Last month saw the death of actress Anne Stallybrass, who shot to fame after starring in the seventies TV drama The Onedin Line.

Anne, who was born in Rochford and died aged 82, was once a pupil at St Bernard’s Convent School, in Westcliff, before studying drama at the Royal Academy of Music from 1957 to 1960, graduating with its gold medal.

But she’s far from the only former alumna of St Bernard’s to make it in the acting industry.

Another famous former St Bernard’s student - and probably its most famous - is Dame Helen Mirren.


The Oscar, Bafta and Tony-award-winner got an early start in the industry by starring in school productions at St Bernard’s.

But, it wasn’t an easy transition to Hollywood. Speaking at a function in London in 2013 the star of The Queen revealed she longed to be a French actress, like her heroine, Bridget Bardot.

“I think if I am to be absolutely honest I just wanted to be a star. I was very romantically taken by the idea of those great, great powerful theatre actresses,” she said.

“It was a time of Brigitte Bardot and I terribly wanted to be a Brigitte Bardot, but I was a fat, spotty girl in Southend-on-Sea and thought there’s not much chance of that.”

Mirren credits her former St Bernard’s teacher for helping her fall in love with acting: “Mrs Welding was my English teacher at St Bernard’s,” the star has said.

“She was a gentle person, small in stature with a quiet voice and always neatly dressed. She wasn’t one of those forceful, funny, charismatic teachers who bounced down the aisle making you hysterical with laughter; her style was different. It was gentle and encouraging, never putting anyone down.

“It was amazing that, out of such a neat, contained, quiet person, came this explosion of thought and imagination.”

Of course things changed for the now 76-year-old actress who lives most of the time in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, with her husband and director, Taylor Hackford.

Gemma Craven, probably best known for playing Cinderella opposite Richard Chamberlin in the smash-hit 1976 musical, The Slipper and the Rose, also attended St Bernard’s and even had the same drama teacher as Mirren.

Craven, who was born in Dublin, moved to England with her family when she was a child.

Speaking to the Irish Times in 1996, Craven, now aged 71, said: “When I was ten, we moved to England, where I spent six unhappy weeks at a state school in Holloway, London. However, we then moved down to Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, and I attended a local convent school, St Bernard’s, where I felt more at home. I was taught elocution and drama by Miss Angel, who also taught Helen Mirren.

“When I was 13 she put me up for a scholarship at the Young Vic, which I won - but the Mother Superior persuaded my parents not to let me go. I was very disappointed and promised myself that I’d make it somehow.”

And she did. Craven went on to snag the part of Joan Parker, the frigid wife of Bob Hoskins, in the 1978 BBC TV drama Pennies From Heaven. She has gone on to have parts in Hollyoaks Later, Midsummer Murders and a role in the feature film, The Hole.

Just down the road at Westcliff High School for Girls, a number of famous faces can count themselves as former pupils including Maths whizz and countdown star Rachel Riley.

But when it comes to acting, Nathalie Emmanuel, has become the leading lady. She famously played freed slave Missandei, interpreter to Daenerys Targaryen, in the blockbuster fantasy drama Game of Thrones. She’s also gone on to have parts in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, and in the Fast and Furious films.

The 32-year-old has been quick to praise her hometown of Southend as being fundamental in her career - and especially her school.

She said: “It (Southend) is home, isn’t it? It is where I grew up it is where I went to school.

“It is where I spent my formative years, it is where I first got into singing, and dancing, and acting and all the things I enjoy.

“I went to Westcliff High School for Girls and it’s a pretty academic school, and working hard is the only option.

“It gave me a great work ethic.”