Anona Winn MBE (born Anona Edna Wilkins, 5 January 1904 – 2 February 1994) was an Australian-born actress, broadcaster and singer, who spent most of her career in the UK. She will be remembered by the generation who were alive in 'the golden age of radio' (before television was part of everyday life) when millions listened to her intelligent performances in Twenty Questions and Petticoat Line.
She was born in Sydney in 1904 (she was always reluctant to disclose her age), the daughter of David Winn-Wilkins and Lilian (nee Woodgate), and educated at Redland College for Girls in Sydney. She rejected her original plan to become a lawyer and studied for an operatic and concert career at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Albert Street Conservatorium, Melbourne, becoming a pupil of Dame Nellie Melba.
After journalistic work, and singing in The Merry Widow, she came to England in 1927 and appeared in The Blue Mazurka (music by Franz Lehar). That year she opened at the London Hippodrome in a musical comedy, Hit the Deck. When Ivy Tresmand, a leading lady of the time, became ill, she took over the main part. Norman Hackforth (later to become a colleague as the 'mystery voice' on Twenty Questions) met her at this period when she sang his songs. He described her as 'a pretty young Australian soprano'.
The BBC was broadcasting from Savoy Hill and Winn rapidly made her name as a radio artiste, mainly in revues with Harry S. Pepper and Doris Arnold. In 1930 she appeared at the Victoria Palace in her own variety act and in December, at the same theatre, in Chelsea Follies. One year later her name was in lights at the London Palladium and she had made over 300 broadcasts, including a popular series called Songs from the Shows, which started in April 1930.
Anona Winn had already written and composed her own songs; now she worked for films, composing the music for Little Damozel in 1932 and appearing in The Constant Nymph a year later. Radio was becoming increasingly popular and television was only an experimental service until 1936. In the basement of Broadcasting House in the tiny studio known as 'BB', the first television revue was produced in 1933 with Anona Winn backed by a chorus line of the Paramount Victoria Girls. This was on the 30-line (as opposed to today's 625-line) Baird system, using grotesque make-up with blue-black eyes and lips.
In the Thirties Winn also recorded for Rex, HMV, Decca and Columbia such songs as her own 'What More Can I Ask', a popular hit of 1934. Her stage performances included Dandini in the pantomime Cinderella and a record 20 weeks in Peter Pan in 1939. Throughout the Forties she continued her radio work in shows like Variety Bandbox, toured the music halls and variety theatres still existing at that time (including the South Pier at Blackpool in 1944).
In 1947 she added yet another facet to her career as an entertainer in Twenty Questions. This was planned for a six-week run with Stewart Macpherson as chairman and a panel comprising of various celebrities. The show was an enormous success and ran until 1976. Winn astonished listeners with her astute questioning and remained through many changes of panel.
By August 1962 Twenty Questions had made over 500 broadcasts, now with Kenneth Horne as chairman. It was run till 28 July 1976 when the last broadcast had Anona Winn, Isobel Barnett, Penelope Keith and James Burke on the panel with Richard Briers as the mystery voice, Cliff Michelmore as chairman and Bobby Jaye producer.
Although television had attracted many radio personalities and created new ones, Anona Winn preferred radio and (with Ian Messiter) devised a new show called Petticoat Line, first broadcast on 6 January 1965. An original and amusing idea at the time, an all-woman panel discussed listeners' letters dealing the problems and comments on women's views on men. The show ran until 1970. She was awarded MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the 1954 Queen's Honours List for her services to broadcasting.
By the end of the Fifties Winn had business interests outside entertainment and after the run of Petticoat Line she disappeared from the reference books. Ill-health took its toll and even those who had worked with her for years lost touch. She died in Bournemouth aged 90. (Info mainly edited from The Independent)