Janet Munro

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Janet Munro Pencil Portrait
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It is often said that ‘a light which burns twice as bright burns half as long.’ This adage has perhaps, never applied more than to the freckled faced, green eyed beauty Janet Munro, an actress best known for her starring roles in such Disney classic movies as, Darby O’Gill and the Little People,’ ‘Third Man On the Mountain and Swiss Family Robinson.’

Her dramatic roles included Bitter Harvest and a truly outstanding performance in Life For Ruth,’ a role which won her a nomination for Best British Actress in the 1962 BAFTA (British Academy Awards).

Sadly her greatest drama would be played out in a private life beset with health problems, two failed marriages and alcoholism. She would die from a heart attack caused by chronic ischaemic heart disease at Whittington Hospital, North London in 1972, aged just 38 years old. Today, she is a largely forgotten star of British cinema, but perhaps I can do ‘my little bit’ to redress the balance.

Janet Munro was born as Janet Neilson Horsburgh on 28 September 1934 in Blackpool, Lancashire, England. Munro was the daughter of the Scottish comedian Alex Munro and his wife, Phyllis Robertshaw. Janet’s mother, Phyllis died when she was eight and she was raised by Lilias, Alex Munro’s second wife.

Her father’s real name was Horsburgh, and he commenced his career in entertainment when he joined his brother Archie and sister June in an acrobatic act called ‘The Star Trio.’ They later changed their name to ‘The Horsburgh Brothers and Agnes,’ becoming part of Florrie Forde’s music hall company with Flanagan and Allen.

During World War Two, Munroe toured with the RAF show, Contact, and had his own BBC radio series ‘The Size of It.’ He headlined in a number of British variety theatres, before finally making his home in Llandudno, Wales. He was given creative control of the Llandudno Pier Pavilion Theatre in the 1970s, by which time his daughter Janet had sadly passed away. The Alex Munro Show ran at the Happy Valley in Llandudno for 30 years. He would outlive his daughter by another fourteen years, eventually passing away in 1986, at the age of seventy four.

Janet’s step-mother Lilias, joined the BBC’s make-up department in 1956, relocating from London to Blackpool to become head of make-up at the Dickinson Road studios in Manchester. She worked on many different productions, including the oft recalled series ‘The Good Old Days.’ By all accounts, she was a devoted stepmother to Janet, whose own mother had died.

Lilias and Alex also had a son, Alex Jr, and when the marriage ended in divorce, her relationship with Janet would endure. Retaining custody of Alex Jnr, she would move back to London, overseeing her stepdaughter’s blossoming career as an actress. Well connected in theatrical circles, the young Munro would take full advantage of her stepmother’s influence, in her quest for acting stardom. After all, in best theatrical tradition, the young Janet had been “born in a trunk” and, from the age of a month, travelled the country from one town to the next with her father’s act. Variety performance was not in her blood, and after finishing her formal education a brief period of work in retail would ensue, before moving into the world of repertory theatre. Regular work in Preston, Oldham and Hull would generate miserly drawings of £8 per week, and the task of regularly learning new parts was arduous, but she was nonetheless honing her skills. The London stage would soon beckon.

After a brief career in the theatre Janet was spotted and given her first film role as Effie the waitress in “Small Hotel” (1957), followed by “The Trollenberg Terror” (1957) and a starring role with Andrew Ray in “The Young and the Guilty” (1958). The following year, she signed a five-picture deal with Walt Disney, delivering lively performances in “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” (1959), “Third Man on the Mountain” (1959) and “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960).

After her Disney contract ended, she was given more dramatic roles in “Day The Earth Caught Fire” (1961), “Life for Ruth” (1962) and “Bitter Harvest” (1963). Voted “TV actress of the year” in 1958, she would would subsequently share the Golden Globe award of 1960 as “Most Promising Newcomer – Female” together with Tuesday Weld, Angie Dickinson and Stella Stevens.

Janet Munro married twice. In January 1956 she wed Tony Wright, the marriage ending three years later in 1959. In 1963 she married former Avengers star Ian Hendry, and the couple had two children Sally and Corrie. From 1964 to 1968 Munro retired from acting to raise her two children, but would return to the big screen as a pop singer in the Dirk Bogarde movie “Sebastian.” Sadly, her marriage to Hendry would also flounder, the couple divorcing in 1971.

She continued to act sporadically but only had two more film roles. In 1972 she tragically lost her life to myocarditis at the young age of 38. When she died, it was erroneously reported that she had committed suicide and this error has unfortunately continued to haunt her memory. It may have been linked to an earlier event that same year. Inebriation inevitably goes hand in hand with a lack of co-ordination, and after a period of drinking on Pharaoh’s Island – located on the Thames – Munro had returned to her small boat in order to return to the mainland for further alcoholic sustinance. The boat capsized and she was swept down river to a dock. The press mistakenly reported that she had attempted suicide, yet who amongst us can ever really know? Chronic alcolholics are unhappy people and generally quite fatalistic. She may or may not have had a death wish on her that day, but she was equally puuting herself at risk. In any event, the press clippings – as so often is the case, acquired a life of their own.

Long after Janet’s death in the early 70’s, her stepmother would retire from the BBC in 1976, before continuing in a freelance capacity for many other television companies, both in the UK and in New Zealand. Latterly she worked on political party conferences, where she made-up politicians including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. In the years before her death in 2004, the still sprightly lilias spent a lot of time visiting her son and his family in Australia. She was eighty seven.

Recommended viewing

The day the earth caught fire (1961)

Bitter Harvest (1963)

Dream your dreams but but don’t dream too hard.

“Bitter Harvest” is the sad saga of Jennie Jones, a young Welsh woman who wants something good to happen to her before she dies. Susceptible to the new 60’s consumer age of magazine ads and television commercials – “I want my share. Why do they show us these things if we’re not meant to have some?” – the titian haired beauty will do anything to escape her dreary and dull existence in rural Wales. She has dreams of glamour and wealth in the big city, but riotous nights out bring precious little joy. Jennie only smiles when she’s smashed to the gills.

She flees to London, has no money and only the clothes she’s wearing. She pretends to be more than she is—asking men to buy her champagne while acting nonchalantly in high-class surroundings. Of course, men use her as much as she uses them.

Along the way, she meets Bob Williams (John Stride), a barman who takes a shine to her, offering love, protection, security and even marriage. Jennie, however, still yearns for wealth and romance drenched in glamour, and dismisses the adorable barman with biting contempt. “A barman thinks I’m somebody, that’s bound to get my picture in the papers.”

Jennie, does indeed achieve all the glamour she can stand as the kept girl of producer Karl Denny (Alan Badel in typically icey mode) and she hates her boozy life, his guts and every thread of her lavish wardrobe. Meanwhile, Bob has wisely moved on, beginning a releationship with the barmaid Ella (Anne Cunningham), who has patiently listened to his emotional woes, whilst loving him from afar.

Jennie’s end is all too predictable, the ambulance containing her lifeless body racing past Bob and Ella, just as the happy couple cross over to the Victoria Embankment WC2.


Whilst Dylan Thomas’s exhortation – “Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light” – resonates to this day, most of us would prefer to die peacefully in our sleep at a ripe old age. Burning out early seems terribly attractive to some young people, yet dying too soon is as much of a waste as living long and frittering one’s time away.

We’ve all known a Jennie somewhere along the way, and if not quite so tragic, then nonetheless burnt out by thirty, and looking considerably older than their years…………….