Alan Bates

Bates, Sir Alan Arthur (1934–2003), actor, was born at Queen Mary Nursing Home, Derby, on 17 February 1934, the eldest of the three sons of Harold Arthur Bates, an insurance superintendent, and his wife, Florence Mary, née Wheatcroft. At the time of his birth his parents lived at Farley, Derwent Avenue, Allestree, near Belper in Derbyshire. Both parents played musical instruments, his father the cello and his mother the piano, and a home environment where the arts flourished led Bates to an interest in theatre. While attending Herbert Strutt Grammar School, Belper, he acted in school plays and enjoyed watching productions at the Derby Little Theatre Club, whose leading repertory actors included John Osborne and John Dexter. He also enjoyed films at the local cinema, admiring actors such as James Mason, Marcello Mastroianni, and Spencer Tracy. After winning a scholarship to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where his contemporaries included Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, and Richard Harris, and doing national service in the RAF, Bates joined the Midland Theatre Company, in Coventry, making his professional stage début in You and Your Wife (1955).


After moving to London in 1956, Bates became a founder member of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, which was set up by actor–director George Devine and director Tony Richardson to perform plays neglected by West End managements and as a forum for new writers. His first roles were as Simon Fellowes in Angus Wilson's The Mulberry Bush (1956) and Hopkins in Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1956), but he and the theatre's first major impact came with their third production, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956), starring Kenneth Haigh as the rebellious anti-hero Jimmy Porter, with Bates as his quiet, sympathetic friend, Cliff Lewis, and Tony Richardson directing. The play was seen to represent a new generation's disillusionment with post-war Britain. Osborne and others of the new school were dubbed ‘angry young men’, and the ‘kitchen sink’ drama was born. It was also a launching pad for Bates, who reprised his role in Moscow as part of the World Youth Festival (1957), at the Edinburgh Festival (1958), and for his Broadway début (Lyceum Theatre, 1957–8, and John Golden Theatre, 1958). He then had success on the West End stage as Edmund Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (Globe Theatre, 1958), and the extrovert, sadistic brother Mick in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker (Duchess Theatre, 1960, then on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, 1961–2). He returned to Broadway to play the title role in Jean Kerr's Greenwich Village comedy, Poor Richard (Helen Hayes Theatre, 1964–5).


Although he had made his film début with a small role in the comedy It's Never Too Late (1956), starring Phyllis Calvert, Bates did not go back to the big screen until after this run of stage successes. He appeared as song-and-dance man's son Frank Rice, alongside Laurence Olivier, in the film version (1960) of John Osborne's stage play The Entertainer before starring as a fugitive murderer discovered in a barn and mistaken for Jesus Christ by three children in Whistle Down the Wind (1961), a north-country draughtsman forced into marriage when his girlfriend becomes pregnant in A Kind of Loving (his first picture with the director John Schlesinger, 1962), a quiet adulterer in The Running Man (1963), Mick in the screen adaptation of The Caretaker (1963, retitled The Guest in the USA), a social-climbing clerk in Nothing but the Best (1964), a young English writer in Zorba the Greek (1964), a man swapping his pregnant girlfriend for her flatmate in the ‘swinging sixties’ comedy Georgy Girl (1966), and the faithful farm labourer Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd (with Schlesinger again, 1967).


Bates made his Hollywood début as Yakov Bok, the Jewish handyman unjustly imprisoned in tsarist Russia, in The Fixer (1968), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, but he never desired the trappings of stardom and continued to pick his roles carefully. He returned to Britain for Women in Love (1969), director Ken Russell's adaptation of the D. H. Lawrence novel, notable for a nude wrestling scene with his fellow star Oliver Reed, and The Go-Between (1971), reuniting him with his Far from the Madding Crowd co-star Julie Christie as the tenant farmer and the fiancée of a wounded South African War veteran conducting an affair in director Joseph Losey's film based on the Edwardian novel by L. P. Hartley, adapted by Harold Pinter.


On 9 May 1970 Bates married the thirty-year-old Valerie June Ward, an actress and model under the name Victoria Ward, daughter of Robert Alfred William Wood, printer. Their twin sons, Benedick and Tristan, were born in 1971. Professionally, the 1970s saw Bates continue to switch between stage and screen. He reprised his role as the angry, embittered brother, Andrew Shaw, from playwright David Storey's In Celebration (Royal Court Theatre, 1969) in director Lindsay Anderson's 1975 film version, and the title role of a troubled university lecturer from Simon Gray's comedy Butley (Criterion Theatre, 1971, and Morosco Theatre, New York, 1972–3) in a film directed by Harold Pinter in 1974, before taking it on a tour of American cities the following year. The beginning of his long theatrical association with Gray, usually directed by Pinter, brought him best actor honours in both the London Evening Standard and the Tony awards. The pair continued with Otherwise Engaged (Queen's Theatre, 1975–6), winning Bates a Variety Club award for his portrayal of debonair publisher Simon, and Stage Struck (Vaudeville Theatre, 1979, directed by Stephen Hollis), a thriller in which he played scheming husband Robert. In between these productions, Bates also made an impression as Allott, the disillusioned art teacher, in David Storey's Life Class (Royal Court Theatre and Duke of York's Theatre, both 1974), and supported the opening of the Derby Playhouse in 1976 by starring there as Boris Trigorin in Chekhov's The Seagull, a role he also played that year in the West End (Duke of York's Theatre). Although he acted Hamlet at the Nottingham Playhouse (1971) and an impudent Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 1973), he was usually at his most electric in contemporary works.


A productive period in television in the late 1970s and early 1980s saw Bates playing Michael Henchard in Dennis Potter's adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel The Mayor of Casterbridge (1978), John Mortimer in that writer's autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father (1982), and Guy Burgess, the exiled spy in Moscow, in An Englishman Abroad (1983), which teamed director John Schlesinger with writer Alan Bennett and won Bates a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) best actor award. On stage, he continued to enthrall audiences, as the blackmailed homosexual Austro-Hungarian army colonel Alfred Redl in a revival of John Osborne's A Patriot for Me (Chichester Festival Theatre and Theatre Royal, Haymarket, both 1983, winning him another Variety Club award, then Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, 1984); Nicolas, the interrogator, in Harold Pinter's torture play One for the Road (Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, 1984); Edgar in Strindberg's The Dance of Death (Riverside Studios, 1985); and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (Strand Theatre, 1989).


Still shunning stardom and taking only film roles that appealed to him, often in low-budget, independent pictures, Bates was notable on screen as Saul Kaplan, the romantic artist, in An Unmarried Woman (1977), Serge Diaghilev, mentor and possessive lover of the legendary male ballet dancer, in Nijinsky (1980), H. J. Heidler, the rich Englishman who takes a mistress in 1920s Paris, in Quartet (1981), David Cornwallis, the alcoholic husband of the doomed violinist, in Duet for One (1986), Claudius in director Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet (1990), the quack doctor Eamon McCree in the Sam Shepard-directed western Silent Tongue (1992), and Jennings, the butler, in director Robert Altman's country-house whodunit Gosford Park (2001). His later television work included playing Josiah Bounderby in Hard Times (1994), the title role of the crossword- and anagram-obsessed former university lecturer in Oliver's Travels (1995), based on Alan Plater's novel, the eccentric Uncle Matthew in Love in a Cold Climate (2001), and George V in Bertie and Elizabeth (2002).


But Bates's first love remained the theatre. He teamed up with writer David Storey and director Lindsay Anderson again in Stages (National Theatre, 1992), returned to the West End in the title role of Ibsen's The Master Builder (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 1995), played the travel writer holding imaginary conversations with his comatose wife in Simon Gray's Life Support (Aldwych Theatre, 1997), and starred as Mark Antony, opposite Frances de la Tour's Cleopatra, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 1999, Barbican Theatre, 2000). He also returned to New York, performing alongside Eileen Atkins in Yasmina Reza's acclaimed The Unexpected Man (Promenade Theatre, 2000–01), and winning a Tony award for his portrayal on Broadway of the penniless aristocrat Kuzovkin in Ivan Turgenev's Fortune's Fool (Music Box Theatre, 2002).


As an actor, Bates (who was appointed CBE in 1995 and knighted in 2003) was known for his versatility and sensitivity, able to switch from introversion and vulnerability to menace and manipulation, showing expert timing in both drama and comedy, with irony and understatement as his tools. He was also a private man who never sought the trappings of stardom or the lure of big money, turning down a seven-year Hollywood contract after his original success in Look Back in Anger.


After twenty years of family life, in the early 1990s Bates faced two tragedies: the death of his son Tristan from an asthma attack in 1990 and that of his wife, Valerie, two years later from a suspected heart attack, following a wasting disease. He said his life was ‘cut literally in half, with four becoming two, like a sniper in your garden’ (Daily Telegraph, 29 Dec 2003). In 1994 he established the Tristan Bates Theatre at the Actors Centre, Covent Garden, in his late son's memory. He died of pancreatic cancer at the London Clinic, 20 Devonshire Place, Westminster, on 27 December 2003. He was survived by his son Benedick, who had followed him into acting.


Anthony Hayward Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


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Taken on September 2, 2009