Friday 20 April 2018

Alfred Burke

Character actor who found fame as down-at-heel private detective

Alfred Burke, the character actor who died on February 16 aged 92, is most widely remembered as the down-at-heel private detective Frank Marker in Public Eye, televised in the 1960s and 1970s.

Working initially from dingy offices in south London, Marker earned a pittance as the lonely, footslogging and fallible gumshoe, who was conceived as a British version of Raymond Chandler's hero Philip Marlowe.

Marker's trade was in missing persons, thefts, divorces and blackmail; and things would often go wrong. In a 1960 episode, Marker was caught in possession of stolen jewellery. When he was sent to prison, indignant fans wrote demanding his release.

Burke's wry study of the dogged, low-profile sleuth kept the nation entertained for nearly 100 episodes over 10 years.

In a career spanning more than half a century, Burke divided his talent between films, television and the stage, where he worked mostly in the classics.

He was a sensitive exponent of cold, unsympathetic or even dangerous characters, notably as villains in British films and on television in productions such as The Borgias and Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party.

Alfred Burke was born in Peckham, south London, on February 28, 1918, and educated at Leo Street Boys' School and Walworth Central School.

He then trained for the stage at Rada. His professional career began in 1939 at the Barn Theatre, Shere, Surrey, where he made his debut in The Universal Legacy. As a conscientious objector, he spent the war years working on the land.

Then came spells in Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where Burke went on to create a minor sensation with the Old Vic. In Douglas Seale's famous production of the three parts of Henry VI (Wars of the Roses), he had several minor parts, and in 1953 it was his almost hysterical enactment of Henry Beaufort's death throes that caught attention.

"Raving in retribution," as one critic put it, "contorted of face and with talons clawing the air, he died horribly as the Cardinal among the lighted candles of his own altar."

Burke spent the next 11 years in films and television with occasional spells on the regional stage. Feature films included The Man Inside, The Man Upstairs, Law and Disorder, Model for Murder, The Angry Silence, Moment of Danger, The Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Small World of Sammy Lee.

Back on the London stage in 1964, he played the Pastor to Trevor Howard's Captain in Strindberg's The Father (Piccadilly) before two seasons at John Neville's Nottingham Playhouse. There he found one of his best parts in Charles Wood's Fill The Stage With Happy Hours as the seedy, despairing manager of a tatty provincial rep forever at loggerheads with his ex-actress wife turned barmaid (Barbara Jefford). The play transferred to the Vaudeville in 1967.

For the film studios at that time he appeared in Children of the Damned, The Nanny, The Night Caller and Guns in the Heather, and established himself in Public Eye.

He won praise for his performance as Professor Serebryakov in Michael Elliott's revival of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the Royal Exchange, Manchester (1977), and later returned to Chekhov in The Seagull (Lyric, Hammersmith, and Queen's 1985, and Barbican, 1991).

Among his other stage roles were in Edward Bond's Restoration (1989); Gonzalo to John Wood's Prospero in The Tempest (Barbican); Solness's father in Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder (Barbican, 1989); Troilus and Cressida (The Pit, 1991-92); As You Like It (Barbican, 1993); All's Well That Ends Well (The Pit, 1993); Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo (Almeida, 1994); Ibsen's Peer Gynt (Young Vic, 1995); A Midsummer Night's Dream (Barbican, 1995); and Measure for Measure (Barbican, 1995).

His many film credits included The Constant Husband, Yangtse Incident, The Man Who Finally Died, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Alfred Burke is survived by his wife, Barbara, by their two sets of twins, and by his partner of the past 25 years, Hedi Argent.

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