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Obituary: Rio Fanning – ‘led a double life as an actor and a writer’

Rio Fanning. Photo: Angus Deuchar

As the actor Rio Fanning and writer Michael Robartes, the son of Irish playwright AP Fanning led a double life – one that also included periods as a director.

Born in Newry, County Down, Fanning was raised in Tralee on Ireland’s Atlantic coastline and made his acting debut in school plays and pageants produced by his father.

Rio Fanning (right) with Eric Richards in Ron Hutchinson’s Eejits in 1978

Having paid his way through the London School of Drama, he found early work in regional rep and was a founder-member of the short-lived Bangor New Theatre in 1955, then the first professional company in his native Northern Ireland to be formed outside Belfast.

He made his West End debut as Captain Brennan in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Mermaid Theatre in 1962. The following year, he was seen in the British premiere of Brendan Behan’s The Big House at Theatre Royal Stratford East and gave what The Stage described as “a superlative performance” as Richard III at the Marlowe Canterbury.

The year 1965 saw him sharing the stage as Steinbauer with Maximilian Schell (in his UK stage debut), George Divine and Jill Bennett in John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me at the Royal Court.

He was seen in Ron Hutchinson’s Eejits at the Sheffield Crucible, transferring with it to the Bush Theatre in 1978, returned to Sloane Square for David Leland’s Psy-Warriors in 1979, and later developed close associations with Derby Playhouse, the Orange Tree Richmond and Birmingham Rep, where he was seen as Kent to David Ryall’s King Lear in 1980.

He formed two companies: the Imperial Theatre Group, with actor Tony Doyle, based at the Oval, Kennington, in 1970, and Threesome Productions, with actors Stella Fox and Margi Clarke, in 1991.

Having made his screen debut in a 1959 adaptation of Great Expectations, his swansong was a 2014 episode of Doctors. In the intervening 55 years, he had lead roles in Budgie (1971-72), The Regiment (1973), Doctor Who (1977), Emmerdale (1980-82), The District Nurse (1984) and All Creatures Great and Small (1978-90).

Rio Fanning with his son Liam in Sophie Cundale’s 2012 film The Garden

As Rio Fanning, he wrote the six-part The Adventures of Swiss Family Robinson (1998) and an episode of Peak Practice (1999), while his alter ego Michael Robartes was responsible for more than 30 episodes of soap operas Emmerdale and EastEnders and television series The District Nurse in the decade to 1994.

James Arnold Rio Fanning was born on November 7, 1931, and died on August 12, aged 86. He is survived by his second wife, actor Karen Ford, a son from his first marriage, and his adopted son.

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