Saturday 7 December 2019

Obituary: Frank Finlay

Actor scandalised TV audiences with Casanova but was esteemed for his work in the theatre

Tension: Frank Finlay and Susan Penhaligon in A Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Photo: Rex Features
Tension: Frank Finlay and Susan Penhaligon in A Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Photo: Rex Features Newsdesk Newsdesk

Frank Finlay, who has died aged 89, was one of Britain's most distinguished theatre actors, though he became a household name through his starring roles in the 1970s hit television series Casanova (BBC2, 1971) and A Bouquet of Barbed Wire (ITV, 1976).

Finlay liked to remind interviewers that he had once played Jesus Christ. But with his silver mane, swarthy, vulpine features and deep, spine-chilling voice, it was as villains that he really excelled.

Early in his career, he played Iago to Laurence Olivier's Othello, a performance which in the 1965 film version won him Academy Award, Golden Globe and Bafta nominations.

Of Finlay's television performances, the critic AA Gill once observed: "I've always imagined that he must have been on his way to Speaker's Corner with a board promising the end of lust, nuts, sitting and the world, got banged on the head on the bus and ended up in Television Centre."

The end of lust, though, was never on the cards, for in the title role of Dennis Potter's Casanova and as Peter Manson, the father with an unhealthy interest in his nubile daughter (Susan Penhaligon) in A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, Finlay shattered the boundaries of what was considered acceptable to show on television.

Mrs Whitehouse popped up to condemn the "lewdness" of Finlay's portrayal of the great 18th-century seducer, working his way steadily through a cast of women in varying states of undress.

She would have been even more appalled, perhaps, if she had known that some of the girls playing prostitutes were the genuine article.

"The BBC couldn't get actresses who were prepared to take their blouses off," Finlay recalled. "So in the end, they got girls off the streets."

The scandal caused by Casanova was as nothing, however, compared to the furore that erupted over A Bouquet Of Barbed Wire. With its themes of infidelity, sexual jealousy and incestuous desire, the series, a dramatisation of Andrea Newman's 1969 novel, became a Friday night cult and was watched by a record 26 million variously shocked or enthralled viewers.

The series turned Finlay into something of a sex symbol and TV Times readers voted him "best actor" for his role, but Finlay always saw his television career as secondary to his career as a theatre actor."

Frank Finlay was born at Farnworth, Lancashire, on August 6, 1926. His father, Josiah, worked as a packer in a local battery factory. He became an assistant stage manager of a theatre in Scotland, before gaining a scholarship to Rada.

He arrived in London to find himself in the company of a working-class theatrical invasion alongside names such as Albert Finney, Alan Bates and John Osborne.

After two seasons backstage, he made his first professional appearance in 1954 at Guildford rep and three years later moved to Hammersmith, then Coventry, where the first part of Arnold Wesker's East End trilogy, Chicken Soup With Barley, was being staged.

When it transferred to the Royal Court in 1958 in John Dexter's production, Finlay won praise for his role as the incontinent Jewish paterfamilias Harry Kahn, and went on to confirm his place as a rising star in the rest of the trilogy (Roots and I'm Talking About Jerusalem, 1960).

In 1962, his performance as an uppish corporal on the parade ground amid the conscripts of Arnold Wesker's Chips With Everything won him the Clarence Derwent award as best supporting actor.

In the early 1960s, when Laurence Olivier began recruiting actors for his new National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, Finlay was one of the first to be approached.

His first production with Olivier was Arden's The Workhouse Donkey at the Chichester Festival Theatre (1963), when he was in his element as Alderman Charlie Butterthwaite, a rascally robber baron of local politics.

He stayed with Olivier's troupe for seven years, progressing from First Gravedigger to Peter O'Toole's Hamlet, and John de Stogumber, the chaplain, in Shaw's Saint Joan, to Willie Mossop in Hobson's Choice and Iago in Othello (Old Vic, 1964) .

Some critics thought that Olivier's decision to cast an actor inexperienced in Shakespeare in such an important role was a gambit to ensure that his own performance as the title character would shine in comparison, but Olivier himself was the first to concede that in Stuart Burge's film adaptation a year later Finlay gave the better performance.

Finlay's other roles for the National Theatre included Giles Corey in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and the Cook in Brecht's Mother Courage.

In 1969 Finlay became the first actor outside the medieval cycles of Mystery Plays to play Jesus Christ on a British stage, when he took the title role in Dennis Potter's Son of Man (Phoenix, Leicester, and Round House).

Then came a stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company in David Mercer's After Haggerty (Aldwych, 1970) before he returned to the Old Vic for the staging of Edoardo De Filippo's Saturday, Sunday, Monday (1973) and Trevor Griffith's The Party.

When the National Theatre moved to the South Bank in 1976, Finlay remained with the company for Ben Travers's Plunder, John Osborne's Watch It Come Down and Howard Brenton's Weapons of Happiness. After the failure of an American musical, Kings and Clowns (Phoenix) in 1978, he took over from Colin Blakely in de Filippo's Filumena, opposite Joan Plowright, in the West End and went with its transfer to Broadway in 1980. He also took over from Paul Scofield as Salieri in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus when it moved from the National Theatre to Her Majesty's in 1981, giving an unforgettable performance as the tortured and pathologically jealous witness to musical genius.

Other notable stage roles included Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard (Haymarket) in 1983, Captain Bligh in David Essex's musical Mutiny in 1985 (Piccadilly), and the lawyer called upon to defend himself on a murder charge in Jeffrey Archer's thriller Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1987), a production that broke records by amassing the largest-ever advance bookings for a West End play. His final stage appearance was as the old retainer Firs in The Cherry Orchard at Chichester in 2008.

Although his film career was steady rather than stellar, Finlay notched up an impressive list of credits, including as Porthos in The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers (1974) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989), with Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain and Michael York.

He also had small roles in Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002) and Norman Jewison's The Statement (2003), with Michael Caine.

His other television roles included Jean Valjean in a BBC mini-series of Les Misérables in 1967, and the Führer in The Death of Adolf Hitler (1973). The same year he won two Bafta awards - one for his performance as Sancho Panza opposite Rex Harrison's Don Quixote in the made-for-television film The Adventures of Don Quixote and the other for his performance as Voltaire in the BBC production of Candide. He was the unpleasant turkey-breeding father in the Simon Nye sitcom How Do You Want Me? (BBC 1998-99) and Jane Tennison's father in the last two series of Prime Suspect in 2006 and 2007.

Finlay was a devout Catholic who served as vice president of the Catholic Association of Performing Arts and was a great supporter of Corpus Christi in Covent Garden. He was appointed CBE in 1984.

In 1954 he married Doreen Shepherd, with whom he had a daughter and two sons, one of whom predeceased him. Doreen died in 2005 and Frank Finlay, who died last Saturday, is survived by his remaining son and daughter.

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