Having enjoyed roles in London’s embryonic, post-war fringe theatre scene, the actor Dennis Handby went on to appear in a variety of popular TV dramas as well as playing notable stage parts, to which he brought an exceptional subtlety.
A long-time friend and colleague, I first met Dennis in the 1950s at the Hovenden Theatre Club based in St Anne’s Church in Soho. This was run by the legendary Valery Hovenden, whose remarkable and indomitable spirit drew aspiring young actors, writers, musicians and artists to the West End.
The truly unique club, set up before any fringe theatre came into existence, was first established in a basement in Lisle Street, and was proclaimed by a national newspaper at the time as “Britain’s smallest theatre”. It subsequently transferred to the basement and crypt of St Anne’s Church – once the home of Britain’s central casting agency for film extras – which Valery transformed into a wondrous little theatre.
Here, Dennis played a remarkable Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he performed later at the long-standing, open-air Elizabethan theatre at the George Inn in Southwark.
Dennis came down to London from Greater Manchester in the post-war years of the Second World War. His parents had been well known in the world of music hall as the popular roller-skating act known as the Handby Celiene Trio.
Their fame was such that, long before Dennis’ birth, they were lined up for a prospective US tour, and booked their passage out on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic. Due to a last-minute hitch, they fortuitously cancelled their booking on the liner. A decade or so later, Dennis, along with his brother, joined the family skating act.
Of his subsequent acting career, I recall Dennis performing in a long provincial tour of Lock Up Your Daughters starring Arthur Lowe. In the 1950s and 1960s, he amassed a huge number of minor roles and cameos in popular television series such as Dixon of Dock Green, No Hiding Place, Z Cars and Quatermass, among many others.
Working with him in this period, I was struck by his acute ability as an actor to observe human behaviour and the extraordinary subtlety he was able to bring to his performances. Always a determined character, in his last years he was sadly struck down by blindness. Nevertheless, his spirit remained as strong and redoubtable as ever.
Dennis Handby was born on August 20, 1920. He died at the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, London, on May 7, at the age of 92.