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Obituary: John Stride – ‘a founding member of the National Theatre’

John Stride and Edward Petherbridge in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Anthony Crickmay John Stride and Edward Petherbridge in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Anthony Crickmay

By the time he had left school, John Stride had already played Macbeth, Antony and Hamlet. His early promise – spotted at Alleyn’s School, Dulwich by Michael Croft (then a teacher, later founder of the National Youth Theatre) – came to fruition on stage as a founding member of the National Theatre and on television in the hugely popular The Main Chance.

Born in South Norwood, London, a scholarship took him to RADA, where he graduated with the Silver Medal and a year’s contract at the Liverpool Playhouse. He made his West End debut replacing Brian Belford in Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise, directed by John Gielgud at the Comedy Theatre, in 1959.

The same year, he toured alongside Peggy Ashcroft in JM Sadler’s The Coast of Coromandel before joining the Old Vic company, then under Laurence Olivier’s stewardship.

He shot to attention alongside Judi Dench – both praised by The Stage for their “deeply touching” performances – in Franco Zeffirelli’s landmark 1960 staging of Romeo and Juliet. The role gave him his Broadway debut in 1962, remaining in New York to play Armand for Zeffirelli in Giles Croft’s The Lady of the Camellias in 1963.

Returning home the same year, Stride reunited with Gielgud to play a tortured, disillusioned Catullus to his Julius Caesar in an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March at the Haymarket Theatre, after which he joined the newly created National Theatre. He made his debut in the fledgling company’s first production as Fortinbras to Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet, directed by Olivier. He quickly began to call attention to himself in a succession of well-observed roles, notably as Pear-main (George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, 1963), Valentine (William Congreve’s Love for Love – “a scintillating performance,” said The Stage) and Cassio to Olivier’s Othello in 1965.

His growing credentials were inked in by his garrulous but bewildered Rosencrantz beside Edward Petherbridge’s acidic Guildenstern in the premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1967. He followed it with a forceful account of Edward II in Brecht’s reworking of Marlowe in 1968.

Having made his television debut in 1959, Stride was thrust into national fame as a womanising lawyer in The Main Chance, which dominated ITV’s drama schedules from 1969 to 1975. Also notable were his Henry VIII in the BBC Shakespeare cycle (1979), lecherous businessman in Fay Weldon’s Growing Rich and bibulous Welsh broadcaster in Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils, both in 1992.

Although television increasingly kept him away from the theatre, memorable stage appearances included Noel Coward’s Design for Living with Vanessa Redgrave at the Phoenix Theatre (1973), the Terence Frisby farce It’s All Right If I Do It (Mermaid Theatre, 1977), a sinister, insinuating Aleister Crowley in Snoo Wilson’s The Number of the Beast (Bush Theatre, 1982) and a 1983 revival of Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl at the Apollo Theatre.

He made his belated debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company as a replacement for Brian Blessed’s Claudius to Roger Rees’ Hamlet in 1985. In 1989 he was seen alongside Paul Scofield in Jeffrey Archer’s Exclusive at the Strand Theatre and took the titular role in Melvyn Bragg’s King Lear in New York at Chichester and on Broadway in 1992.

On film, he was seen in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), The Omen (1976) and Richard Attenborough’s wartime epic A Bridge Too Far (1977).

John Edward Stride was born on July 11, 1936 and died on April 20, aged 81. He was twice married: to the actors Virginia Thomas (from whom he divorced) and April Wilding, who died in 2003. He is survived by three children.

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