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Obituary: Frank Finlay

Frank Finlay in The Woman in Black. Photo: Stuart Colwill Frank Finlay in The Woman in Black. Photo: Stuart Colwill

With a powerful, saturnine presence on stage and steady, devouring eyes that hinted, in close-up, at darker passions beneath, Frank Finlay’s career as a leading man of compelling abilities spanned six decades, and saw him find international fame in theatre, television and film.

Born in Farnworth, Lancashire in 1926, he came to acting relatively late, having left school at 14 to follow in his father’s footsteps as a butcher. Involvement in amateur dramatics led to his first professional engagement in Troon, Scotland in 1951. He spent subsequent seasons with rep companies in Halifax and Sunderland, before securing a scholarship to RADA.

On graduating, he was seen in rep at Bolton and Guildford, and in 1958 he created the role of Harry Kahn in Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. He made his Broadway debut the same year in John Osborne’s Epitaph for George Dillon.

He joined the Royal Court company in 1959, where he played Attercliffe in John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, directed by Lindsay Anderson, and was seen in John Dexter’s staging of Wesker’s Roots Trilogy the following year.

Wesker’s Chips With Everything gave him his first experience in the West End, at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1962.

Spotted by Laurence Olivier while starring alongside Joan Plowright in the Wesker trilogy at the Royal Court, he was enlisted into the Chichester Festival Company in 1963 and joined the fledgling National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1964 for three seasons.

There, he was seen as Willie Mossop (to Michael Redgrave’s Hobson in Hobson’s Choice), Giles Corey (The Crucible), Dogberry (Much Ado About Nothing) and Joxer Daly (Juno and the Paycock). Most notable was his Iago to Olivier’s Othello in 1964; the following year’s film version earned him an Oscar nomination.

In 1969, he scored a personal triumph as Jesus Christ in Dennis Potter’s Son of Man at Leicester’s Phoenix Theatre and London’s Roundhouse.

He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970 to play Bernard in David Mercer’s After Haggerty, a performance boasting “a brilliant array of inventive detail” (The Stage), which transferred to the Criterion Theatre.

The early 1970s were a golden period on stage and screen. In the first half of the decade he was seen alongside Olivier in Trevor Griffiths’ The Party, and Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s adaptation of Eduardo de Filippo’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday (Old Vic, the Queen’s Theatre and on television).

By then, his small screen profile was in the ascendancy, after he reunited with Dennis Potter for the six-part portrait of Casanova (1971), played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1972) and picked up a BAFTA award for three vey different roles in 1973. These included Sancho Panza in Hugh Whitemore’s The Adventures of Don Quixote, the title role in Vincent Tilsley’s The Death of Adolf Hitler – a performance hailed by The Stage as “a physical and mental tour de force” – and as Voltaire in James MacTaggart’s strip-cartoon version of Candide.

He returned to the National Theatre in 1976 to appear in its last production at the Old Vic – Osborne’s Watch It Come Down – and the first in its newly-built South Bank home: Howard Brenton’s Weapons of Happiness. His gift for high comedy was on view as the caddish Freddie in Ben Travers’ Plunder the same year.

Surprising many, he made the move into musicals with the idiosyncratic Tudor knees-up Kings and Clowns at the Phoenix Theatre in 1978, returning only once to the form to play Captain Bligh alongside David Essex’s Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1985.

In the intervening years, he appeared in another Waterhouse and Hall de Filippo adaptation, Filumena, at the Lyric Theatre. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, it toured America before arriving on Broadway. For Michael Attenborough’s first season at the Palace Theatre, Watford, he was seen in James Saunders’ The Girl in Melanie Klein in 1980, and took over the role of Salieri in Amadeus when it transferred from the National Theatre to Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1981.

His other West End appearances included Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard for director Lindsay Anderson at the Haymarket Theatre (1983,) and in Jeffrey Archer’s first stage play, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, at the Queen’s Theatre (1987).

In later years, he enjoyed a spell at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, where he was seen in Ian Ogilvy’s comedy A Slight Hangover (1991) and the Henry James adaptation, The Heiress (1992).

He was a memorable public school-accented Captain Hook to Toyah Wilcox’s Peter Pan for Chichester in 1995, returning to the theatre’s Minerva Studio for Ronald Harwood’s The Handyman in 1996.

He was last seen on stage as Firs in The Cherry Orchard on Chichester’s main stage in 2008.

Finlay amassed nearly 140 credits on television and film; his small screen credits includied Valjean (Les Miserables, 1967), Brutus alongside Maurice Denham’s Julius Caesar (1969), Frank in 84, Charing Cross Road (1975), Van Helsing in Count Dracula (1977) and three seasons of Mike Bullen’s drama Life Begins (2004-2006). He was last seen in the World War Two family saga Four Seasons in 2008.

On film, he will be best remembered as a dashing Porthos in a 1970s trilogy based on Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, although he also made memorable contributions to The Return of the Soldier (1982), Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983) and The Pianist (2002).

Born on August 6, 1926, Francis ‘Frank’ Finlay was appointed a CBE in 1984. He died on January 30, aged 89, and is survived by two children.

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