Nell Gwyn (AKA Gwynn or Gwynne) (1650-1687) was one of the first English actresses — in other words, one of the first actors to be a woman. She had the proverbial rags to riches story: she began as an orange girl (selling oranges at the theater), became a comedic actress and a star, and eventually mistress to King Charles II. The couple had two children. She’s become a folk heroine, and as such has made it to the screen a number of times. I have a particular affinity for Nell, both because she’s a fellow redhead, and who doesn’t love the idea of the bawdy girl gone upscale?
Let’s take a look at the major representations of Nell Gwyn on screen:
English Nell (1900)
Who played her? Marie Tempest, an English actress.
What’s it about? Filmed scene from a play, which was in turn based on a novel.
Nell Gwynne (1911)
AKA Sweet Nell of Old Drury
Who played her? Nellie Stewart, an Australian actress (this was an Australian production).
What’s it about? Another based on a play, about Nell and Charles II. The film is now lost.
Mistress Nell (1915)
Who played her? Mary Pickford, probably the most popular actress of the silent era.
What’s it about? The relationship between Nell and Charles II.
Nell Gwyn (1926)
Who played her? Dorothy Gish, sister of Lillian and major star of the silent era.
What’s it about? Nell and Charles, naturally, this time based on a 1926 novel.
Love, Life, & Laughter (1934)
Who played her? Gracie Fields, English actress and singer.
What’s it about? A comedy in which Nell falls in love with the “Prince of Granau.”
Nell Gwyn (1934)
Who played her? Anna Neagle, English actress who would later play Queen Victoria.
What’s it about? Nell and Chuck, baby!
Hudson’s Bay (1941)
Who played her? Virginia Field, an actress who was semi-successful in film but more successful on Broadway.
What’s it about? Fictionalized story about a Canadian explorer who convinces Charles II to fund an expedition of conquest.
Cardboard Cavalier (1949)
Who played her? Margaret Lockwood, English actress who starred in many of the 1940s Gainsborough Studios costume movies (including the lead in the 1945 version of The Wicked Lady).
What’s it about? Comedy about a tradesman who, along with Nell, becomes enmeshed in the English Civil War (on the Royalist side).
Let’s Make Up (1954)
AKA Lilacs in the Spring
Who played her? Anna Neagle, who played Nell in the 1934 film (above).
What’s it about? A modern-day actress must choose between two lovers. She has extended dream sequences in which she is Nell Gwyn and then Queen Victoria.
The Wicked Lady (1983)
Apparently Teresa Codling played Nell in what must be a bit part in the film, because I have no memory of her being a character and I can’t find any images! It is, however, a great film if you like the late 17th century and a hilarious film if you like cheese, so I recommend it.
England, My England (1995)
What’s it about? The life of composer Henry Purcell, with Simon Callow as Charles II, seen through the eyes of a 1960s playwright.
The Last King: The Power and the Passion of Charles II (2003)
AKA Charles II: The Power & the Passion or The Last King
Who played her? Emma Pierson, English actress who was also in Little Dorrit (2008) and Suffragist comedy Up the Women (2013-15).
What’s it about? Four-part miniseries about Charles II, focusing on his various mistresses, including Nell. Rufus Sewell plays Chuck, Rupert Graves is the Duke of Buckingham, Helen McCrory is Barbara Villiers…
Is it any good? YES, YES, YES.
Stage Beauty (2004)
What’s it about? A female dresser who becomes the first actress once the ban on women actors is lifted, and the male actor who became a star for playing female roles. Charles II and Nell are smaller characters.
Is it any good? YES, YES, YES.
What’s your favorite representation of Nell Gwyn on screen?