In a special edition of ATV Icon, Elin Toona Gottschalk shares her memories of her time with Jenny Tomasin – the actress who became an international face thanks to her role in Upstairs Downstairs.
I recently read of Jenny Tomasin’s passing and although we lost touch she was always in my thoughts, especially as she became part of my family for a while in the 1960s and 70s.
There were initially four of us, all “mad about the theatre”. We joined the Leeds Art Centre and dreamt of becoming actresses; “fame and fortune” and all that! We were all keen, but Jenny (although that was not her name then) was the keenest, Jackie was the most determined, Hazel was not entirely focused and, looking back, I think my reason was because my mother had been a well-known actress in a country called Estonia and I wanted to honour my mother’s lost career.
My mother [pictured above with Jenny in London in 1964] was the closest we came to knowing a real actress so we began to gather at our flat and she became our mentor. She shared our rejections (our failed auditions), heard our lines and suggested improvements, while my grandmother made coffee and sandwiches and sketched us from the sidelines. She had been an artist, trained in Helsinki, before the world collapsed.
Jenny and my mother had the most in common. They shared the essential sense of drama that is necessary to get through each disappointing day, in anticipation of a better tomorrow. There was another reason too why everyone gathered around my mother. Numbed by her own bad luck she consulted the mysterious forces of the spirit world for a sign that better days were ahead. She studied the Kabala, did horoscopes, consulted Mediums and read the cards – for all of us, but especially for Jenny, whose intense need for upliftment matched her own.
Now the thing about Jenny; she was unique! Rather than waste space I’ll just say that her physical appearance was always “our Jenny”, on stage and off. She had no time for the vanities that took more mundane minds off spiritual matters, so never mind the state of her shoes, the falling hemline, the wrinkled stockings, the untidy hair and broken glasses, which was the frame for her extraordinary eyes; when you forgot the rest. All you saw was a character looking for the perfect role into which to slip as smoothly as a hand into a ‘custom-made glove’. “It’s only a matter of time,” mother assured her. My mother saw what we did not.
It was Jenny’s birthday and mother had a surprise for her. I was included but it was Jenny’s treat. Mother had made us both an appointment with the most “famous” fortune teller in Leeds. No joke! Madame Sybil was the “mostest” according to mother’s “Prediction” magazine – or maybe she had the biggest ad! Anyway, we would find out, once and for all, what lay in our future.
It was dark by four o’clock, raining cats and dogs and as miserable as only Leeds can be on a dreary week night. Jenny and I eschewed umbrellas; bloody nuisance! So mother stomped ahead looking for the address, off Dewsbury Road, far enough from the bus stop so that when we found it we were soaked through.
An elderly woman with a sheep’s wool perm, wearing a flowered frock and long shapeless cardigan ushered us in. No crystal ball, no incense, just a faint aroma of fried onions. A chintz curtain separated the waiting area from what I guessed to be the kitchen. Who would be first? Jenny, of course, as she was the birthday girl.
I was dozing off when the curtain was flung aside and Jenny rushed out, pink, flushed and flustered, hands over her cheeks and tripped over the rug. She had forgotten her glasses. “I’m going to be on every television in the whole world!” She gasped, like she had just been told of the Second Coming but didn’t know whom to expect. I didn’t hear more because Madame Sybil had already crooked her finger for “next”; which was me.
The consulting room was a cosy kitchen. We sat across from each other over the plain table. Madame Sybil took my hand, closed her eyes and said but one word: “America!” Sensing that I might be a bit obtuse, she opened her eyes and explained. “I see the word America, surrounded by light bulbs. You know, like at the front of the Odeon. You’ll live your life in America, love.” She patted my hand and let go. The session was over!
I followed mother and Jenny back to the bus stop. Jenny was still repeating “On every television in the whole world,” but the predictions seemed a bit projective, out of line with our expectations. We were strictly Stanislavsky, “the real thing”. We didn’t even have a television nor did we consider television “theatre” in those days. As for my going to live in America; not if I could help it! Mother had meant well but in my opinion, she could have saved her money.
The four of us moved to London. We shared a bed-sitter in Notting Hill Gate in 1960. Mother and grandmother followed in 1964. Hazel got married, Jackie went to Ireland where she formed a theatre company of her own. A girl named Julia joined us. She was writing plays. I had given up acting to become a writer. Only Jenny was the same, still “our Jean.”
The name change came about by accident or rather because mother had crafted a new name for me, a more auspicious name, according to the Kabala. But as I was no longer interested in becoming an actress, mother conferred the new name “that would be on every television in the whole world” upon the only one of us who was still focused, whom she was still mentoring and whose own real surname was, co-incidentally, close to mine. Thus Jenny Tomasin was “born” and Barry Humphries was the first, to shout, “that’s the girl I want”, seeing Jenny stumbling through the wrong door, drenched to the teeth, laden down with carrier bags, her glasses still broken. Upstairs Downstairs followed and the rest is history.
I ended up in America; married an American. Jenny remained close to my mother and they continued to fill each other’s need for relevance. In every one of grandmother’s weekly letters to me, she mentioned that Jenny “had been there”. That she was coming “tomorrow”. “Your mother is sewing Jenny a dress for a big Premiere.” “We now have television. We watch together.” “Madame Sybil’s prediction came true. And Jenny doesn’t have to travel by bus anymore. She comes by taxi.”
Those of us who remember Jenny Tomasin, and many do, have lost a part of our own past and although we all went our separate ways, we continued to follow her career and wished her well.
– Cheers! Elin.
Jenny’s Television Timeline
- The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, written by, and starring, ‘Dame Edna’ aka Barry Humphries this put Jenny in the spotlight. Her screen début saw her play a young girl who was pushed by her parents into trying to marry the lead character, Barry McKenzie, played by Barry Crocker – the man who sung the original Neighbours theme tune!
- Upstairs Downstairs, Jenny appeared in over forty episodes of this BAFTA winning drama from London Weekend Television. Jenny starred as scullery maid Ruby. The show was sold internationally, putting Jenny’s face virtually on every television set in the world…
- Midnight Is A Place, this Southern Television produced drama revolved around two children who are the wards of a cantankerously un-loving uncle who runs with a rod of iron a factory. Jenny appeared as worker Rose Sproggs.
- Crossroads, another programme which was via ITC sold to numerous countries around the globe. The ATV Network production, set in the fictional village of Kings Oak, saw most of the action take place at the Crossroads Motel. Jenny appeared as semi-regular waitress Florence Baker.
- Doctor Who, the cult BBC One science fiction series welcomed Jenny to its long running tale in 1985 as Tasambeker in the story Revelation of the Daleks.
- Emmerdale, it was 1980 when Jenny first appeared in the popular Yorkshire dales saga. However her second role as villager Noreen Bell became legendary thanks to the comedy scripts, a wig and Jenny’s comic timing. Noreen became part of a huge storyline when Yorkshire Television blew up an entire house thanks to a gas leak – the blast came about due to Noreen flicking a light switch.