Vanessa Rosenthal obituary

My mother, Vanessa Rosenthal, the actress and writer, who has died aged 78, worked for 55 years in film, television and radio, but her first love was theatre.

She won acclaim for her performances in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van at West Yorkshire Playhouse (2002) and the National Theatre’s tour of The Importance of Being Earnest (1999, playing Miss Prism). Her last role, before Covid struck, was as Irene Ruddock in Alan Bennett’s A Lady of Letters, at what had then become Leeds Playhouse. She had stints on TV shows such as Emmerdale Farm, Heartbeat and The Royal, and her film work included Wetherby (1985) with another Vanessa (Redgrave).

She later wrote for radio and stage, including 28 plays for the BBC, some broadcast on Afternoon Theater and Woman’s Hour. In 2008 she created Writing the Century for BBC Radio 4, a history of the 20th century told through unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs. One of her plays, Bye Bye Miss American High, was nominated for a Bafta in 2001. She and her play Exchanges in Bialystock were chosen to represent Great Britain at the European Broadcasting Union in 2003 in Helsinki. She was a writer-in-residence at King’s College London in 2013.

Vanessa was a passionate supporter of the arts. Annoyed by the lack of opportunities for older actors, she founded the Yellow Leaf Theater Company in 2000 with Alan Meadows and Chris Wilkinson. The company wrote and performed many plays across the country and in 2013 traveled to Jerusalem, where they presented my mother’s play Karen’s Way, an exploration of Kinderstransporten, to full houses.

Vanessa was born in Manchester. Her mother, Hilda, a Lancastrian of Anglican background, had converted to Judaism in 1938 to marry Leonard Rosenthal, a GP of Russian descent. At the time, this was highly unusual and a shock to both communities. My grandfather’s family sat Shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, on the eve of their wedding. This was a love match that weathered the storm of disapproval. Still, Vanessa’s quest to belong was an important part of her life.

She attended Manchester Girls’ High School, where her desire to act grew, before going to London and the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1962.

Leeds became Vanessa’s home after she met and married in 1966 Jim Walsh, who became Registrar of Leeds University in 1971. They had two daughters: my sister, Emilia, and me. Somehow my mother managed to combine her lives as an actress and the wife of the registrar – in university circles she was seen as somewhat exotic.

During lockdown, my mother wrote her autobiography, Inside Out (A Life in Stages), documenting her life’s work and her journey to reconciliation with her Jewish faith, as, in her own words, “an inadequate Jewish Jew”. She was a brilliant storyteller, intellectually curious, always interested in who entered her life and cared passionately for friends and strangers alike.

Jim died in 2008. Vanessa is survived by her partner, Nigel Mace, and Emilia and me.

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