Frank Finlay was a celebrated actor who in his time worked for all the major UK theatre companies, the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre at Chichester and The Old Vic. He died on 30 January 2016. Michael Darvell recalls the working life of a great actor.
Frank Finlay was born on 6 August 1926 in Farnworth, Lancashire. His father was a butcher and Frank also trained and qualified for the job. However, he was drawn to the local theatre in Farnworth where he subsequently met his future wife, Doreen, with whom he had three children, Stephen, Cathy and Daniel. His first work in the theatre was in 1951 at Troon Repertory in Scotland. The following year he made his full-time professional debut in Halifax and Sunderland reps. He then won a scholarship to RADA, after which he worked at Bolton, Guildford, the Edinburgh Festival, the Lyric Hammersmith and the Belgrade Coventry, where he created the character of Harry Kahn in the first play in the Arnold Wesker trilogy, Chicken Soup with Barley (1958) and John Osborne and Anthony Creighton’s Epitaph for George Dillon, which also went to Broadway.
Back at the Royal Court in London he was in Donald Howarth’s Sugar in the Morning and John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (both 1959). The complete Wesker trilogy followed with Chicken Soup With Barley, Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem and in 1962 Wesker’s Chips with Everything which transferred to the Vaudeville, with Finlay playing Corporal Hill. He joined Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre in 1963 for its opening production, playing the First Gravedigger in Hamlet, and went on to play Stogumber in Saint Joan, Willie Mossop in Hobson’s Choice and Iago opposite Olivier in Othello, a production that was subsequently filmed, earning him Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations.
Finlay carried on working steadily at the National in plays by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Bertolt Brecht, Sean O’Casey, Trevor Griffiths, John Osborne, Howard Brenton and Ben Travers. He was Peppino to Olivier’s Antonio in Eduardo De Filippo’s Saturday Sunday Monday directed by Zeffirelli and starring Joan Plowright and Martin Shaw, which transferred to the West End. Filumena, by the same writer and director, with Finlay, Plowright and Pierce Brosnan played the Lyric and then went to the US. Before that in 1978 Finlay waded into the unpredictable waters of the musical in which he played King Henry VIII. Called Kings and Clowns and written by Leslie Bricusse, it had a short run at the Phoenix Theatre with Elizabeth Counsell, Dilys Watling, Maureen Scott, Anna Quayle, Colette Gleeson and Sally Mates playing the royal wives. Obviously the British public wasn’t ready for such a show and, despite its credentials, it closed quickly after just 34 performances.
Other West End theatre with Finlay included his playing of Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1981, Lopakhin in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard with Joan Plowright as Madame Ranevskaya, Joanna David as Varya and Leslie Phillips as Gayev in 1983 and Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Jeffrey Archer’s courtroom drama which toured the UK, then played the West End and went to Australia as well. Prior to then Finlay had played Captain Bligh in his only other musical, David Essex’s Mutiny! (1985), with Essex as Fletcher Christian in a show that re-created the famous Mutiny On the Bounty story. This ran a respectable 500 plus performances at the Piccadilly Theatre and an original cast album was released on the Mercury label which is, no doubt, a collector’s item today.
Finlay had played Christ in Dennis Potter’s Son of Man both on stage and on television where he had a very successful career in all sorts of roles and series. Early appearances included Z Cars, Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width and This Happy Breed, as well as Shakespeare – Much Ado About Nothing (as Dogberry), Julius Caesar (as Brutus) and The Merchant of Venice (as Shylock). He was Jean Valjean in a TV adaptation of Les Misérables (1967) and came to play many other iconic characters, such as Casanova, Voltaire in Candide, Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, Count Dracula, Adolf Hitler and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Perhaps his most controversial TV role was that of Peter Manson in A Bouquet of Barbed Wire (1976), a family saga that involved incest with his daughter, played by Susan Penhaligon. Another Bouquet was the inevitable sequel series that followed a year later. One of his most moving TV roles was that of Frank Doel in 84 Charing Cross Road, about the epistolary relationship between the owner of a London bookshop and an American customer. Finlay could be gentle when he needed to be, such as in the series Life Begins (2004-2006) playing Eric, the husband of Anne Reid as he gradually loses his grip on life. Later he played father to Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. His last TV appearance was as Anhora in Merlin (2008). Earlier on, never slow to send himself up, he was in Blackadder and appeared on The Morecambe & Wise Show and The Two Ronnies.
Finlay regularly appeared in films from 1962, starting with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Private Potter (both with Tom Courtenay). He played Inspector Lestrade in two Sherlock Holmes films, A Study in Terror and Murder by Decree. Other films he made include Robbery, The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Molly Maguires, Gumshoe, two Michael Winner films, The Jokers and I’ll Never Forget What’s ’is Name, Ken Hughes’ Cromwell, a trio of Three Musketeers films and Shaft in Africa with Richard Roundtree, The Wild Geese with the Richards Burton and Harris and Roger Moore, The Return of the Soldier with Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates and Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist was the outstanding film of Finlay’s later work for the cinema, a moving Second World War story set in the Warsaw Jewish ghettos.
Finlay was not a showy actor. He was subtle in his approach to characterisation and managed to nail every part he played with the utmost dignity and truth. Of his portrayal of Iago with Olivier in Othello, on stage he may have seemed too withdrawn opposite the large-size, blustering performance by Olivier. However, in the film version the subtleties of Finlay’s playing were all too apparent compared to Olivier’s over the top theatrics. I cannot say that I ever saw Finlay give a bad performance, from his mildly comic playing of Willie Mossop or the plays of Eduardo De Filippo, to the starriness of his Casanova or Dracula or even Hitler, he always made sense of the part without his audience being aware that he was ‘acting’. His intensely resonant voice was an immense aid to his playing of any part; it was very soothing, charming and persuasive.
I knew Frank Finlay for many years as he was for a time my landlord when he rented out the small house he bought near Waterloo while working for the National Theatre at The Old Vic. My partner and I may not have been exemplary tenants but Frank was a good landlord who would fix anything that went wrong – such as the aftermath of the two burglaries we had. We were invited at times to see him at the theatre and it was always a joy to witness him in anything he did. In private he was fairly garrulous, was pleasant to talk to and easy to get on with. I was saddened when his wife Doreen died in 2005 as it was not long after his son Stephen had tragically died a year earlier. I cannot think of another actor with the versatility to match Frank’s undoubted talents. In his time he won some professional awards – perhaps not enough considering his output – and he received a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List of 1984.