b. Judy Mary Gamble, 31 May 1916, Grantham, Lincolnshire, England, d. 6 June 2004, London, England. Campbell was born into a theatrical family; her father owned three cinemas in Grantham as well as the Theatre Royal and wrote a number of plays using the professional name of J.A. Campbell; her mother was actress Mary Fulton. After being educated at St. Michael’s Convent, East Grinstead, she went into the theatre, making her stage debut at the Theatre Royal, Grantham, in Frederick Lonsdale’s The Last Of Mrs Cheyney; she worked in repertory companies in her home town and in Coventry and Brighton and also acted with Cambridge’s Festival Theatre. She toured with Vic Oliver in Robert E. Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight, was briefly with the resident company at William Armstrong’s Liverpool Playhouse, and then, in 1937, she moved to London and the start of her West End career.
By the beginning of World War II Campbell was already making a name for herself and in May 1940, she appeared in Eric Maschwitz’s New Faces revue at the Comedy Theatre. Bombing raids were nightly occurrences in the nation’s capital, France was in the brink of collapse, and the German army was approaching Paris. In the show, Campbell was supposed to deliver a Dorothy Parker monologue, but when the script was lost she was asked to sing. She was not a singer, had never expected to sing in public, but she went on and perfectly captured the mood of the moment in wartime Britain, with a deeply moving rendition of ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’ that received a standing ovation. She would later recall how, afterwards, Noël Coward came to her dressing room to insist she accompany him to the Savoy Grill, dryly remarking, ‘It takes talent to put over a song when you haven’t got a voice.’ Writing of the occasion in his diary, Coward observed ‘Pretty bad blitz... A couple of bombs fell very near during dinner. Wall bulged a bit and door flew in. Orchestra went on playing, no one stopped eating or talking. Blitz continued. Carroll Gibbons played the piano, I sang, so did Judy Campbell and a couple of drunken Scots Canadians. On the whole, a very strange and amusing evening... would not have missed this experience for anything’. Neither, one imagines, would Campbell; the impromptu performance and its immediate aftermath proved to be a turning point in her career. She quickly became one of Coward’s favourite leading ladies; she toured the UK with him, appearing in three plays, then came back to London’s West End and the Haymarket Theatre for the 1943 productions of his Present Laughter (creating the role of Joanna), and This Happy Breed (creating the role of Emma). These two roles indicate the breadth of her talent; she was equally accomplished as the carefree bright young thing in the former and as the wearily resigned ordinary housewife in the latter.
During these wartime years, Campbell also toured with ENSA (Entertainment National Service Association) and played Elvira in Coward’s Blithe Spirit. After the war, Campbell’s career continued to flourish and she starred in the West End in a variety of productions, including Thomas Mann’s Royal Highness (1948). In 1943 she had married David Birkin and they had three children, one of whom is the actress, Jane Birkin, another the writer-director Andrew Birkin. (Several other family members have entered the acting profession, among them her granddaughters Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon.) The responsibilities attendant upon bringing up her children inevitably affected Campbell’s career when she remained at home for several years. By the mid-50s, however, her career was once again in full swing. She played more Coward, in Relative Values (1951), and was in William Douglas Home’s The Reluctant Debutante (1956). In the 60s, she acted in George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1961) and You Never Can Tell (1966). In 1964 she appeared in Mr Whatnot, the first of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays to be staged in London, and three year’s later was in his Relatively Speaking.
As Campbell matured into middle age, she moved on to roles as theatrical grande dames and femme fatales, including playing Christine Mannon in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1967). In the 70s, she played in Coward’s Hay Fever with the Cambridge Theatre Company, in William Wycherley’s The Double Dealer with the Bristol Old Vic, and in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman at Oxford. In the 80s, she was in Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince and played Lady Bracknell in an ill-fated musical production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest. In 1999, she appeared in a revival of Vivian Ellis’ Bless The Bride at the King’s Head, Islington, and in 2001 she was in the National Theatre production of Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past.
Campbell was author of a number of stage plays, among them Sing Cuckoo (1950) and The Bright One (1958). From 1940 onwards, Campbell had also made films, including co-starring with Clive Brook in Breach Of Promise (1942), and she had an important supporting role in Green For Danger (1946). Campbell also worked occasionally on television, including appearing in The Chinese Prime Minister, Amphitryone 38, Old Acquaintance, the 1985 production of Anna Karenina, and the 2002 production of The Forsyte Saga. She also appeared in UK series such as Hadleigh, Inspector Morse and Bergerac. Late in 2003, she was in Where Are The Songs We Sung? at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre, singing, of course, ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’, for which she received at every performance a standing ovation.