A tribute to the four great theatre talents we lost in 2019

Gone, but never forgotten, these four theatre giants shaped today's theatre in more ways than one. Michael Billington remembers.

As the new theatrical year takes time to get underway, I find myself thinking back to some of the great names we lost in 2019: in particular, an actor, a dramatist and two directors between whose lives there are strange connections and who all, in different ways, had a profound impact on British theatre.

Albert Finney (1936 – 2019)

Albert Finney in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, 1960

Albert Finney in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, 1960

I felt a particular pang over the death of Albert Finney for personal reasons. Growing up in the Midlands, I found myself, in my late teens, becoming a devotee of the old Birmingham Repertory Theatre in Station Street. One day in 1956, I chanced to see a piece of Irish whimsy called Happy as Larry by Donagh MacDonagh. The play included a chorus of dancing tailors and I couldn’t take my eyes off one who was square-shouldered, moon-faced and exuded a sense of mischief. I discovered his name was Albert Finney and, over the next couple of years, I saw him play Henry V, Archer in The Beaux’ Stratagem and Face in The Alchemist.

Above all, I remember him in The Lizard on the Rock by John Hall, which required him to be shot at point-blank range in the stomach: as he suddenly crumpled, uttering cat-like cries, the critic Kenneth Tynan in The Observer described it as ‘the best fall since Feuillère’, who was then queen of the French stage.

‘In my last encounter with him, at Chichester, he talked animatedly about horse-racing, which reminded me that he was the son of a Salford bookmaker’

If I dwell on Finney’s early days, it’s because there was a peculiar excitement about seeing a young actor mature into greatness in a repertory theatre – inconceivable today, where the idea of the permanent company has, largely for economic reasons, been lost. He was unforgettable as John Osborne’s Luther, in the twin roles of a poker-backed Parisian bourgeois and an idiotic hotel porter in Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear and as a camp antique dealer in Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy telling a naive debutante that ‘there wasn’t actually a Mrs Michelangelo’.

Finney achieved movie stardom in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Tom Jones and Murder On The Orient Express, but also remained a loyal company man, playing Tamburlaine, Hamlet and Macbeth for Peter Hall in the early days of the National Theatre. In my last encounter with him, at Chichester, he talked animatedly about horse-racing, which reminded me that he was the son of a Salford bookmaker. I was especially saddened by his passing because I had been lucky enough to witness his play-by-play growth as a young actor.

Peter Nichols (1927 – 2019)

English playwright Peter Nichols at an interview at the Sebel Townhouse. July 10, 1980. (Photo by John Nobley/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

English playwright Peter Nichols at an interview at the Sebel Townhouse. July 10, 1980. (Photo by John Nobley/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

The playwright Peter Nichols, who died last year, had a great gift for making fine drama out of his own life-experience, most famously A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg, recently revived in the West End, which showed what it’s like to bring up a severely disabled child.

Nichols also made brilliant use of his time as a hospital patient in The National Health and, in Privates on Parade, used his memories of performing with Combined Services Entertainments in Singapore and Malaya – where colleagues included Kenneth Williams, Stanley Baxter and John Schlesinger – to raise serious questions about Britain’s role in the post-war world.

Apart from cannibalising his own life, Nichols daringly broke the conventions of keyhole naturalism and always wrote with irrepressible humour: one of his most quoted lines is that of the drag-queen in Privates on Parade, originally played by Denis Quilley, who says of a great Irish dramatist ‘that Bernadette Shaw – what a chatterbox!’

‘Count Dracula no longer so fearsome’

It’s worth pointing out that Nichols, like Finney, if with less distinction, was a product of regional rep. Finney once gleefully told me that when he played a famous vampire in Glasgow, the newspaper headline next day ran ‘Count Dracula no longer so fearsome’. The real connection with Finney came in other ways: Finney played the lead in The Death of Joe Egg on Broadway and gave an astonishing performance in one of Nichols’s most moving plays, Chez Nous, as an architect who has a destructive impact on the family life of his closest friends.

One of Nichols’s less successful plays – in fact, it was a downright failure – was The Freeway, produced at the Old Vic in 1974. It was directed by Sir Jonathan Miller – another loss last year – and marked the end of his none-too-happy relationship with Peter Hall at the National Theatre.

Sir Jonathan Miller (1934 – 2019)

Portrait of theatre director Jonathan Miller holding the strings of two marionettes in his own likeness, circa 1975. (Photo by Radio Times/Getty Images)

Portrait of theatre director Jonathan Miller holding the strings of two marionettes in his own likeness, circa 1975. (Photo by Radio Times/Getty Images)

It would be unjust, however, to highlight one of Miller’s flops, as he was a major figure in British theatre and opera, as well as a superb communicator in TV programmes such as The Body in Question and States of Mind. Although I had the misfortune to fall out with him, I view his volume of work with something like awe and feel great affection for the man himself.

That partly stems from meeting him shortly after the first night of Beyond The Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960. This was one of the great nights in my theatregoing life that showed a phenomenal quartet – Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore alongside Miller – attacking the complacency and smugness of the post-war world with unparalleled wit and verve.

‘You’re obviously not professional journalists, who are you?

Attending a press conference two days later with a fellow student, we found Miller bounding over to us saying: ‘You’re obviously not professional journalists, who are you?’ I’ve never forgotten his curiosity and avid desire to talk, even enquiring if there was anything about the show we didn’t like. It’s a memory that stayed with me even when, in later life, Miller became rather less keen to hear my critical opinions.

His productions of Rigoletto, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte have rarely been bettered. Intriguingly, it was his Così at the Maggio Musicale that, in 1991, won him Florence’s coveted Lion’s Club award, an honour that, the preceding year, went to Franco Zeffirelli, who has also lately died.

Franco Zeffirelli (1923 – 2019)

Italian director and producer Franco Zeffirelli, UK, 28th March 1980. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Zeffirelli was another great opera and drama director, one of whose finest British productions was a deeply Sicilian version of Much Ado About Nothing staged at the Old Vic in 1965.

‘Even in death, there is a strange fellowship’

The stars were Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith, but one of the best performances was of Don Pedro, who was played as a solitary cigar-smoking grandee sadly excluded from the concluding marital harmony. The actor in question? None other than Albert Finney. Even in death, there is a strange fellowship.