Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Feature • ALAN BATES • 2003

Publicity photo of Alan Bates for PBS tv show, "Piccadilly Circus" [Wikipedia]

Publicity photo of Alan Bates for PBS tv show, “Piccadilly Circus” [Wikipedia]

‘I don’t know if he’s a Sir or not, but if not, he should be,’ said Helen Mirren when being interviewed about Gosford Park in the New York Post early last year [2002]. There have been mutterings from many quarters over the last few years about the lack of a knighthood for Alan Bates. Now he has been named in the 2003 New Years Honours List.

I have always been struck by the unassuming face that Bates gives to the world. For me, the most admirable actors do not flaunt themselves in public, talk constantly about acting or ‘me’, nor do they spread themselves all over Hello! magazine. If we are lucky, we never get to know too much about the real person, and their work is all the more striking for it – unfettered by irrelevant associations. For all I know, Sir Alan could be a ‘moaning Minnie’ in real life, the most boring man imaginable or, perhaps, a bon viveur with an incisive wit. It matters not a jot since, as a member of the audience, all I need to know is what I see on stage. It is to our advantage – as well as their own – that actors guard their privacy. And, too, I cannot help but admire someone who has borne more than his fair share of tragedy with such public dignity – his son Tristan died in 1990 of an asthma attack at the age of 19, his wife Victoria two years later. Those years cannot have been easy.

One thing we do know about Alan Bates is his commitment to education and the performing arts. In April last year he told the Daily Telegraph that he did not think it was ever possible to ‘give enough opportunities to young people [who] need all the help and the education you can offer them… That’s the thing I enjoyed most about Billy Elliott – his relationship with his teacher. England is full of wonderful teachers like Julie Walters’ character and they deserve celebrating’. For his part, he is closely associated with the Actors’ Centre in Covent Garden of which he is patron, and his late son, twin to Benedick, is commemorated by the Tristan Bates Theatre which forms part of the centre.

Alan Bates was always the saturnine, good-looking one of the Angry Young Men, capable of charm and menace in equal measure. It was, indeed, a play by the angriest young man of all, John Osborne, that propelled him quickly up the ladder.

Born and raised in Allestree, Derbyshire, Bates received a scholarship training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before undergoing two years military service in the RAF. After making his debut with the Midland Theatre Company at Coventry in 1955, he was asked to join the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in London.

It was a quite extraordinary part of the century for British theatre and he could be nowhere better placed at that time for George Devine was in charge at Sloane Square and championing work from the new guard of playwrights such as Osborne, Arnold Wesker, and Edward Bond. Directed by Tony Richardson and playing opposite Kenneth Haigh as Jimmy Porter, Bates gave a notable performance as the amiable Cliff Lewis for Look Back in Anger in 1956, subsequently transferring with the production to Broadway.

He went on to win the 1959 Clarence Derwent Award for his performance as the younger son, Edmund Tyrone, in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and, as the swinging decade began, he claimed a major success creating the role of Mick in Pinter’s The Caretaker both in the West End and on Broadway.

That same year, it was Osborne who provided the part which would lead to success on film when his 1957 play, The Entertainer, was made for the screen. The Royal Court production had combined the theatrical establishment in the shape of Laurence Olivier with the new in Joan Plowright. While Richard Pasco played Frank on stage, it was Bates who assumed the role for the film, bringing him widespread fame.

The 1960s brought lasting acclaim with a series of major films including A Kind of Loving with June Ritchie, Georgy Girl with Lynn Redgrave,Far From the Madding Crowd with Julie Christie, and Zorba the Greek with Anthony Quinn. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Fixer but it will probably always be Ken Russell’s 1968 Women in Love for which he will be most remembered. The naked wrestling scene with Oliver Reed, scandalous at the time, never ceases to be considered worthy of comment. Bates actually told the Los Angeles Times in December that the film was his favourite, partly because he and D H Lawrence are from the same part of the country. He added that it ‘was great to be a part of such a classic period and I’m just glad to keep working’. He has yet to win an actual Oscar although he has been nominated on five other occasions.

This big screen success did not prevent Bates from pursuing a career on stage and he starred in several productions in London and New York. Towards the end of the decade he appeared in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard III in Stratford, Ontario, as well as Hamlet in Nottingham and the West End.

While Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg kept him in the public eye at the local Gaumont, he began his long association with the work of Simon Gray when he accepted Butley in 1972. He went on to win both an Evening Standard and a Tony award before recreating the part on screen. He has since performed in eleven of Gray’s plays, most notably Otherwise Engaged and most recently,Life Support. Other stage work ranged from Petruchio in 1973 for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford to David Storey’s 1974 playIn Celebration, again a role he repeated on screen. He ended the 70s by appearing in the film The Rose with Bette Midler and also Njinsky.

Although Bates continued to divide his time between stage and screen, his work on television came to the fore during the 1980s. He received much praise for the BBC’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, said to be one of his favourite roles, while Guy Burgess in Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, directed by John Schlesinger, will remain one of his greatest creations. The production as a whole could not fail to be mesmeric with Coral Browne playing herself in Bennett’s dramatisation of Browne’s 1950s meeting with the Cambridge spy when she was in Moscow for the RSC. Bates was rightly recognized with a BAFTA Best Actor Award. In the theatre he appeared in Dance of Death, Osborne’s A Patriot for Me, Yonadab, Ivanov and Much Ado About Nothing. And it was in 1989 that he first performed his one-man show, A Muse of Fire at the Edinburgh Festival, a celebration

When his life was derailed in 1990 by the death of his 19 year old son Tristan from an asthma attack, followed two years later by his wife Victoria, he threw himself into work. Films during the last decade of the twentieth century included Hamlet, Secret Friends and The Cherry Orchard. Theatre work took him to the West End and Toronto with The Master Builder which also starred Victoria Hamilton, to Chichester with Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool, a role he has recently repeated on Broadway, the West End with Gray’s Life Support in 1997 and the RSC for a lauded performance in Antony and Cleopatra with Frances de la Tour – ‘probably my favourite role in Shakespeare, he’s so complicated and a sympathetic character, there’s a lot for an actor to get hold of’. One of the critics described his Antony as a man with ‘a wholly disarming capacity for passionate tenderness; Bates is on splendid form’. Theatre roles since have included Dorian Gray at the Theatre Royal in Windsor and the Off-Broadway production of Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man in 2001 with last year’s ennobled actress, Eileen Atkins.

He has continued to work on television with recent appearances as gruff Uncle Matthew in the latest television adaptation of Nancy Mitford’sLove in a Cold Climate and George V in Bertie and Elizabeth, as well as being one of the many excellent British actors to be found in Robert Altman’s wonderful film from Julian Fellowes’ screenplay, Gosford Park. He has also now joined the list of British-actor-as-Hollywood-baddie contingent by appearing in The Sum of All Fears with Ben Affleck.

Old enough to have been in the audience for Otherwise Engaged, I am surprised, if not a little shocked, to realise that I have only seen Bates on stage once, in 1977. And yet I have no recollection of the play concerned – Simon Gray’s Stage Struck. It is to be hoped that Sir Alan’s Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award-winning performance in Fool’s Fortune comes to London. The noises made have suggested he is giving the performance of a lifetime.

Sarah Vernon © 03-01-03

  • Update 28-12-03: Sir Alan Bates died of liver cancer on 27th December 2003.

Originally published on R&V 03-01-03


6 comments on “Archive Feature • ALAN BATES • 2003

  1. beetleypete

    ‘An Englishman Abroad’ is one of my favourite programmes on TV. Ever.
    A very nice tribute indeed, Sarah.
    Best wishes, Pete. x

    Liked by 1 person

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