Elspeth Gill (1936-2012)

Elspeth Gill with Richard Todd in 1951

I was saddened this week to learn that Elspeth Gill passed away two years ago. Her father Alex Bryce (1905-1961) was the celebrated director, producer and writer who had worked on Walt Disney's live-action movies The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952), Sword and the Rose (1953) and Rob Roy (1953).  

In July 2012 I had the great pleasure of talking to Elspeth about her visit to the set of Robin Hood with her father and was struck by her warmth and kindness (I have re-posted the interview). Since then, I have learnt a great deal more about her incredible life.

Elspeth Gill

Below is her obituary sent to me by Neil Vessey:

Elspeth Gill
Dare To Be Different

These are the words used by Elspeth Gill who used them to describe why she should be considered for the Hackney Performance Horse of the Year Award, She was right, she was different and yes she won that award! Elspeth was a remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life, this is her story..
Elspeth Mary Macgregor Gill was born in North London in 1936 where she spent much of her childhood growing up in Scotland. Her father was a celebrated film director who worked for Walt Disney. The youngest of 4 children, Elspeth spent many of her formative years on set with her father where her love of acting was born. She adored the glamour and showmanship of acting, developing a talent that would furnish her with essential skills for her future. In contrast to the glamorous lifestyle, another one was brewing, a keen interest in the harness horse inspired by the horsedrawn delivery tradesmen such as milkmen, bakers and coalmen around the suburbs of Rickmansworth.

In 1954 she won a scholarship to RADA, THE Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where her natural gift for acting was honed. She studied alongside contemporaries such as the Oscar winning Glenda Jackson and Leonard Rossiter. On graduation, she went on to spend many years in repertory theatre performing in theatres around the country. The ability to travel around independently and adapt to the ever changing face of theatre demands set the scene for a remarkably strong woman who faced adversity and extraordinary challenges in her personal life

After meeting her first husband whilst starring as GiGi in the Wolverhampton Grand, she settled into in the rural idyll of Shropshire, They went on to have three girls, Lesley, Emily and Abbie. Elspeth married a second time and their son Daniel was born. With the children fast outgrowing their Welsh Ponies, Elspeth decided to be resourceful and break the ponies to harness, drawing on her skills learnt as a girl with the milkround! The rest they say is history!

Elspeth’s original driving pony was Tilliepronie Emperor Tilly a versatile children’s riding. With the fuel crisis in 1973 she drove her ponies to town with the kids in a governess cart to do the shopping, a feature broadcast on local television. She was then approached by the Bromsgrove driving group, joined up and opened up a whole new world of showing.

Elspeth’s passion for drama was now being put to good use in carriage driving, Her illustrious career in competitive Private Driving had just begun. With the combined smell of greaspaint…and horses, her achievements in the show ring culminated with her attaining a third place at the Horse of the year show in 1976. Third place was not good enough for Elspeth and realized that to be better, and to win, she would need to be different; to be outstanding and to be noticed, and so she turned to the aristocrat of the showring, the Hackney.

Her lifelong association with the hackneys had started. She became impassioned about of the breed and became a respected lifelong advocate of the Hackney Horse Society. Her first horse was Blue Cap John, a stunning Hackney which she had many a success with. With her constant quest for craving perfection and success in the show ring, she acquired the indomitable hackney stallion Finesse from Holland, Nessie was the love of her life, the greatest hackney of them all. To achieve her supreme goal, she called on the services of master coach-builder Philip Holder of the Wellington Carriage Company to design and build a new type of vehicle, her famous Cane Whiskey which is now on show the Redhouse Museum in Darbydale. The combination of a stunning lightweight carriage, outstanding hackney and impeccable turnout provided the desired effect, they were virtually unbeatable in the show ring and went on to win the supreme accolade, the Concours d'Elegance at HOYS in 1982. This single solitary rosette will adorn her wicker coffin to her funeral.

With a move to Cheshire, Elspeth worked her horses as commercial weddings and tourist rides. Her proximity to Manchester and the Granada television studios opened up new opportunities and returned to acting, this time with the horses and carriages in tow. She supplied carriage turnouts and horses for film, she appeared once again on screen in ITV productions such as Handel and Sherlock Homes. She commissioned John Willets from West Wales to build a hansom cab for film work for the Sherlock Homes and held a Hackney Cab license for rides around Chester. She famously performed a display for the Liverpool Taxi Cab association in a hansom cab, reversing a serpentine down a street to the astonishment of watching taxi drivers!

Elspeth’s attention to detail was revered across the country and became a well loved doyenne of the showring. The previous successful working relationship with Phillip Holder on the Cane Whisky was rekindled when she commissioned another stunning carriage, a pony Spider Phaeton to her exacting designs, which she excelled in many shows, and was often seen with her children perched precariously on the back dicky seat, usually it was her son Danny looking resplendent as the tiger boy Their glory came when they won at the British Driving Society National show and were presented to the Queen. So confident that their turnout was a show winner, Elspeth had already prepared a posy for a young Danny to present to her Majesty.

Whilst living in Dorset, Elspeth added Sunbeam Fantasia (Billy) to her yard, a stunning black Hackney Stallion who proved to be her soul mate seeing her through many a triumph and tradgedy. On return to Shropshire where she ‘retired from the show ring’, Elspeth moved to Bromdon Stables where she was able to look out from her window to see Billy staring back at her from his stable. The lure of the show ring was compelling. She made a call to Gary Docking to find a vehicle, and off to Reading she went and bought the vehicle of her dreams, the iconic Studebaker Princess Basket Phaeton. Great successes followed up and down the country. 
Undeterred by the onset of old age, Elspeth decided to travel to France and take part in the Concours d’Elegance d’Attelage de tradition at Cuts. For a 70 year old woman, a 21 year old horse a 100 year old carriage and a 30 year old battered old transit box, the team set off on an epic journey of a lifetime and yes she won again. Later that year she went on to win the Concours class at the National Carriage Driving Championships at Windsor too! 
Elspeth enjoyed all aspects of carriage driving, both Billy and her would travel all over the country taking part in various events. They even starred together in a couple of theatre productions with Equilibre with their magical performances. At the end of the 2006, their combined carriage driving exploits accrued them enough points to win the highly prestigious Hackney Performance Horse of the Year award. 
In recent years, the stresses of travel, failing health and Billy’s prolonged lameness took it’s toll, so Elspeth drew her competitive driving days to a close. Her final swansong came in 2010 when she fulfilled a lifelong dream to retrace the steps of the Reverend Henry Philpott from his journal of 1835 called "From Worcestershire to North Wales in a gig" chronicling his 11 day 260 mile adventure driving his little black mare. Her youngest daughter Abbie took time out with Elspeth to explore the route by car and when possible would bring Billy along to recreate the journey with a pony and trap. 
Elspeth was very close to her family and hugely proud of their achievements, She was especially thrilled to travel to see the Equestrian Olympics at Hong Kong in 2008 with her daughters Lesley and Emily and grandchildren. 
It was ironic that the hackney horse should offer one last page to the story of her life , sadly on the 5th June, whilst tending to her beloved Billy, she took an unfortunate fall and was taken to the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital where she passed away peacefully in her sleep. Elspeth Gill was an exceptional woman, a formidable character and wonderful person, so as a fitting epilogue to one of life’s great actresses…as they say in the theatre land “Stage…Exit…Left”

Elspeth Gill on the set of Robin Hood

A few years ago both Neil and myself contacted Elspeth and she graciously shared with us some of  her memories of those days with her father while he was filming Robin Hood.

Elspeth’s father was in charge of the Second Unit, which specialised in all the action shots and fight scenes of this wonderful Disney movie. These included the ambush of the royal coach, the rescue of Scathelok in the market square and Robin’s various battles with the Sheriff. She was about sixteen years old at the time and remembers the filming very well. Below is a copy of the blog post I did after our conversation:

"At the age of sixteen, Elspeth had the enviable experience of watching the filming of Robin Hood at not only Burnham Beeches but also the huge sound stages at Denham Studios. During that period she was living in a house approximately four miles from the legendary studios. When Elspeth entered a fancy dress costume at that time, she was lucky enough to be allowed to borrow one of Richard Todd’s Robin Hood costumes. She won the contest-of course! And afterwards rode her horse all the way to the Denham Studios. The security men on the gate were apparently pre-warned of her arrival!

Although it was over sixty years ago, she could vaguely remember meeting Walt Disney and described the Art Director, Carmen Dillon, as a formidable woman. Richard Todd she said “was such a lovely, lovely, man.” He became a friend of the family and Elspeth had fond memories of Scottish dancing with him during the making of the later movie, Rob Roy. Her father, she explained, loved making those live-action Disney movies."

Alex Bryce with Richard Todd (Robin Hood)

"During the filming of the scene in which Robin Hood meets Friar Tuck (James Hayter), Richard Todd asked Elspeth to keep hold of Barron, his Great Dane. Unfortunately Baron was a great deal stronger than Elspeth and she was dragged by the huge dog downwards towards the river!"

Peter Finch as the Sheriff

"Elspeth could also remember being somewhere high up during the filming of a scene in Nottingham Town Square. But she kept feeling something hitting her body and when she looked around, she realised it was Peter Finch (Sheriff of Nottingham) throwing pebbles at her!"

It was a memorable experience for me to be able to talk to Elspeth about her fond memories of those golden days. She was a charming and remarkable woman.


Clement Glen said...

Many thanks to Neil Vessey for informing me of Elspeth's passing.

Elspeth Gill (1936-2012)

Marsha Lambert said...

Great post about a wonderful lady. Elspeth led a fascinating life.

Clement Glen said...

She was a remarkable lady, I wish I had got to know her better.

Mike Giddens said...

Really interesting post clement tinged with sadness but very informative.

Neil said...

Like you Clement I spoke with Elspeth Gill mainly about her actually being on the set of The Story of Robin Hood throughout the filming. One thing that struck me was that she seemed to be so very fond of father and spoke about him and told me that he suffered a stroke only a few years later while he was on the continent filming The Cockleshell Heroes in 1955. She had been an extra on Rob Roy and danced with Richard Todd in one scene. She also said that it was her father who had persuaded Walt Disney to employ Ken Annakin as the film director for Robin Hood so he was the one that set Ken on his way as an International Film Director. One other thing also - I sent her a picture which had the caption 'Mr and Mrs Perce Pearce' and she immediately said ' That's not Perce Pearce's wife - it is Carmen Dillon. She was right of course. One of the few people I thought were still around who had actually been there throughout - seems I was wrong as she sadly died in 2012 but what wonderfjul memories she had

Clement Glen said...

Thanks for all your comments.

I never knew it was her father who recommended Ken Annakin as the film director. Thank you Neil for shareing that. I wish I could have asked her a lot more
about the making of Robin Hood.