Appreciation: Alan Bates 1934-2003

Alan Bates, who died last Saturday at the age of 69, made an indelible mark on our cinema and theatre, writes Philip French.

Alan Bates, who died last Saturday at the age of 69, should have made his movie debut in 1959, reprising his stage role of Cliff Lewis, the diffident, kindly sidekick of the cruel, scathingly aggressive Jimmy Porter in the film of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Foolishly, the producers of the film retained only Mary Ure from the original cast, replacing Bates with the ineffectual Gary Raymond, and the movie is all but forgotten.

In the event, Bates didn't make his film debut until 1960 alongside another movie debutant, Albert Finney, in The Entertainer. Appropriately, they were playing the sons of Laurence Olivier, whose generation and style of acting they were in the process of challenging.

With Finney, Peter O'Toole and Tom Courtenay, Bates played a key role in a cultural change that would transform our theatre and cinema, freeing them from gentility and middle-class dominance. The movement began with the novelists and playwrights dubbed the Angry Young Men in the 1950s and continued with the New Wave of British filmmakers, and that other phenomenon, Swinging London. For more than 40 years, Bates worked in theatre, movies and TV with most of the major British writers of the time: Osborne, Richardson, Pinter, Wesker, Bennett, Nichols, Storey, Gray, Potter (whose only film as director, Secret Friends, he starred in), as well as major directors like Peter Hall, John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson, Bryan Forbes, Ken Russell, Joseph Losey.

At first, he seemed to represent the sad, stoical face of that turbulent period. His diffident, accommodating Lancashire clerk in A Kind of Loving, the movie that made him a star, contrasted sharply with Albert Finney as the aggressive, anarchic Nottinghamshire factory worker in his first major film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

But two playwrights, Harold Pinter and Simon Gray, exploited another side of Bates's seemingly mild, vulnerable, inward-looking persona, a certain menacing aspect - manipulative, threatening, quizzical, occasionally diabolic. This came out in Pinter's The Caretaker (staged in 1960 and filmed in 1963) and Gray's Butley (first performed in the West End under the direction of Pinter, who later directed the movie version).

There was also about Bates a touch of camp, as there is about Finney. He was not afraid, as many actors of his own and earlier generations were, of suggesting the homoerotic aspect of his heterosexual characters' relationships, or to play gays, as he did, for instance, in We Think the World of You and (one of his most memorable performances) as Guy Burgess in Alan Bennett's TV film, An Englishman Abroad. His timing was sly and expert, his comic style the stuff of sardonic satire rather than farce.

Bates's often bearded face, with his sharp, flashing eyes, slightly crooked smile and his tousled hair, became an icon of his time. He was a versatile performer, a fine exponent of Chekhov, and equally superb as the honest East Anglian farmer, a victim of class oppression, in the Losey-Pinter film of The Go-Between or as the passionately defiant D.H. Lawrence figure, Rupert Birkin, in Ken Russell's Women in Love.

In his later years, however, he did become somewhat typecast as a shaggy, eccentric, eye-rolling recluse in such minor movies as The Mothman Prophecies, The Sum of All Fears and Evelyn. By then, of course, his mark on our cinema and theatre had become indelible.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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