly on stage and then juggled that with countless TV parts. Memorable shows would include, various episodes of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour,’ four series’ of ‘For The Love of Ada’ ‘Maggie and Her’ with Julia McKenzie and as the ‘little fruit bat’ in ‘Metal Mickey.’ 

Some nice little earners would come from shows such as ‘Blankety Blank’ and ‘Celebrity Squares’ and  at the very end of her career, the part of Gwenneth ‘In Sickness and in Health,’ a spin-off of ‘Till Death Us Do Part’

Of all the people she worked with, it was Sellers who was her favourite she once said . The love between them can be heard on the fabulous album, ‘Song For Swingin’ Sellers,’  produced by George Martin, on the track ‘Shadows On The Grass’ which Irene also wrote 

‘I tan a lot faster in bikini you know…’

‘We (Peter and Irene) were like dancing partners, we never needed to ask each other what we were going to do. It was completely instinctive.’

Irene was also an accomplished author with two novels to her name . First came ‘The Sioux’ in 1965, followed by  ‘The Gold Top Pfitzer’ a year later. According to the Master  – Noel Coward to you madam  – her writing was ‘extraordinarily original’ and contained an ‘authentic touch of genius.’

Off stage, she was a fervent Elvis Presley fan, especially his early years and acted as the president of the Lewisham Elvis fan club (no, I’m not making this up)and she was said to be inseparable from her Chihuahua dogs – Beulah and Quetzal Coatl –  and served as president of the British Chihuahua club.

Irene Handl died, unmarried,  on 29 November 1987 in Kensington, London aged 85 from the effects of cancer.

She’ll never be forgotten, in my house anyway.


The Mumper of SE5



*Update – Volume 2 has gone to print & will be delivered soon

There has been a delay due to paper stock however we will receive the books

by mid April.


THE SPEAKEASY Volume Two by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Rhoda Dakar

Available to PRE ORDER here



THE SPEAKEASY Volume One by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Gary Crowley

Available to ORDER here



Further items have just been added to our winter SALE



Sign up to our newsletter and receive an exclusive promo code, latest news & Art Gallery Clothing offers.

Newsletter Signup