by Allan Fish
In the fashion of most awards ceremonies, it seems only right, at this most reflective time of year, to look back and remember those who are not here to bring in the New Year. In every aspect of film and television, it’s been a year when we have felt some key losses.
One cannot give a paragraph over to each, so let us first doff our hat to those on the periphery who nonetheless made their contribution to our screen lives. On TV, there’s producer Alasdair Milne (82), who, in a few short years in the 1960s, gave us Tonight, That Was the Week That Was and the peerless The Great War. To writer Robert Kee (93), who did everything from write an episode of the aforementioned The Great War, presented Panorama and introduced and wrote Jeremy Isaacs’ Ireland: A Television History. To Paul Shane (72), who was Ted Bovis in Hi-De-Hi. To Elspet Gray (83), a veteran from 1940s British film, most famous as the perverse queen in the original incarnation of The Black Adder. To Frank Thornton (92), the supercilious veteran of a hundred TV and film cameos, immortalised as Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served? To Bill Wallis (76), forever Ploppy the jailer in Blackadder II and the British spy with the German accent in Blackadder Goes Forth. To that eternal traveller Alan Whicker (89). To Mick Aston (67), the professor and archaeologist with the multi-coloured striped jumpers from Time Team who I once spoke to over the phone the week before a dig! To the greatest sports broadcaster of his generation, David Coleman (87). To Bill Pertwee (86), Warden Hodges from Dad’s Army. To Peter Gilmore (81), whose legendary sideburns steered The Onedin Line through nine years and several cameos in Carry On films. To John Fortune (74), one half of the greatest political satirical double act of them all. To Mel Smith (60), one half of a beloved comedy double act on TV, one of the legendary darts players in that Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch, director of The Tall Guy and arguably giving his finest performance in his last work, as the hotel manager in Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge. To Robin Sachs (61), fondly remembered as cowardly Ethan Rayne in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To Edith Bunker, aka. Jean Stapleton (90). To Lewis Collins (67), Bodie from The Professionals and Godley to Michael Caine’s Abberline in TV’s Jack the Ripper. To Jonathan Winters (87), whose credits are too numerous to even begin listing. To David Frost (74), for any one of a number of reasons. And finally, to the wonderful Richard Briers (79), stalwart of both British sitcoms (The Good Life, most famously) but, in later life, also a fine Shakespearean character actor who appeared in Branagh’s Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet.
To these add Jim Kelly (67), martial artist of Enter the Dragon fame, one-time director Michael Winner (73), legendary moustachioed pornstar Harry Reems (65), old Cochise Michael Ansara (81), stunt master Hal Needham (82), Indian director Rituparno Ghosh (50), taken far too young, The Twilight Zone‘s Richard Matheson (87), who also penned Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out and sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man, action star Paul Walker (40), Radha (unknown), the young Indian girl in Renoir’s The River, Private Benjamin‘s Eileen Brennan (80), Tea and Sympathy‘s John Kerr (82), French director Georges Lautner (87), composer John Tavener (69), who scored Children of Men and the choral pieces for TV’s Gormenghast, Patty Andrews (94), the last remaining Andrews sister, Nigel Davenport (85), memorable as Norfolk in A Man for All Seasons, Irish theatrical stalwarts Milo O’Shea (86) and Susan Fitzgerald (64), Burden of Dreams director Les Blank (77), director Ted Post (95), Italian stalwart Giuliano Gemma (75), two-time Caligula Jay Robinson (82), American Tony Musante (77), who appeared in so many Italian genre pieces in the 1970s, Billy Jack‘s Tom Laughlin (82), German character actor Otto Sander (72), famous from Wings of Desire and The Tin Drum, and Gerard Murphy (64), a memorably slimy Steyne in the 1998 BBC Vanity Fair. Nods, too, to several important editors; Helga Cranston (91) cut Olivier’s Hamlet and Richard III and several films for Otto Preminger, Gerry Hambling (86), long-time editor for Alan Parker, and perhaps most feted, Nino Baragli (87), who cut all of the great films of Sergio Leone and Pier Paolo Pasolini. And to two great cinematographers who died on the same day in August. Firstly, Gil Taylor (99), most famous for Star Wars, Dr Strangelove and A Hard Day’s Night, but long-time collaborator of Roman Polanski on Repulsion, Cul de Sac and Macbeth among others. And Vadim Yusov (84), who gave us the remarkable images of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev and Solaris.
A special mention then for animator Bob Godfrey (92), most famous for children’s TV’s Henry’s Cat and Roobarb and Custard, but whose early animated pieces, including The Do It Yourself Cartoon Kit, remain elusive to animation lovers. We lost that eternal mermaid Esther Williams (92), the erstwhile screenwriter for Merchant Ivory Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (85), Dennis Farina (67), of Get Shorty and Manhunter fame, Hammer producer Anthony Hinds (91), director of Priest Antonia Bird (62) soon after finishing co-directing the first series of the BBC’s ambitious The Village, Karen Black (70), who defied stereotypes in Five Easy Pieces and Nashville, and Richard Griffiths (65), of Harry Potter fame but so much better as Pot Belly in The Cleopatras, Uncle Monty in Withnail and I, as the lead in The History Boys and a priceless Swelter in Gormenghast. To these add former Helen of Troy Rossana Podesta (78), for the last remaining heroine of the Gainsborough costume cycle Jean Kent (92), and film noir acolyte Audrey Totter (94), so memorable in Alias Nick Beal in particular. World cinema lost Norma Bengell (76), who was famously the first actress nude in a Brazilian film (the superb The Unscrupulous Ones), and was also memorable in Keeper of Promises and in Italian classic Mafioso, former Lina Wertmuller star Mariangela Melato (71), French nouvelle vague goddess Bernadette Lafont (74), inseparable from such varied masterworks as A Very Curious Girl, Out 1, Les Bonnes Femmes, Noroit and La Maman et le Putain, Lucyna Winnicka (84), whose career was less important than her marriage to director Jerzy Kawalerowicz, who gave her her two best roles, as the mysterious woman in Night Train and in the Vanessa Redgrave as mas Sister Jeanne in Mother Joan of the Angels. In addition, several master directors made their final wrap; Aleksey German (74) only made six films, but they included Trial on the Road, Twenty Days Without War and My Friend Ivan Lapshin, Patrice Chereau (68), whose La Reine Margot is currently being restored for its 20th anniversary, and Sergiu Nicoleascu (82) was arguably the greatest Romanian director of the 20th century, with epic historical piece Mihai Viteazul a notable highlight. Spain lost three major figures; Jose Ramon Larraz (84), a horror man whose best films, Vampyres and Symptoms, were made in Blighty, Bigas Luna (66), who flitted between the original horror of Anguish and excellent pieces of erotica like The Ages of Lulu, and legendary purveyor of trash Jess Franco (82), who made so many films he forgot half of them and which remain ripe for rediscovery by connoisseurs of the perversely turgid. The biggest hole, however, was left by Nagisa Oshima (82), who, with the exception of Yoshishige Yoshida, remains the greatest of the Japanese new wave directors. Most famous for Ai No Corrida, check out Boy, Death by Hanging and The Ceremony to see him at his peak.
Who does that leave us with? With Julie Harris (87), famous for East of Eden and The Haunting, but never quite as powerful on film as on stage and in those TV plays of the 1950s and 1960s. With Eleanor Parker (91), the baroness in The Sound of Music, but once a promising actress in The Voice of the Turtle and Caged, as well as a fiery redhead worth crossing swords over in Scaramouche. With super-dynamation king Ray Harryhausen (92), without whom everyone’s childhood would not have been the same. With the one and only Deanna Durbin (92), who quit while ahead, had a voice to make the prince of darkness take pause, getting away with singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ in His Butler’s Sister, charming Charlie Laughton from his death bed in It Started With Eve, and who could have been an interesting actress or comedienne if Universal had allowed her to be. With composer Wojciech Kilar (81), taken from us only 2 or 3 days ago, whose immortal scores for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Ninth Gate will live far longer in the memory than the films themselves, and who also had a strong relationship with director Krzysztof Zanussi, the highlight of which was surely his unforgettable ‘Requiem for Father Kolbe’ written for Life for Life and reused on The Truman Show. And with three titans of film criticism, Roger Ebert (70), Japanese film expert Donald Richie (88) and old Methuselah himself, Stanley Kauffmann (97), neither of whose like we will see again.
That leaves us with just three. Firstly James Gandolfini (51), Tony Soprano himself, immortalised for that one role, but so good in such varied films as Enough Said, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Killing Them Softly, True Romance and In the Loop, as to show him one of the most consummate character actors of his generation. It’s appropriate, however, that the last words go to that irreplaceable pair who left us barely a week ago. Joan Fontaine (96) seemed to be in rivalry with her sister Olivia de Havilland (still going at 97) in everything. Fontaine beat de Havilland to the Oscar, but Olivia won two of them. Both sisters aged quite quickly in their early thirties, their features hardened, and neither fully recovered their earlier prominence. And while one would have to concede de Havilland had the greater dramatic range, Fontaine would have achieved immortality through Rebecca and Letter from an Unknown Woman alone, but she was also a fine Jane Eyre for Robert Stevenson, appeared in John Berry’s sleeper From This Day Forward, won her Oscar for Suspicion, was a cult villainess in Nic Ray’s Born to Be Bad but was so much better bad in Ivy. Finally, we come to Peter O’Toole (81), criminally referred to as the epitome of Englishness by some ill-educated commentators in obituaries just as they had mistakenly said of his old mate Richard Harris. Irish and proud of it, but loving cricket even more than rugby, with hair that might have stood as a template for Aryan supremacy and eyes so piercing as to demand attention, he never quite had the overall career he might have done. Yet Lawrence of Arabia and his two wonderful turns as Henry II in Becket and The Lion in Winter are three almighty exhibits for the defense, he was magnificent as Lord Gurney in The Ruling Class and as the sadistic director in The Stunt Man and very touching as the old tutor in The Last Emperor. He had a final hurrah in the middle of the 2000s, the best thing in Troy as Priam, quite heartbreaking in a pivotal scene with Brad Pitt’s Achilles, a wonderful ageing lecher with David Tennant in Russell T.Davies’ revisionist TV Casanova, as the voice of Anton Ego in Ratatouille and a truly wonderful performance in the lead in Venus. He never won an Oscar, but then again nor did/have such other sixties and seventies greats as Richard Burton, Dirk Bogarde, Stanley Baker, Richard Harris, Ian Holm, Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, John Hurt, Robert Shaw, Ian McKellen, Tom Courtenay or Alan Bates. He was, in every sense of the word, a legend, and the world is a sorer place without him.