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So Long, Olive Besagni

May 16, 2017
by the gentle author

I was sorry to learn this week of the death of Olive Besagni on 12th December at the age of ninety, followed by the death of her husband Bruno last weekend at the age of ninety-one. The late photographer Colin O’Brien and I met Olive & Bruno at the Italian Parade in Clerkenwell and today I publish my profile of Olive followed by my profile of Bruno tomorrow, in tribute to this remarkable couple who enjoyed sixty-eight years of marriage.

This photograph by Colin O’Brien shows Olive Besagni at eighty-five years old, displaying a portrait of herself at nineteen. I think I can detect a hint of swagger in her eye, but let us grant Olive this indulgence – because she embraced existence with such exuberance and good humour she earned the right to show a little chutzpah.

Olive was standing in her flat in Myddleton Sq in Finsbury where she lived since 1956, just half a mile north of Clerkwenwell where her grandfather Giovanni Ferrari arrived from Borgotaro in 1880 to teach English to the Italian immigrants. Giovanni was a clever young man who loved to teach,and since most of the Italians needed to learn English if they were to advance, he became a very popular figure – known as Maestro Ferrari.

Giovanni’s eldest son Guiseppe (known as Joe) married Netta Oxley, an Englishwoman, and they moved to Gospel Oak where Olive was born in 1925. Then, when Olive was eleven they moved to Hampstead and at fourteen, upon the outbreak of war, she was evacuated to Rutland where she delighted to write sketches for performances in the village hall. Consequently, Olive grew up knowing little of the crowded Italian slum centred around Back Hill in Clerkenwell, that was the focus of the Italian community in London in those days.

“When I finished school, my parents wanted me to go to work in an office but I preferred to spend my time at Parliament Hill Lido and so I went for a few interviews that I messed up purposely. Finally, my father got a letter from a friend who ran a factory making religious statues, saying “Do either of your sons want a job?” It was in Great Sutton St in Clerkenwell and I went to work there, painting the lace and the gold lines onto the statues. Since I grew up in the suburbs, this was the first time I saw Italians in the raw but, once they discovered I was Maestro Ferrari’s granddaughter, they were very kind to me. And amongst the younger men was a sixteen year old boy called Bruno Besagni who worked as an artistic sprayer.

But I got bored with it there, and I found a job as a trainee negative cutter at a small documentary company in Dean St called Realist Films. They made mostly black and white films for medical students with close-ups of operations. I was only eighteen and there was a film of triplets being born, in colour, that I found especially traumatising, even more so than people having their legs removed. Yet I became an assistant film editor eventually, and from there I went to the best job I ever had – at Pathé Films in Wardour St.

I worked for Alexander Wilson Gardner making short pieces of film that could be inserted into news reports. We made a sequence about Christian Dior’s “New Look.” They had a model to wear the short hem and I had to appear as the legs of the woman in a long skirt. While I was there we discovered all these old reels, from the nineteen twenties and earlier, in the basement. We had to sort them out and I remember finding the film of Churchill dodging the bullets at the Battle of Sidney St. It was quite something, all these old cans of film, and it was exciting because it was all new to me.

I loved it, I absolutely loved it, but when I married Bruno Besagni and had two children, I was at home for five years as a housewife and mum. Then Alexander Milner Gardner rang me up and said “Do you want a job?” So I said, “I’ll ask my mum,” and she came and stayed with my children each day, and I went back to work. But very shortly, Alexander Milner Gardner died and my mother decided to go to America to see her other daughters, and I had to leave again. I pottered about doing freelance work. Commercials started then and I edited Butlins’ first adverts. But I resented leaving Pathé and I never became an editor because you had to do six years as an assistant editor before you could qualify.

I did all sorts of bits and pieces until I got a job in the Media Resources department at Kingsway College in Sans Walk, Clerkenwell. I had to work this horrible dirty old printing machine, and the boss didn’t like me because he thought I wasn’t young and he wanted a glamorous girl – but I didn’t mind because I have a sense of humour. I said, “I write plays, I can be a bit of a nuisance sometimes.” And he said, “Never mind, do it here!” So I wrote my plays there and they printed them for me and life was a ball.

I love razzmatazz and I used to write stuff for my friends, old time music hall etc, to entertain the old people at my church. Then one of the youngsters said, “Can’t we do a proper play?” So I said, “I can write something about the Second World War – if I don’t know anything about anything, I know about that.” I wrote a play, “Blitz & Peaces” with a cast of thirty and I produced, directed and acted in it. It was easy for me, and it was so successful, it was full every night. After that, I was offered the theatre at the St Luke’s Conference Centre in Central St. And I wrote and directed shows, one each year, for twenty years – I had this lovely theatre, some very talented actors and we played to two hundred people a night.”

These plays, that Olive wrote and directed, dramatised aspects of the experiences of the Italian people in Clerkenwell and were in effect a collective history, performed by descendants of immigrants in front of an audience of their community. Yet in spite of the accomplishment and popular emotional import of these epic dramatic works that occupied Olive for twenty years, the culmination of her talents was yet to come.

In 2011, Olive Besagni published A Better Life, a collection of oral histories telling the story of Italian families in Clerkenwell going back through generations into the nineteenth century. In this authoritative book, Olive told the story of an entire society, allowing people to speak for themselves yet supplying pertinent historical material to give background to the testimonies. With her experience as an editor and her trained ear as a playwright, Olive was the ideal person to make a record of her people. The only shortcoming – if it may be called that – is that Olive modestly included very little of her own story, which is why I endeavoured to tell it here.

Colin O’Brien and I met Olive at the Italian Parade in Clerkenwell in 2011, which she had attended every year since it recommenced in 1946, except for 1948 – because Olive got married to Bruno on the day before the parade that year and she was away on her honeymoon. As a consequence, Olive & Bruno’s wedding anniversary was always the day before the parade and we met her on the day after her sixty-third anniversary. “I can’t believe it,” she confessed in wonder, “So many good things have happened to me.”

Olive looking like a Hollywood movie star in the nineteen forties

Olive & Bruno

Wedding at St Peter’s, the Italian church, in Clerkenwell, July 1948

Olive arrives at the church with her father Guiseppe Ferrari (known as Joe)

Olive & Bruno on their honeymoon, 1948

Olive & Bruno with their children Anita & Tony at Brambles Chine on the Isle of Wight

Olive & Bruno with their children, Anita, Tony & Nicolette

On New Year’s Eve

Bruno and Olive on their sixty-third wedding anniversary

Olive Besagni

Portraits copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

Copies of A Better Life by Olive Besagni are available from the publisher Camden History Society

You might also like to take a look at

The 126th Italian Parade in Clerkenwell

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    May 16, 2017

    How poignant, yet lovely. When I lived in London in the early ’90s I was walking past St Peter’s one Saturday when a full-on Italian wedding was being photographed in precisely the same spot where Olive and Bruno stood. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a joyously noisy celebration – one of the City’s best, if relatively young, traditions.

  2. May 16, 2017

    She was a fantastic lady! Valerie

  3. May 16, 2017

    Thank you for sharing the story of this heartwarming and talented life. I have sent immediately for a copy of Olive’s book as she will help my family understand more about what it might have been like for our penniless Italian grandfather arriving in Holborn in the late 1890s.

  4. May 16, 2017

    A wonderful life.

  5. Kate permalink
    May 16, 2017

    I keep coming back to look at the photographs..beautiful.

  6. May 16, 2017

    This is a true love story two hearts that were one – united in life and now in death just perfect. They bounced though life lots of happiness & energy, more importantly Olive & Bruno were ‘best mates’ a perfect combo. Happiness may pass your way only once this team took advantage of that with passion and love. Poet John – PS Thanks GA for a perfect run down. Its Bruno’s turn now. I hope the family reads this I am sure they will be so proud of this dream team. I have been off line for a while.

  7. Helen Breen permalink
    May 16, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    What a delightful story of Olive and Bruno, weathering so many years together with joy. That description of “Back Hill in Clerkenwell” sounds like the old North End in Boston. Settled by Italians “right off the boat” around 1900, it is now gentrified with sky high real estate values while still retaining great restaurants and observing Italian feast days every Sunday in summer.

    GA, thanks for yet another great story…

  8. May 16, 2017

    Olive & Bruno Besagni — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  9. Ronald McKenzie permalink
    May 17, 2017

    What a beautiful woman!

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