Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Monday, 6 May 2013

People we like: Alan Bates

Where does one begin doing an appreciation on Alan Bates? One only has to read the affectionate tributes on his imdb biography page to see the extent of the regard in which both he and his work is held. Unlike say Laurence Harvey – the man a lot of people loved to hate – or Peter Finch or Stephen Boyd (UK based leading men of roughly the same era) there is very little dross in Bates’ prodigious output on screen or television as he excelled in both while also doing major stage roles in important new plays – his filmography reads like a list of the 60s greatest hits.

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.

Then in 1964 the big hit that was NOTHING BUT THE BEST, Clive Donner’s acerbic look at the rise and rise of an unscrupulous man on the make at the start of the swinging London era. Denholm Elliott is the uppercrust toff on his uppers, Irish actress Pauline Delaney is amusing as the randy landlady and Millicent Martin the rich girl Bates sets his cap at. (Review at Bates label).

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.

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.

John Frankenheimer’s THE FIXER is one I unaccountably missed in 1968, particularly as it co-starred Dirk Bogarde and a terrific supporting cast, with Bates as the hero of the Malamud novel. It doesn’t appear to have been that well-received and may be due for revaluation when it ever re-appears.
(Dirk, who gave everyone nicknames, referred to Alan as "Alice"! - there are several mentions of Alice Bates in Bogarde's Collected Letters). Like Dirk, Alan must have worked with just about everyone, including again lots of our favourites ...

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.

Alan was still very active in the theatre at this time. I saw his HAMLET in 1970 [and later BUTLEY]. Hamlet was a well regarded production (with Celia Johnson as his Gertrude) and he had an enormous hit in Simon Gray’s play BUTLEY which was wonderful on the stage. The film – directed by Harold Pinter - followed in 1973 (and recently re-released as part of the American Film Theatre series) and is one Alan’s essential roles. Ben Butley is a professor who uses cruel humour to cope with everyday life as he loses in turn his wife, his boyfriend, and possibly his job as he antagonises and verbally fences with everybody around him. The amusing tagline reads: “His wife just left him for another man. And so did his boy friend”. There is great play on words in this very witty script which works as well on film as it did on the stage. It’s a constant pleasure to re-see again now – Alan Bennett’s THE HISTORY BOYS would be a comparable treat today.

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.

Some interesting televisions roles followed: John Mortimer’s A VOYAGE AROUND MY FATHER and Rattigan’s SEPARATE TABLES, a fourth teaming with Julie Christie as they play both couples in the play (as it was originally staged) and directed by John Schlesinger, with Claire Bloom (Miss Cooper) and Irene Worth (Mrs Railton Bell) in support, with Liz Smith as Miss Meacham. Luckily I caught its one showing on BBC, its certainly one repeat to be wished for. (I have now managed to source a vhs video-cassette copy from Amazon ... better than nothing!)

Everybody must have signed up for Michael Winner’s THE WICKED LADY for the paycheck, an unnecessary, charmless remake if there ever was one - it was not even popular, despite being spiced up with some gratutious nudity. Faye Dunaway, Bates and John Gielgud went down with all hands. I suppose we should regard it as a camp classic for all the wrong reasons, but its not even that amusing.
Much more worthwhile, also in 1983, was Schlesinger’s television film AN ENGLISHMAN ABROAD, Alan Bennett’s marvellous re-telling of Coral Browne (playing herself) and spy Guy Burgess meeting in Moscow. Its an enjoyable tale with Bates and Brown playing perfectly together.

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.

I particularly like WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU in 1988, an engrossing drama from the novel by J R Ackerley with Bates as the solitary civil servant who falls for the neglected Alsatian dog of his sometimes lover, a spiv well played by Gary Oldman. The marvellous cast includes Liz Smith and Max Wall as Oldman’s malevolent parents and Frances Barber as his opportunistic wife all out to make capital from Bates’ involvement with Oldman. Both Alan and Oldman play it perfectly together and the scenes with Alan and the dog are a joy as is the 50s period detail. Man and dog are happily re-united at the end as Oldman after a spell in jail has to settle for dull, if noisy, domesticity with that screaming infant!

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. is worth visiting.

More People We Like soon: Peter Finch, David Warner, and a couple of Dames: Edith Evans & Flora Robson!


  1. THE GO-BETWEEN is probably my fave Alan Bates film. What a beautiful film. I was surprised by THE RUNNING MAN and how dashing he was in it. He was also in THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, which I like but his role is one of those "Richard Gere visits the expert (Bates) to explain the storyline" kinda role which was a bit sad for such a great actor. Anyway, great rundown of his career.

  2. He has always been a favorite and I number Return of the Soldier among my favorite films, he and all three ladies are brilliant in it. Award level work from all that is sadly obscure.

    I saw his and Julie's version of Separate Tables years ago when it played on here in the states also wonderful. They really had a connection in all their work.

    I was so surprised by Far from the Madding Crowd. I expected to be disappointed in it since I found the book unreadable but with Julie, Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and he I couldn't resist and was happily surprised by how much I liked it. He was wonderfully brooding.

    King of Hearts is an odd one, I caught it in reissue on the art house circuit about 25 years ago, but well worth seeking out. So much brilliant work, he is sadly missed.

  3. A very nice tribute to a very fine actor, one of my top favorites. He was consistent,wasn't he? Also, quite intelligent in his choices. He and Christie seemed to bring out the best in each other, and I would love some day to see his Proust portrayal, as well as more of his fine television work. I have his Diaghilev in "Nijinsky" to watch, and will have to see if I'm in agreement with you! He's very much missed.

  4. I always watch Royal Flash wondering why he wasn't cast as Flashman instead of McDowell. Excellent post.