|Subject: British Actor Kenneth Haigh
Dies at 86
Next Thread |
Previous Thread |
Next Message |
Date Posted: Monday, February 12, 08:52:45am
One feisty session in the pub around the corner from the Royal Court was enough to convince the playwright John Osborne that he had found the perfect “angry young man” for his play Look Back In Anger.
As Jimmy Porter, a disaffected working-class man whose tirades against stuffy convention would become emblematic of the time, Kenneth Haigh helped to make May 8, 1956, a momentous date in the history of British theatre.
Not all the critics were as enthusiastic after that opening night as Kenneth Tynan, who declared: “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger”. Yet nobody disputed the force of what Tynan called Haigh’s “bravura” performance opposite Mary Ure, his well-to-do wife who soaks up Porter’s visceral frustration at the state of the world.
By his own admission, the young Yorkshireman was ideal for the role that he took to Broadway with great success; the joke among acting circles was that it was “typecasting”. “I was impossible to get on with,” he recalled. “I either loved or hated people. There was no in-between. And all my ideas were based on a few arbitrary adolescent whims.”
Osborne, no shrinking violet himself, took to the miner’s son immediately and the pair often drank several pints of beer over lunch hours that would degenerate into blazing rows. They would then walk back to rehearsals as if nothing had happened.
Though he disagreed with Osborne on many things, Haigh respected his words and could fly into a rage if a fellow actor attempted to deviate from his or any other playwright’s text. This choleric temperament, and the reputation that preceded it, were perhaps the reasons why he did not attain the fame and fortune of actors he was at least as good as. The committed socialist also failed to endear himself to some impresarios as a member of the Equity council, campaigning for better working conditions for his fellow actors.
For all the people he offended, Haigh won many friends and admirers, among them the writer JG Ballard and Eric Morecambe, with whom he got on famously after they worked together on a Morecambe and Wise TV special.
Haigh was linked to a long list of actresses, including the Hollywood siren Ava Gardner. His dark good looks and brooding intensity brought him to a wider audience as the wheeler-dealer lothario Joe Lampton in the drama Man At The Top, which ran on ITV from 1970 to 1972. The series was an adaption of John Braine’s acclaimed novel, Room at the Top about a northern antihero. Lampton, relocated (like Braine) from Yorkshire to Surrey, was ruthlessly ambitious and a serial womaniser.
Among his “conquests” on the show were the actresses Ann Lynn, Hildegard Neil, Katy Manning, Pauline Munro and Prunella Ransome. The Sun declared in 1971: “If anyone’s liable to sort out the women’s lib girls, it’s Joe Lampton.” After one episode in which Lampton was left homeless after being thrown out by a lover, the ITV switchboard was jammed with calls from female admirers offering to put him up.
Haigh finally met his match when playing Joan Collins’s accountant in 1979 film The Bitch. “Joan is terrific. So sexy. It’s frightening. It can unbalance a chap.”
Though he was convivial to a fault, Haigh was widely respected for the way he would research roles — he read the entire oeuvre of the 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Burton before playing him in a six-part BBC series, The Search for the Nile.
Joe McGrath, the director who cast him in various productions in the late Sixties, said he was one of the best readers of poetry and blank verse he had ever heard. “He had marvellous voice. He had this way of projecting even when he was speaking quietly. He was like a ventriloquist.”
Kenneth Haigh was born in Mexborough, Yorkshire, in 1931, and might have followed his father down the pits. He admitted later that he had no ambition to be an actor, rather it was like an aching tooth: “eventually I gave in and went to the dentist.”
After National Service he trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and in 1952 toured with Anew McMaster’s company, which took Shakespeare and Wilde around Ireland, playing in convents and school halls by day and theatres in the evening.
He made his television debut in 1953 playing a New York slum boy who abandons the violin for the boxing ring in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy. For one reviewer, who described him as “dark, slim, curly haired with big, soulful eyes”, he “stepped right into star class”.
He was an original member of George Devine’s English Stage Company, which took over the Royal Court in 1956. As well as Look Back in Anger, during the first season he appeared in The Mulberry Bush by Angus Wilson and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Haigh held his own in a thespian firmament of young talent in the repertory, including Alan Bates and Judi Dench. He likened being in the company to a children’s party, where everyone was trying to grab the best roles.
His first important film role was in High Flight (1957), about training RAF pilots for the atomic age, which prompted one critic to declare that he was the most promising actor to emerge since Dirk Bogarde. He was Brutus in the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton Cleopatra, had a cameo with the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and played Napoleon on St Helena in Eagle in a Cage (1972), but his film career never really took off.
Female admirers jammed the ITV switchboard offering to put him up
He demonstrated that he had a more than passable singing voice in his role as a Liverpool docker who falls in love with a prostitute in Lionel Bart’s West End musical Maggie May in 1974. Acting, singing and dancing six nights a week was the only limit on his tendency to pontificate on anything and everything in an overbearing manner. He felt so exhausted by Sunday that for the first time in his life he was “speechless”.
By the late Sixties he had begun teaching and directing at Yale University’s drama school. He felt less restricted by social mores across the pond and kept an apartment in New York. It was there that he met the 19-year-old West Indian-born Myrna Stephens, one of the first black models to sign for the Eileen Ford agency. Haigh had been introduced to her by Sybil Burton, ex-wife of Richard, in a Manhattan nightclub. “This apparition walked by. I stopped myself talking in midstream and said ‘Who, what, why?’ ” They married in 1974.
Pithy, candid and bombastic, Haigh obliged interviewers with plenty of good copy as he reflected on occasional past irregularities in his private life. “I became a corrupt, callous lover in my mid-twenties. All those ladies have my deepest sympathy.” He had lived with the actress Jean Marsh, before meeting Stephens, who he described as an “independent and strong girl”. She said of their relationship, “Ken and I row all the time but we expect that . . . he likes an argument and you have to be strong with him.” The marriage ended in divorce in 1985, but they remained friends until the end.
His long career came to an abrupt end in 2003 when he swallowed a bone in a Soho restaurant. Being deprived of oxygen for some minutes caused brain damage and he spent the last 15 years of his life being cared for in a home.
Haigh had continued to work in the theatre through the 1990s, and was excellent as Gayev in a touring production of The Cherry Orchard. In an interview in 1995 he betrayed his frustration at no longer being offered “meaty roles” that would making anything approaching the impact of his performance as Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger. “In 1956 it symbolised everything that’s most exciting in our theatre now . . . I’m sure he’s grown up since I first met him and I wish him well. He was very good to me.”
Kenneth Haigh, actor, was born on March 25, 1931. He died on February 4, 2018, aged 86
Next Thread |
Previous Thread |
Next Message |