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A Tribute to Sir Alan Bates - Actor

Posted Thursday, May 31, 2007

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A Tribute to Sir Alan Bates

`A very private person who was in the public eye for four decades'

Sir Alan Bates, who received his Knighthood from Her Majesty the Queen in the New Year’s Honours of 2003 was a very private person who was in the public eye for four decades, and yet was known only for the excellence of his work – never for his personal exploits.

Sadly Alan passed away in 2004, and I am priveleged to pay this tribute to one of this country’s finest actors.

Alan’s acting roles were always very carefully selected and whilst his character portrayals were always regarded as memorable masterpieces of artistic projection from a man who empathised fully with both character and audience - away from the footlights and the spotlight of stardom he nevertheless retained a surprisingly anonymous role and thus remains something of an enigma to all but his closest friends and personal acquaintances. So just who was Alan Bates?

To some he is eternally Gabriel Oak in Hardy’s `Far from the Madding Crowd’, but over the years he played an array of husbands, fathers, lovers, brothers, heroes and villains, each of them alive with the Bates blend of humour and passion - and that unique modulation in a voice of flexibility and nuance which he used to brilliant effect.

His list of film, theatre and television credits is almost endless and he worked alongside some of the greatest and most respected names in all three mediums which encompass his designated status of `Actor’ – of which, especially amongst his peers, Alan Bates was an acknowledged master.

Potted Biography

Alan Arthur Bates was born at Allestree in Derby on February 17th 1934, the eldest son of Harold and Florence Bates and the older of three brothers.

His father was an insurance broker and both parents were excellent amateur musicians who encouraged the young Alan to become a concert pianist, but by the age of 11 he had already decided to become an actor.

Whilst still at junior school he became an avid listener to radio and his mother began taking him to the theatre. Soon the young man developed a passion for the cinema too, and whilst attending the Herbert Strutt Grammar School in Belper during the week, each weekend would find him at the local picture-house where he particularly admired James Mason, and American actors like Montgomery Clift and Spencer Tracy.

His parents supported his decision to become an actor and actively encouraged him:

“My father got me into a class with a marvellous voice teacher called Claude Gibson, and my mother got me into the local Shakespeare Society, so they both took a positive stand towards me doing what I wanted to do”, he once told me.

In 1951 Alan went on a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. It was a vintage intake that year and he found himself in the company of fellow RADA students Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, Roy Kinnear, Peter Bowles, Richard Briers, James Booth and a host of others who were all destined to grace our screens, both large and small, in the years ahead.

He took two years out from his career to fulfil his National Service in the R.A.F., and then after making his stage debut with the Midland Theatre Company in 1955, Bates joined the English Stage Company based at the Royal Court Theatre in London. He took a flat in Battersea which he shared with Albert Finney, Brian Bedford, Keith Baxter and Roy Kinnear.

Success came almost instantly when he landed the part of Cliff in John Osborne’s landmark anti-establishment drama, `Look Back in Anger’ which had its premiere under director Tony Richardson on May 8th 1956.

The play also had a successful run on Broadway and Alan Bates’ career became well and truly launched both in Britain and America.

After noteable successes on stage, Bates made his screen debut in the early sixties playing the fugitive in `Whistle Down The Wind’. The cult classic of its groundbreaking era `A Kind of Loving’ soon followed in 1962, and then he played opposite Anthony Quinn in `Zorba The Greek’. In 1964 he starred in Harold Pinter’s `The Caretaker’ and played alongside Olivier in `The Entertainer’. Two years later came what many regard as his finest role when he played Gabriel Oak in John Schlesinger’s film of the Thomas Hardy classic, `Far From the Madding Crowd’.

The sixties was an era in the grip of social change and this was reflected in the `new realism’ portrayed in plays and films by John Osborne and Alan Pinter, and it produced a new wave of British actors who became collectively known as the `Angry Young Men’. Alan Bates shone like a bright star in a galaxy that included Tom Courtney, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Alan Bennett, Michael Caine, Richard Harris, Sean Connery and Terence Stamp.

In 1970 Alan married Victoria Ward and their twin sons, Benedick and Tristan were born in 1971 whilst he was filming `The Go-Between’ for Harold Pinter’s screenplay. In November 1979 he was voted by Playgirl in the Top Ten of the `World’s Sexiest Men’ along with Burt Reynolds, Senator Kennedy and Bruce Springsteen. In between he worked with Glenda Jackson and Julie Christie and starred with Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s screen adaption of D.H. Lawrence’s `Women in Love’ which featured the famous nude wrestling scene.

During the eighties Bates career blossomed further with major roles on screen and stage, but double tragedy struck, first in 1990 when son Tristan died following an asthma attack whilst working as a model in Tokyo, and then two years later when his wife Victoria died. In an interview in 1997 Bates said, “I had pure ambition, but when terrible things happen in your life, your priorities are changed – not sharply, but subtly and slowly.

You think about someone like Tristan and think he probably would have been an extremely good actor. I’ve already had 40 years and if he wasn’t allowed that, why should I have any more? And then you think, hey, wait a minute: he was one of the main inspirations of my life. I’m going to do it for him”.

What Alan actually did was form the Tristan Bates Theatre at the Actors Centre, Covent Garden of which he was the third patron, succeeding Lord Olivier and Sir Alec Guinness.

Son Benedick is now an accomplished actor who has already established a fine reputation - and has played opposite his father in the Simon Gray play `Simply Disconnected’.

Alan Bates was appointed C.B.E. in 1995, and in 1997 the University of Derby honoured one of the cities favourite sons with an Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree - `In recognition of his contribution to contemporary drama’.

He made a return to the classics and enjoyed critical acclaim for his National Theatre performances as `Anthony’ – playing opposite Frances De La Tour in Shakespeare’s `Anthony & Cleopatra’.

Towards the end of his life he performed in New York, and after his hectic globe-trotting lifestyle Alan yearned for the peace and tranquility of his native Derbyshire, where his desire for privacy was always respected and fiercely protected by the fellow residents of the small and beautiful village of Bradbourne in the Derbyshire hills.

 
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