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Obituary: Owen Holder

Owen Holder. Photo: Spotlight
Owen Holder. Photo: Spotlight

Gentleness and modesty may have prevented Owen Holder, who has died aged 95, from becoming a bigger star, but he sustained a long and varied career as an actor, playwright, TV and radio scriptwriter with determination and good humour.

His career spanned more than half a century, from his stage debut in 1938 in pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Bristol, to a UK tour of Lesley Storm’s psychodrama Black Chiffon in 1996.

Ironically it was that play, Black Chiffon, in which Holder first made his West End mark in 1949, playing the son of Dame Flora Robson, who singled him out a year earlier from the Broadway cast of The Winslow Boy in which he was playing the eponymous boy’s elder brother, Dickie.

“I didn’t know Flora Robson but she came round to my dressing room after the performance and said she wanted me to be in her next play,” Holder said in 1996. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but a year later she cast me as her son in Black Chiffon.”

Born in Southgate, north London, Holder was sent to a school for fatherless children when, aged eight, his father died suddenly. He left the Reedham Orphanage at 14.

After various office jobs, and wartime spent working with the National Fire Service, he decided to have a go at acting, doing walk-on parts in films, including Gabriel Pascal’s version of Major Barbara. Holder recalled seeing the elderly Shaw on the set on one occasion, talking spiritedly to the lead actors and embracing Sybil Thorndike, an old friend of Shaw’s.

Later, having cut his teeth with various rep companies, Holder encountered Thorndike again in Waters of the Moon in 1954, when his role was understudied by an up-and-coming actor named Donald Sinden. It ran at the Haymarket for two and a half years.

Holder always combined acting with writing. His stage plays included A Kind of Folly (1955), in which he appeared once again with Flora Robson, The Art of Living (1952) and Facts of the Heart (1953).

He had written the lead in Facts of the Heart with the intention of taking it on himself, but the producer chose to cast a young Peter Barkworth. Holder crossed paths with the not-so-young actor years later when he took over the role of Edward VIII from Barkworth in Royce Ryton’s play Crown Matrimonial, and went on to stage a successful one-man show, The Duke Over the Water, co-written with Ryton, about the Duke of Windsor in exile.

Holder listed his recreations in the 1977 edition of Who’s Who in the Theatre as “not writing my next play,” and there was a sense of self-deprecation about him. “I can’t take it that seriously,” he said of acting. “Being a surgeon is important, being an actor isn’t. I’ve always lacked the bastard streak and you can’t acquire it.”

Owen Holder was born March 18, 1921 and died on June 26 He was married to Joyce Cummings for 65 years until her death in 2002. His second wife, Joan, died in 2011. He is survived by a son and a daughter from his first marriage.

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