Sister George is a beloved character in the popular radio series Applehurst, a nurse who ministers to the medical needs and personal problems of the local villagers. She is played by June Buckridge, who in real life is a gin-guzzling, cigar-chomping, slightly sadistic masculine woman, the antithesis of the sweet character she plays. She is often called George in real life, and lives with Alice "Childie" McNaught, a younger dimwitted woman she often verbally and sometimes physically abuses. When George discovers that her character is scheduled to be killed, she becomes increasingly impossible to work and live with. Mercy Croft, an executive at the radio station, intercedes in her professional and personal lives, supposedly to help, but she actually has an agenda of her own.
Although it is strongly implied that George and Childie are lesbians, and towards the end it is suggested that Mercy could be as well, this is never explicitly stated. Marcus intended the play to be a farce, not a serious treatment of lesbianism, but because there was so little material about lesbians it became treated as such.
It is usually regarded as a parody of the killing of Grace Archer in The Archers (an episode much better known at the time the play was written than it would be in the 21st century). It may also have been inspired by the sacking of actress Ellis Powell from Mrs Dale's Diary, and has sometimes been compared with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. The death of Martha Longhurst (actress Lynne Carrol) in the English television serial Coronation Street in 1964 may also have been an inspiration.
Lukas Heller wrote the screenplay for the 1968 feature film version directed by Robert Aldrich. Beryl Reid was cast as George (although Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury were both offered the role). Susannah York played Childie and Coral Browne took the part of Mercy Croft. In the movie, Applehurst became a televisionsoap opera, and the lesbian aspects of the plot were much more explicit. The film added many characters and shot many scenes on location. The opening sequence has George wandering through the streets and alleyways of Hampstead west of Heath Street. Another is in a real-life London lesbian hangout, the Gateways Club. Childie is portrayed as childishly naive rather than dim-witted, and George is more of an alcoholic. In one scene, while under the influence, George molests two novice nuns in a taxi, behaviour that precipitates the beginning of the end for Sister George.
The film centers around the soon-to-be-ending television career of June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) - a staple of a long-running British soap opera based in a bucolic and idyllic English countryside town called 'Applehurst'. On that series, she plays a motor-scooter-riding jack-of-all-trades (nanny, health provider, sage, best friend) - a feisty yet lovable and omnipresent voice of reason in the small town. Fiercely protective of her career and her character, she is equally fierce and protective of her live-in lover, 'Alice' or 'Childie' as she is 'affectionately' called by her lover (Susannah York) - a much younger, more nubile, and therefore more unstable presence in her life. Outwardly a simpleton - but possessing enough cunning to know where her future prospects lie, Alice is kept on a short leash by her 'master' - a fact made clear in a near-bondage scene in which June punishes her for a perceived slight by forcing her to kneel on the floor and consume her used cigar butt. In a classic psychological moment of role reversal, Alice suddenly goes from grimacing while chewing the cigar butt to pretending that the experience is a pleasurable one - mimicking orgasm as she chows down on the rancid tobacco leaves. Of course, this spoils the effect for June or 'George' as she is affectionately called. Problems develop when a drunken George enters a taxi and molests two Catholic nuns. In response to complaints to her station by the local Archbishop, George is visited by Mrs. Croft (Coral Browne) - a tightly-wound and prissy woman who holds George's future in her hands. She informs George that her future is 'dependent' upon her contrition and apology to the nuns involved - as well as a general change in her attitude towards her coworkers and her director. Mrs. Croft also appears to hit it off with Alice, encouraging her to continue in her ambition to become a poet. George's problems continue as she susspects that Alice is likely seeing other people on the side - one of them her supposedly young and virile boss - and misleading George as to her relationship with a local female prostitute who lives across the street. Unable to get honest answers to her questions, George flies into frequent drunken rages - her behavior spilling over into her deportment at work. Frustrated, she is 'written out' of the series for two weeks in order to have time to consider her actions and rein in her behavior. Her world begins to crumble when she and Alice attend a party at a local lesbian bar - and Mrs. Croft is sent there to discuss her future on the series. When told that her days in Applehurst are numbered and that she is to die by being 'hit by a delivery truck', she snaps - turning her frustration on both Alice whom she secretly checks up on behind her back and her coworkers whose performances she tries to sabotage on her last day of filming. Discovering that Alice has been lying to her repeatedly as her boss is not young and virile, but old and balding - and she has been talking to Mrs. Croft behind George's back, George explodes at her closing cast party. She confronts Mrs. Croft and Alice both - driving them out of the celebration. Back at the apartment, Alice is persuaded to move out and to live with Mrs. Croft 'temporarily' while she decides her future direction in life. Subtly, slyly, Mrs. Croft maneuvers Childie to the bedroom - then to her bed - and seduces her. Caught by George, there is a final scene in which both parties vent their frustrations to the fullest. Left alone and unemployed, George can only wander among her acting props, desolate, and abandoned.
Between the time the movie started filming and ended production, the movie industry instituted the new MPAA ratings system. Largely on the basis of a graphic sex scene involving Childie and Mercy, The Killing of Sister George received an X rating, which limited its screening in cinemas and ability to advertise in mainstream newspapers. Aldrich spent $75,000 battling the rating, but his lawsuit was dismissed, and the film died at the box office. In the UK the film had considerable censorship problems, with BBFC chief John Trevelyan demanding some dialogue changes and the complete removal of the seduction scene, leading to a standoff between Aldrich and the BBFC. The Greater London Council and 11 other councils allowed the film to be shown with lesser cuts to the scene, and Trevelyan finally passed a cut version for countrywide release in 1970. All subsequent home releases of the film have been fully uncut.
Beryl Reid was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Drama. The film is available on DVD. Rarely seen on American television, it was broadcast uncut by Turner Classic Movies as part of its June 2007 salute to gay cinema. The film has been shown a number of times on British television, although sometimes with the sex scene deleted.