Friday 22 February 2019

Obituary: Albert Finney

Great stage actor who left theatre for big screen and never quite escaped shadow of his bolshie young hero

Albert Finney, who has died at the age of 82 after a short illness.
Albert Finney, who has died at the age of 82 after a short illness.

Albert Finney, who died on Thursday aged 82, was one of several British actors regarded in the 1950s as a successor to Laurence Olivier, whom he once understudied in Coriolanus. Though he eventually played a wide range of roles, he made his name in the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) as a British working-class rebel whom audiences identified as the archetypal angry young man.

It was the first and only time he played such a part, drawing on his own background in working-class Lancashire. Even to the end, having played Americans, Belgians and even such real-life figures as Pope John Paul II and Winston Churchill - in the award-winning television production The Gathering Storm (2002) - he was still associated in the public mind with Arthur Seaton, the bolshie young hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

In a sense this worked against him. Audiences failed to give credit for his range and subtlety, regarding every new role as a one-off departure for the man who had played Alan Sillitoe's Arthur Seaton.

He was the first actor offered the role of Lawrence of Arabia but turned it down because he felt it would cramp his theatrical ambitions. Had he accepted, he might have become as familiar as Peter O'Toole.

His career, which began promisingly on stage, migrated perhaps too soon to the cinema and never really delivered the theatrical triumphs that had been widely predicted. He also had several periods of inactivity, which are not conducive to audience remembrance and recognition.

Albert Finney Jr was born on May 9, 1936 in Salford, Lancashire, now part of the Greater Manchester area, and lived only a few streets away from Shelagh Delaney, the future author of another working-class literary classic, A Taste of Honey. He was one of three children of Albert Finney Snr, a bookie, and Alice, nee Hobson.

Albert Finney playing Churchill in ‘The Gathering Storm’
Albert Finney playing Churchill in ‘The Gathering Storm’

Growing up around the mills and smokestacks of post-war Lancashire, he was aware at an early age of the sense of social injustice that informs every action of a factory worker like Arthur Seaton.

He attended Salford Grammar School, where he appeared in more than a dozen school plays. No swot, he failed his GCEs twice and was advised by his headmaster to switch from academics to acting and apply to join the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he won a two-year scholarship. During his time at Rada, he won the Emile Littler prize as the student with the most outstanding aptitude for the theatre, and his performance in Troilus and Cressida caught the eye of visiting critic Kenneth Tynan, who described him as "a smouldering young Spencer Tracy".

He left Rada in 1955 and spent two years with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where, among other roles, he played Decius Brutus in Julius Caesar, and was acclaimed in the title roles of Henry V and Hamlet. Not all performances were so well received, however.

His Macbeth was dismissed by Charles Laughton as "bloody terrible", though he subsequently offered Finney a key role in his production of Jane Arden's play The Party, which, in 1958, marked Finney's debut in the West End, at the New Theatre. It was critically mauled, however, and enjoyed only a short run.

In 1959 Finney transferred to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford, where he played Edgar in King Lear, Cassio in Othello and Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was an unhappy time for him, marked by a faltering run in 1960 in the Cambridge Theatre production of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's play Billy Liar and the breakdown in 1961 of his first marriage to the actress, Jane Wenham. But it also marked the beginning of his film career.

His first appearance on screen was a bit part in Tony Richardson's film of the John Osborne play The Entertainer (1960). He played the son of Laurence Olivier's vaudeville artist, who appears for about a minute as a national serviceman before being posted to his death in the Suez crisis. The same year, remembering Finney even in such a small part, Richardson encouraged his friend, the director Karel Reisz, to audition him for the lead role in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It was an epoch-making moment.

He landed the role, and cinemagoers had never before seen or heard working-class realism as raw as this on screen. Arthur Seaton's bloody-mindedness mirrored sentiments that dovetailed perfectly with the era of the angry young man.

It led immediately to further successes. In the theatre he was cast as Luther in Tony Richardson's Brechtian production of John Osborne's play, which transferred from Nottingham to Paris in 1961 before settling at London's Phoenix Theatre and enjoying a subsequent Broadway run.

Albert Finney with his second wife, French actress Anouk Aimee.
Albert Finney with his second wife, French actress Anouk Aimee.

In Glasgow, Finney shone in Pirandello's Henry IV (1963) and in the cinema, after a misguided MGM remake of Emlyn Williams's Night Must Fall, he scored his second biggest hit in Richardson's Oscar-winning historical romp Tom Jones (1963).

Tom Jones in the film is a devil-may-care lothario on a bed-to-bed trawl through Henry Fielding's 18th Century England. Richardson and his scriptwriter, John Osborne, turned him into a light-hearted Arthur Seaton 200 years before his time - and Finney duly made the connection. Years after the film had passed from general circulation, it was remembered for the classic scene in which Finney and one of his conquests (played by Joyce Redman, who, like Finney, received an Oscar nomination) devour poultry in a drooling frenzy in anticipation of the physical congress between them that is plainly foreshadowed.

The only film Finney also directed, Charlie Bubbles (1967), was also a reflection of the era. He played a working-class boy made good, who has written bestsellers but, having fallen out of love with his ritzy lifestyle, goes north in search of his roots. En route he meets a temptress, played by the then largely unknown Liza Minnelli, and the film ends in fantasy.

Notorious at the time for being denied a circuit release, it is barely recalled today, and then only as a curio.

After this, Finney's theatrical ambitions seemed largely to lapse in favour of screen appearances of varying quality. He made a great number of films, ranging from horror movies like Wolfen (1989) to musicals - he played Daddy Warbucks, the mean millionaire, in John Huston's misjudged adaptation of Annie (1981).

Pot-boilers like these, however, were sandwiched between superior work that was generally Oscar-nominated. These films included a wonderfully crusty Scrooge in 1970, a masterly assumption of the role of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's ace detective, in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and the film of Ronald Harwood's play The Dresser (1983). This was a particularly memorable production because it featured two equally strong performances - Finney's overbearing, Wolfit-like "Sir", an actor with an ego the size of Nelson's Column, and Tom Courtenay's dresser.

Finney was a moving alcoholic in John Huston's film of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1984), an Irish-American gangster in the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing (1990), the pitiful schoolmaster on the verge of being pensioned off in Mike Figgis's remake of Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version, and a surprisingly convincing small-time American lawyer teaming up with Julia Roberts's force-of-nature legal clerk in Erin Brockovich (2000).

In 2007, in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, he became the force who turns the tragic outcome of a bungled heist involving his two sons into a melodrama bordering on Greek tragedy. In 2012 he put in an enjoyable turn in Skyfall as the lethal old gamekeeper who assists Daniel Craig's James Bond in perpetrating mayhem.

The angry young man had evolved into a character actor of distinction, but he never took himself too seriously. In 1980 he turned down the offer of a CBE and in 2000 he declined a knighthood; he had criticised the honours system as "perpetuating snobbery".

Although his initial promise was well recognised in England (Laurence Olivier had called him the best actor of his generation), he was more appreciated in America than at home.

English awards were largely confined to the 1960 nod from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts as best newcomer for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

In the United States, however, he won several Golden Globe awards, for his work in Tom Jones, Scrooge and as Winston Churchill in the television mini-series The Gathering Storm. Though he never won, he was nominated five times for Oscars, four times as best actor, for Tom Jones, Murder on the Orient Express, The Dresser and Under the Volcano and once as supporting actor, for Erin Brockovich.

That performance was rewarded by the Screen Actors Guild.

Finney was a lifelong Manchester United supporter, and in 2008 he narrated the documentary Munich, about the 1958 air disaster in which eight Busby Babes and 15 others had perished.

Albert Finney married first, in 1957, Jane Wenham. They had a son but divorced in 1961, and in 1970 he married the French actress, Anouk Aimee. They divorced in 1978, and in 2006, he married Pene Delmage. She survives him, along with his son.

© Telegraph

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