Born in Derbyshire in 1934 the young Bates studied at RADA and did some early television work before his first movie THE ENTERTAINER in 1960 where he has a minor part as a son of Archie Rice, the entertainer of the title, one of Laurence Olivier’s greatest achievements. Its still a marvellously satisfying movie now, with all those great players of the time. Bates had already been a success on stage in the original production of John Osborne’s LOOK BACK IN ANGER – throughout his career he returned again and again to the plays of David Storey, Simon Grey and Pinter in leading well-received productions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Alan had entered movies at just the right time in the early 60s so was at the vanguard of the renaissance of British film-making which led to all those international roles. WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND in 1961 was a very well-received Bryan Forbes film about 3 school children on their isolated farm thinking the man on the run in the barn, Bates, is actually Jesus. This would hardly work with today’s children but set in a more innocent time it certainly does and is still engrossing and moving.
A KIND OF LOVING in 1962, by John Schlesinger was Bates’ first big hit, from the novel by Stan Barstow and is the warmest of the realistic school of British movies from the early 1960s. Alan is Vic Brown, an essentially decent guy who falls in lust with Ingrid, a “nice” girl (June Ritchie) of no great depth but when she falls pregnant he has to marry her and move in with her disapproving (and how) mother, the splendid Thora Hird (above). It is the early '60s in aspic. The film charts their progress to final understanding and still works perfectly now.
After Clive Donner’s film of Pinter’s THE CARETAKER which did not receive wide distribution, Bates was back in Carol Reed’s THE RUNNING MAN in 1963, a glossy thriller that certainly did do the rounds. Laurence Harvey fakes his death for the insurance, with wife Lee Remick collecting the money and meeting him in Spain. Alan is the insurance investigator who also turns up. Is he interested in Remick or suspicious? Its worked out with nicely with colourful Spanish locations with Bates and Remick looking good together.
ZORBA THE GREEK in 1965 was as big a hit you could get at the time, a major crossover between arthouse and popular cinema from Greek director Michael Cacoyannis that still resonates today. Anthony Quinn of course does Zorba’s Dance, Bates is the diffident Englishman inheriting a mine, Irene Papas the local widow and Lila Kedrova easily deserved that best supporting actress award for her amusing yet heart-breaking role of the ageing courtesan.
GEORGY GIRL in 1966 was another popular hit, a key English movie of the period. Lynn Redgrave of course has her break-though role as Georgy, the chubby girl left holding the baby that her uberbitch roommate Meredith – Charlotte Rampling at her iciest – does not want. Bates is the father and lover who cannot commit, and James Mason the tycoon who wants and gets Georgy. It captures the free-wheeling mood of the time with those well-rounded characters and is still a satisfying movie now.
KING OF HEARTS is one that escaped – did it ever play in the UK? It does have a good reputation, and as it is directed by Philippe de Broca and co-stars Genevieve Bujold is one I would like to eventually catch up with.
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD in 1967 is of course another popular success by John Schlesinger, photographed by Nicholas Roeg, with Julie Christie as Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba and Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp as the men: Gabriel Oak, Squire Boldwood and dashing Sergeant Troy. Christie and Stamp may have been the beautiful people of the time, but Bates is not over-shadowed nor is the pastoral scene as the drama unfolds.
Then the enormous hit of Ken Russell’s WOMEN IN LOVE in 1970 – Bates as Rupert Birkin, Lawrence’s hero with career-defining roles also for Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden. Perfect period detail, Lawrence’s passion, Eleanor Bron and others in supporting roles and of course that naked wrestling match by firelight. One of the best literary adaptations (by Larry Kramer) ever to grace the screen.
After a respectful film of the National Theatre’s THREE SISTERS (Bates is Vershinin) in 1970, came THE GO-BETWEEN another perfect literary adaptation by Harold Pinter from the L P Hartley novel, perfectly directed by Joseph Losey and another critical and popular success (and a Cannes festival winner). Bates is farmer Ted Burgess with Julie Christie as the lady of the manor and Margaret Leighton as her mother who finally explodes with rage at the deception going on caused by the clandestine affair. It remains another perfect film of the era.
A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG in 1972 is a good film of another well-received play with Bates and Janet Suzman as the parents of a severely deformed child and their stratagems for coping with it in this well-judged black comedy.
1975 brought another film of one of his stage appearances: IN CELEBRATION by David Storey, another writer Bates had an affinity with, and Richard Lester’s film ROYAL FLASH, full of those quirky, humorous Lester touches in this Flashman novel played for comedy mostly and perhaps cramming in too much incident as Malcolm McDowell, Oliver Reed (Bismarck), Bates and a supporting cast including Alistair Sim and Florinda Bolkan as a very spirited Lola Montez re-enact The Prisoner of Zenda. (review at Bates label).
Alan then had a big success in a very popular BBC series of Hardys’s THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE, and in 1978 some very popular American films: he was Bette Midler’s manager in THE ROSE and Jill Clayburgh’s lover in AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, a prototype chick-flick perhaps, but more intelligently done than they do these days, well directed by Paul Mazursky. Alan was suddenly the thinking woman’s pinup.
Skolimowski’s THE SHOUT was an interesting, little-seen curio, but Herbert Ross’s ballet film NIJINSKY in 1980 was a misfire on every level. Bates did his best as the impresario Diaghilev but the other leads was below par and the one time Nijinski and Diaghilev kiss is through a handkerchief to avoid catching germs! It was perhaps the wrong time for a gay love story but the costumes, period detail and the ballet excerpts hold the eye.
The Merchant-Ivory QUARTET in 1981 is one of their best and remains a favourite. What a premise: Alan Bates and Maggie Smith in the Paris of the 1920s, based on the Jean Rhys novel, with Isabelle Adjani as mesmerising as ever, Anthony Higgins and the wonderful Sheila Gish. It’s a glittering jewel. (review at Bates label).
THE RETURN OF THE SOLIDER in 1982 didn’t fare that well despite re-teaming Alan with both Julie Christie and Glenda Jackson and Ann-Margret is surprisingly very effective and fits in perfectly in this period piece where Alan is the shell-shocked officer suffering from amnesia. A fascinating piece to see now. (I think at the time we dismissed it as "oh, another Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson period drama" and gave it a miss on its limited release - we didn't appreciate how lucky we were.) Review of this coming up soon.
managed to source a vhs video-cassette copy from Amazon ... better than nothing!)
A perfunctory film of another well-regarded play DUET FOR ONE followed in 1986, with Bates as the husband of Julie Andrews who plays the famous violin player in a wheelchair suffering from multiple sclerosis. It seems to have worked better in the theatre and in fact the play is currently revived again in London.
Another interesting little-seen role was as Marcel Proust in an excellent tv production, 102 BOULEVARD HAUSEMANN in 1990, the same year as Franco Zefferelli’s HAMLET, with Mel Gibson as the gloomy Dane. Bates here is Claudius with Glenn Close as Gertrude and it’s a brisk version and of course very visual.
Alan continued busily throughout the 90s but none of the credits listed in his imdb profile seem to have registered with me. I would think his last big hit was part of the ensemble cast in Altman’s very popular GOSFORD PARK in 2001, where he is the butler. He continued working on stage and screen until shortly before his unexpected death just after Christmas on 27 December 2003, aged 69. He had been ill with cancer, and was fondly remembered by all.
The tragedy of his son’s death (one of twins) in 1990 and then his wife Victoria’s death in 2002 are detailed in the recent engrossing biography by Donald Spoto which covers Alan’s life and career in detail, including his bisexuality and many complex relationships. He later had a relationship with Angharad Rees (who died last year) and with Joanna Pettet whom he knew in the '60s and who returned to him until he died in 2003.
It is overall a great career - I have only commented on his work that I know, there is a whole lot more detailed in his imdb profile. Alan is one of the great leading men of the 60s, 70s and 80s at a time when literate, well-produced films were commonplace with directors like Schlesinger, Losey, Ken Russell and others all at their peak. He also combined his films and television roles with excellent stage roles. One cannot praise him highly enough or the regard in which he continues to be held. Alanbates.com is worth visiting.