Character actor James Bree played in several West End shows, as well as films and TV series, most notably in The Jewel in the Crown as Uncle Arthur.
He was born on July 20, 1923. After serving in the RAF at the end of the war, he trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama where, in 1949, he won the Fogerty Prize for Best Performance in his final term. He worked in rep for two years, especially with the Caryl Jenner Mobile Theatre, and then at Leatherhead under the leadership of Hazel Vincent Wallace, whom he always valued highly.
His first London appearance was at Wyndham’s Theatre in The Love of Four Colonels, in which he understudied – and eventually replaced – Peter Ustinov. Subsequent West End performances were in Tyrone Guthrie’s production of The Matchmaker at the Haymarket, The Devil’s Disciple at the Winter Garden, with Tyrone Power, Camino Real at the Phoenix and in Peter Brook’s 1958 production of The Visit – with the Lunts – at the newly opened Royalty Theatre.
The following year he played an important part in the first production of Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance at the Royal Court.
In 1960 he joined Peter Hall’s first season as director of the RSC at Stratford. His early parts in that company were Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew, Nestor in Troilus and Cressida (that acclaimed production played in a sand pit) and the Old Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale. He remained with that company in their first London season at the Aldwych Theatre when he was in The Duchess of Malfi, Ondine, The Devils, As You Like It (with Vanessa Redgrave), The Caucasian Chalk Circle and A Penny for a Song, in which his wife was Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies and his daughter, Judi Dench.
Later in London he was in a revival of John Whiting’s Saint’s Day at Stratford East, which transferred to the St Martin’s Theatre, and in 1972, he played Feste in Twelfth Night and Stephano in The Tempest at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. At the Old Vic he was Chasuble in Frank Hauser’s 1980 production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Over the years he also became a popular member of the Players’ Theatre, playing not only in several pantomimes there, but also in Feydeau farces, especially in their 1989 season at the Duchess Theatre. He played too in several productions at the Hampstead Theatre – in particular in The Raft and The Ballad of the False Barman.
Outside London his diversity ranged from playing Sorin in Robin Phillips’ production of The Seagull at Leatherhead to a riotous Mr Puff in The Critic at the Glasgow Citizens.
His last major performance in the theatre was in the 1992 tour of Mother Tongue with Prunella Scales and Gwen Taylor.
He made many appearances on TV, notably in The Jewel in the Crown series (Granada), in which he was such a delightful Uncle Arthur. Other series included I, Claudius, Glittering Prizes, The Duchess of Duke Street, Dr Who (eight episodes), Z Cars, Barlow, Softly, Softly (BBC), Rumpole of the Bailey, The Professionals (Thames), On the Buses, Budgie, Please, Sir (LWT), Rising Damp (Yorkshire) and George and the Dragon (ATV).
Among his films were: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (with Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas), Without a Clue (with Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley), The Persuaders (with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis) and The Odd Job (with David Jason).
Finally, I would like to pay tribute to his special performances as the Dame in pantomime, a role he always enjoyed playing so much. I first had the pleasure of working with him in John Crocker’s Red Riding Hood at Leatherhead, when he became the audiences’ favourite Nanny. Adults and children adored him for that – as I shall long remember.
He died on December 1, aged 85, after a long illness.
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