Elizabeth Pursey the much loved and inspirational voice coach has died just two months short of her 90th birthday. Elizabeth had a very long teaching association with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art stretching over five decades and from the late 1970s she extended her coaching into many significant feature films.
Betty Watson (the young Elizabeth) was born in Ramsgate but her family shortly moved to Ilford where she attended the Ursuline High School for Girls, and her gifts for speech and drama were recognised and fostered. Betty gained a place at RADA but her bank manager father Harold's declining health impaired by serious injuries in World War I meant that she did not take up the offer. Later in World War II, Elizabeth wanted to join the Land Army, but it transpired that the production line for aircraft disposal fuel tanks formed her contribution to the war effort.
Returning to the Ursulines as a teacher, most notably at St Angela's in Forest Gate, her ability to influence and guide performance soon became clear. Elizabeth's devout Catholicism was a great source of strength to her and the foundation of her deep understanding of human beings. However it did not ever limit her perceptions of real people or dramatic characters, which she was to spend a life time fusing together. Rather, it fuelled her keen insight that seemed to radiate through her as she focussed on a student, actor or dramatic problem, so that the resulting advice was not only technically precise but seem to come from a deep well of utter truth to which Elizabeth had unique access.
One 12 year old Ursuline pupil was so besotted with the boundless imaginative possibilities opening up to her through her young speech and drama teacher that she offered to carry her briefcase to the railway station in order to drink in more enchantment. The pupil was to become the actress Margaret Tyzack, who would continue to consult Elizabeth when preparing roles, for the rest of her life. Although Elizabeth had no first degree the Headmistress of St Angela's encouraged her to take a postgraduate course in voice studies and the Cambridge Diploma in Education. Elizabeth also became a LAMDA Licentiate and gained a L.R.A.M. in Speech and Drama, a L.R.A.M. in Mime and, a Poetry Society Gold Medal.
In 1955 Elizabeth married Guy Pursey, a civil engineer whose early career as a hydrographer took him on extended tours of duty in the Middle East and India. Elizabeth enjoyed accompanying Guy on several of these assignments, usually immersing herself in community theatre projects. The first of these visits culminated in a real life drama as it coincided with the Suez Crisis. Guy and Elizabeth's car was the last to be able to cross the causeway from Bahrain Island to the airport as angry crowds advanced on it armed with stones and other weapons.
Another Ursuline pupil of Elizabeth's, Kate Fleming well known for her deep and velvety voice had speedily followed Elizabeth's footsteps and was already teaching alongside Clifford Turner at RADA when Clifford fell ill in 1962. On Kate's recommendation Principal John Fernald asked Elizabeth to cover Clifford's classes with the male students, while Kate continued with the women. Clifford was never to return and when Kate left to become Voice Coach at the National Theatre Elizabeth took up leadership of RADA's voice tuition until 1976. These duties demanded a constant presence at RADA and so curtailed Elizabeth's travels with Guy. However the prospect of time in Iran in 1976-7 proved too tempting. Elizabeth was allowed leave of absence but upon her return was reluctant to reengage with the highly repetitive work of basic voice training. Hugh Cruttwell, the then Principal of RADA readily agreed to Elizabeth's suggestion that she take on the more specialist role of being Assistant to the Actor during Rehearsal and chairing the panel of the formidable Voice Test, which decided whether a student had achieved the optimum level of RP (Received Pronunciation).
Elizabeth's new RADA function meant that she had time to operate as a freelance voice coach in professional theatre and on films. A host of leading actors including Joss Ackland, Tim Pigott-Smith and Joan Plowright sought her help. Elizabeth's most satisfying film experience came with The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Daniel Day Lewis asked Elizabeth to support his achieving a highly specific accent during pre-production, and so valued their work that he demanded the producers made her available during the 6 months shoot in Paris, where she worked not only with Juliette Binoche but all the other actors.
In her very extended semi-retirement Elizabeth administered detailed advice to RADA students for just a few but nevertheless seminal occasions each year. James Phelips a 2011 graduate who attended Elizabeth's workshop on Under Milk Wood says he will always remember her advice: "without discipline you'll never find freedom". Elizabeth's last appearance at RADA was at a screenplay reading in October 2011, when she stood to deliver her critique of the script and performance. She is survived by her husband Guy, sister Monica, nephew Peregrine, great-nephew Owen and great niece Imogen.
"I last saw Elizabeth when she gave a recent master class at RADA. A group of second year students had prepared pieces by Dylan Thomas. Elizabeth stood in front of them, upright , elegant and smiling. Still with the voice and spirit of a girl. The students were busy writing down every timeless word she said. Finally, it was their turn. As the first volunteer walked to the front, Elizabeth moved to a seat. At the last second, she turned, and still smiling, lobbed a grenade - 'And just remember - it's not about you.'"