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 b i o g r a p h y


SIR ALAN BATES, CBE was an exceptionally private person. In spite of the fact that he lived in the public eye for four decades, we knew him for his superb work, not for his personal exploits. Honoured and respected in Britain, Bates's performances were also memorable to a large audience of conoisseurs in the rest of the world, who planned visits to London when he was appearing on stage, and depended on the Internet for news of his projects.
After nearly 30 years away, an April 2002 return to the Broadway stage in Ivan Turgenev's "Fortune's Fool" garnered spectacular reviews, earned a "Best Actor" Tony for Bates (his second), and reminded American audiences of what they had been missing. But the New York spotlight was unlikely to change this self-described "maverick" - he chose his work by instinct and interest, immersed himself fully in a character and project, and then moved on to the next challenge.
Friends and fans all over the world were shocked and saddened to learn of his untimely death at the end of 2003; messages from old and new friends alike contained words of personal grief and support for Alan's family and close associates.

Who was Alan Bates?
From interviews, observation and his own words, the profile emerges of an intelligent and thoughtful man (with a generous streak of humor), a "thoroughgoing professional who loves, and lives for, his work" (in the words of Joe Leydon, of
The Houston Post). Today Bates's performances in his earliest films are still fresh. His charm, and what Simon Gray called his capacity to "flirt dangerously with the audience," were intact to the end.

In 1959, a reviewer said about Bates's first television performance: "...the production was exciting whenever Mr Alan Bates was on the screen. His broodingly lonely and savage performance ... gave the part a profundity never suggested by the lines alone."

Reviews of the 1999 RSC "Antony and Cleopatra" called his performance one of "huge authority," with "a wholly disarming capacity for passionate tenderness; Bates is on splendid form."  

 Early Years

From Current Biography 1969 comes this information about Bates's youth: "The oldest of three brothers, Alan Arthur Bates was born in the Midlands suburb of Allestree, Derbyshire, on February 17, 1934. He has described his family as 'middle middle class'; his father, Harold Arthur Bates, is an insurance broker, and his mother Florence Mary (Wheatcroft) Bates is a housewife. Both parents are amateur musicians, and they encouraged Alan to become a concert pianist. But by the time he had reached eleven, Bates had other plans for his future.
'I just up and said I wanted to be an actor,' he recalled in an interview with Edwin Miller of Seventeen (May 1963). His parents substituted speech lessons for piano instruction, and for a time he studied acting with Claude W. Gibson. Bates attended the Herbert Strut Grammar School in Belper, Derbyshire and then studied on a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he received most of his training in the classics of the theatre. He took out two years from his career to fulfill his military service in the Royal Air Force.
'. . .After making his stage debut in 1955 at Coventry with the Midland Theatre Company, Bates did not enter an apprenticeship in the traditional way with the Old Vic or at Stratford-on-Avon, but joined the English Stage Company, a London repertory group [based at the Royal Court Theatre] whose productions included many plays in the new realism as well as other modern works and some classical drama ... His most important appearance was in John Osborne's landmark anti- Establishment drama, Look Back in Anger, which had its premiere under the direction of Tony Richardson on May 8, 1956."
Look Back in Anger, which had a successful run on Broadway, launched Bates's career in both England and the US. From the beginning he was an actor for all media, and his early identity as an "angry young man" seemed more linked to a particular moment in post-war Britain than in his actual acting forte, which was always protean. From the eerie Mick in Pinter's The Caretaker, to Laurence Olivier's homebody son in The Entertainer, to the fugitive in Whistle Down the Wind and the honest young dreamer in A Kind of Loving, these early roles are stamped with the Alan Bates signature: he became his character in every detail: his eyes, his hands, his posture and breath belonged to the role he was playing -- one reason that these films are still so engaging. Directors who worked with Bates noted that he had an almost childlike absence of ego. It was as though he kept a space in himself vacant into which his current character could be poured.

Old Friends

Alan Bates's professional relationships lasted a lifetime, and included associations with the great contemporary writers, directors and actors of this rich period in English theatre and filmmaking. As film historian Brian McFarlane says, "His work is central to any study of British cinema of the last three decades."
He appeared in eleven Simon Gray plays, which are among his finest work: Spoiled (BBC, 968), Butley (stage and film 1972), Plaintiffs & Defendants and Two Sundays (BBC 1975), Otherwise Engaged (1975), Stage Struck (1977), Melon (1987), Unnatural Pursuits (tv 1991), and Simply Disconnected (1996), a sequel to Otherwise Engaged; and Life Support, their final collaboration, (1997).

He worked with Harold Pinter at least six times: The Collection (Granada, 1976), The Caretaker (stage and film, 1964); The Go-Between (Pinter screenplay, 1971); One for the Road (1984); Victoria Station (1984); Life Support (Pinter directing,1997); four major roles with Laurence Olivier: The Collection (tv, 1976); The Entertainer (1964); The Three Sisters (film,1969, also directed by Olivier); and Voyage Round My Father (tv, 1982); John Schlesinger directed him in four films: A Kind of Loving (1962), Far from the Madding Crowd (1966), Separate Tables (tv, 1983), and An Englishman Abroad (1983).He did two classic Alan Bennett plays [the two Alans are shown at here during a break in filming]: An Englishman Abroad (BBC, 1983) which has been called one of the most perfect hours of television ever filmed, and 102 Boulevard Haussmann (BBC, 1991). His two films with director John Frankenheimer, The Fixer (1968) and Impossible Object (Story of a Love Story, 1973) are neglected gems.
He performed often with Glenda Jackson and Julie Christie, and his recent Cleopatra, Frances de la Tour. On location for The Return of the Soldier, with Jackson. Christie and Ann-Margret, "The quality of their harmonious relationship owed a tremendous amount to the shrewd diplomacy of the amiable Alan Bates. He became their go-between, acting as a buffer to any possible clashes. ... By constantly deflecting their conversations onto neutral subjects, it was not long before the three female stars were chatting about recipes and restaurants, which, certainly as far as Glenda was concerned, was no mean achievement." [from Glenda Jackson: A Study in Fire and Ice, by Ian Woodward, St. Martin's Press, 1985.] Many articles over the years show a man at ease with himself - supporting his colleagues, confident of his abilities without the show of ego that sometimes afflicts great artists.
The Far From the Madding Crowd pressbook reveals another side to Alan Bates. "The son of a cellist father, ... and of a mother who also was devoted to music, the actor had never drawn on his musical heritage until he was required to play the flute for a sequence. ...He could easily have faked the playing but, instead, started taking lessons several weeks before filming began. As a result, when audiences see the picture, it is flautist Alan Bates on the soundtrack. 'My parents were terribly pleased when they came to visit me on location in Weymouth and heard me play,' he says proudly. ... Since time was of the essence, the actor spent every evening practicing on a century-old flute. Bates admits that during that week there were some knockings on the walls from guests in adjoining rooms."


In 1970, Bates married Victoria Ward. Their twin sons, Benedick and Tristan, were born in 1971. (When asked in an interview about his work in The Go-Between, he said, "The thing I mostly remember about the filming was that my children were about to be born, so I was rather preoccupied!") In 1990, tragedy struck: Tristan died during an asthma attack while working as a model in Tokyo. Two years later Alan's wife died. According to a 1994 interview with Matt Wolf of the Washington Times, "the actor's busy schedule in recent years has helped him recover from the death of his son ... and then that of his wife. ... His most recent stage appearances in London were dedicated to their memories: David Storey's Stages to his wife; Thomas Bernhard's The Showman to his son."
Reporters including Simon Fanshawe of the Times, have noted the poignance of Bates's 1997 role in Life Support, in which he attempted to revive his comatose wife, and struggled to come to terms with guilt and grief. Bates himself called the play cathartic. "I had pure ambition," he said in the Fanshawe interview. "But when terrible things happen in your life, your priorities are changed - not sharply, but subtly and slowly. You think about somebody like Tristan and think he would probably 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."
Alan Bates was appointed C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire) in the 1995 Queen's Birthday Honours, and attended the December ceremony accompanied by his mother, his brother, Martin Bates, and his son, Benedick. He was knighted in the 2003 New Year Honours, only weeks before he learned that he had cancer.
Actor Benedick Bates has been praised for work, including Edinburgh Festival performances of Schiller's Don Carlos; Vanbrugh's Restoration comedy The Relapse, for the Glasgow Citizens Company; and for his Chichester Festival appearances in the Turgenev comedy Fortune's Fool , and in Simon Gray's Simply Disconnected, playing opposite his father (in fact, holding him at gunpoint). His recent work includes guest starring roles in "Real Women," "Highlander: the Raven," and "The Bill." "Semi-Monde," a rarely-performed Noel Coward play was a West End success in 2001. Ben was co-starring with Nathan Lane in a sell-out Boston revival of "Butley" in November 2003. It is sad that Alan was unable to see his old friend and son in a play that was so important to him.
The Tristan Bates Theatre was established by the Bates family at the Actors Centre, Covent Garden. Alan was the third Patron of the Centre (which offers a wide range of support services to Equity actors) succeeding Lord Olivier and Sir Alec Guinness, the first and second patrons.

 Bates on Bates

"Can you talk about acting with Alan Bates?" asks Bruce McCabe, of the Boston Globe, in a 1980s interview. 'You can talk around it,' he [Bates] said.
'You can say things about it. But you need understanding of it. It's something that's inside of you. You hope for inspiration to enable you to speak for another person so that the audience will believe that you are that person. I like to let the part creep through me, insinuate itself into me. I like physical things about a part. I can start walking with a stoop without being aware that I'm doing it. I sort of let it come through.' As an actor, Bates says he tends more toward the instinctive than the analytical. 'It has to do with the imagination,' he says. 'It's mysterious. I can't say what it is.'"
In 1990 he wrote the following words in a memorial essay about his friend and colleague Ian Charleson, which might well apply to Alan himself. At the very least, they suggest what was important to him:

I don't know how you define special spirits: you just know them when you meet them. ... Success didn't turn him into a spoiled, ridiculous man who believed in his own image. He was wise. He saw life as a whole thing - not as a series of mistakes and accidents. That, I think, must have been the line which gave him an ability to cope with anything."

Alan Bates revealed his own special spirit through his work. Over the years he gave us an unforgettable gallery of husbands, fathers, lovers, brothers, friends, heroes and villains, each unique, each alive with the Bates blend of humor, passion, intelligence: Gabriel Oak, Rupert Birkin, Saul Kaplan, Yakov Bok, Ben Butley, Michael Henchard, Sergei Diaghilev, Guy Burgess, Hamish Partt, Simon Hench, Jeff Golding, Reg Green, Paul Parsky, and the unforgettable Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin... the list is long, and we will savor our memories of his art for many years to come.

Karen Rappaport
for the Alan Bates Archive
27 January 2004

Written material © copyright Karen Rappaport, 2004; photo copyrights remain with the photographers.