Director Mike Newell wanted an unknown actress to play the part of 28-year-old murderess Ruth Ellis – the last woman to be hanged in Britain – in his film of her life. Miranda Richardson beat 150 contenders to land the lead role (in her cinematic debut).
After completing her acclaimed performance alongside Rupert Everett, Richardson remarked, “Ruth Ellis will always be famous, but you’ll probably never hear of me again”.
She was wrong of course, and went on to feature as Queenie in the Black Adder series before becoming one of the most celebrated British film and television actresses.
Dance with a Stranger is a faithfully factual account of the life and death of Ellis, a glamorous and hardworking nightclub manager amid the tacky glamour of London’s Soho.
On Easter Sunday 1955 – after a tempestuous affair with her lover, smooth-talking, aristocratic layabout and part-time racing driver David Blakely (Everett) – she followed him to the Magdala pub in Hampstead (London) and shot him dead.
Within weeks she was tried and convicted of murder and went to the gallows on 13 July 1955.
Her controversial trial and execution stunned millions, sparked an anti-hanging crusade and eventually changed the national conscience. Capital punishment was abolished in Britain ten years later.
The film – superbly directed by Newell – has no trial scene nor last walk to the gallows. There is much, however, about how Ruth became totally obsessed with Blakely.
She could have had marriage and security for her two children with the timid Desmond Cussen (Ian Holm), the confidant and protector who gave Ruth everything but received nothing in return.
Desperate to hang on to Blakely, Ruth refused to accept that he was tired of her and this led her to drink heavily and take tranquilisers.
Sadly, after Ruth’s execution, it was revealed that it could have been Cussen’s gun that killed Blakely. There was also suspicion that he had driven Ruth to the murder scene. He denied both accusations.
The theme song Would You Dance With a Stranger? was performed by Mari Wilson and made it into the UK pop charts at the time.
Sallie Anne Field
Girl with David Blakely