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So much more than just an (un)pretty face: Pete Postlethwaite (1946-2011)/ Susannah York (1939-2011)

January 16, 2011

The craggy one and the classy one: Pete Postlethwaite, a peerless actor loved by his peers and the people (l); Susannah York, a Swinging Sixties beauty blessed too with beautiful talent (r)

He was one of the greatest actors of his generation; she was a seriously underrated actress and one of the faces of the Swinging Sixties. As widely reported across the world media, the great Pete Postlethwaite died on January 2 aged just 64. Now tributes too will doubtless pour in for the unforgettable Susannah York, who died yesterday, also too young, at the age of 72.

Both were instantly recognisable – Postlethwaite for his extraordinary looks (skull-like head and piercing eyes); York for her glorious looks (almost aristocratic beauty, big blue expressive eyes and delectably wide mouth) – and they both started out in UK theatre (the former regionally; the latter at RADA), but then their careers went in diametrically different directions. Postlethwaite was a slow-burner, building up a brilliant reputation before hitting it big in later life; York became a household name almost immediately, moving into intriguing theatre-based roles in later years.

Pete Postlethwaite earned his stripes in the early 1970s at Liverpool’s experimental and exciting Everyman Theatre – in fact, at the same time, impressively but importantly, as major talents such as Bill Nighy, Anthony Sher, Jonathan Pryce and Julie Walters (with whom, as a young man, he had a relationship).

He was born into a Roman Catholic family in Warrington (then in Lancashire, now part of Greater Manchester) and worked as a teacher before training as an actor at Bristol’s Old Vic theatre. The radical atmosphere at the Everyman Theatre, however, proved critical in his development, as he quickly established himself as a star turn among the exciting talent around him, which often found itself getting stuck into brand new work from the then young (now legendary) Liverpool dramatists Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale.

In 1981, he was cast in the BBC TV ‘Play for the Day’ The Muscle Market, a black comedy written by Bleasdale, playing the hapless protagonist getting caught up in Liverpool’s criminal underworld. Despite attracting rave reviews for his performance, it didn’t prove his major screen breakthrough. Regardless, Postlethwaite focused on theatre work again for much of the ’80s, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) at Stratford-upon-Avon, where he took on supporting – yet universally praised – roles opposite the likes of old friend Anthony Sher and the young Kenneth Branagh.

A master at work: a young Pete Postlethwaite in a version of Coriolanus at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre (l) and, an older but no less passionate, powerful, exciting and risk-taking actor, in The Usual Suspects (r) – as an enigma with a Japanese name and a Pakistani accent

Then, come 1988 – admittedly following one or two other bits on TV including an appearance on soap Coronation Street and a well received role in the British comedy film A Private Function (1984) – he finally achieved serious on-screen notice for his performance as a domineering, sometimes brutal working-class father in Terence Davis’s 1940s-set working class family drama Distant Voices, Sill Lives (1988). From then on his face became instantly recognisable to British TV audiences in a truly wide variety of character roles, most notably including an army sergeant in the Sean Bean-starring Napoleonic drama Sharpe and as Montague Tigg in a 1994 BBC dramatisation of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. And his talents soon went global as he was cast in Jim Sheridan’s mesmering film based on the wrongly imprisoned ‘Guildford Four’, In The Name Of The Father (1993) – see video below (warning: the clip features gratuitous swearing).

As Guiseppe Conlon, father of the film’s central character Gerry Conlon played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Postlethwaite delivered perhaps the best performance of his screen career and was rightly awarded an Oscar nomination for his troubles. Subtle, disciplined, dignified and highly affecting, his take on the character has since been claimed by the real Gerry Conlon to be so close to his father that it brought tears to his eyes and, for the same reason, that Guiseppe Conlon’s widow simply embraced Postlethwaite on meeting him at the movie’s premiere.

Now the floodgates opened, as Postlethwaite finally found himself under seige with major offers from Hollywood. He excelled in roles in everything from The Usual Suspects (1995) and Spielberg’s Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997) to Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Brassed Off (1996), in which he delivered a much-loved turn as a 1980s Yorkshire colliery band conductor. At the turn of the millennium he was considered one of the globe’s pre-eminent character actors, both by his peers and – it’s pretty safe to say – by the public too (Spielberg referred to him as the ‘greatest actor in the world’). And, having finally reached this stage, he decided to, well, go back to the stage, being wonderfully received (now as a middle-aged, mature actor) as Prospero in The Tempest and as King Lear, the latter being a production put on both for him and the 40th anniversary of Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre.

In 2009 he nailed his colours to the mast, quite literally, by starring in The Age Of Stupid, a ‘drama-documentary-animation hybrid’ promoting wider awareness of climate change issues, and stating at its release to the UK Government’s then Environment Secretary Ed Milliband that he would return his OBE, awarded in 2004, if the plan to open a new coal-powered power station in Kent saw fruition. A Labour Party supporter all his life, and deeply political, he threw into the mix a threat to leave the party too. The result? Just a month later the plan was scrapped.

No doubt the UK Government’s U-Turn on the power station had more behind it than Postlethwaite’s very public standing, yet to think it had nothing to do with it too is surely to underestimate just how big a name and how deeply regarded and loved an actor Pete Postlethwaite had become in Britain and across the globe.

By contrast, Susannah York’s life and career – especially its beginnings – have always seemed glamorous. She was born into a middle-class background in Chelsea, London, in 1939 – real name: Susannah Yolande Fletcher. Her father was a stockbroker and, following her parents’ divorce, she was predominantly brought up in Scotland. Returning to England and, looking to launch a career as an actress, she studied at RADA in the late ’50s, winning its Ronson award for most promising student.

She didn’t have to wait long for her first film role, coming as it did in the 1960 movie Tunes Of Glory, opposite Alec Guinness and John Mills. The following year she landed her first leading role as a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood in the coming-of-age drama The Greengage Summer, co-starring Kenneth More, Danielle Darrieux and Jane Asher. In spite of the film’s dark tone, in his 1978 autobiography, More referred to it as one of the happiest he had ever made and that the 21-year-old Susannah York was ‘a delightful creature’.

Soon cinema audiences across the globe were in agreement with him, thanks to her appearing as Albert Finney’s love interest in Tom Jones (1963), the multi-Oscar-winning period comedy based on the classic novel by Henry Fielding. York’s film career was now off and away and as the decade progressed she starred in such varied fare as the – again multi-Oscar-winning – A Man For All Seasons (1966) about Henry VIII’s legendary relationship with his Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas More, lesbian-themed offbeat drama The Killing Of Sister George (1968), World War One musical satire Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) and the ever popular, starry wartime adventure Battle Of Britain (1969).

It was with an American film, though the Depression-era comedy drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), co-starring Jane Fonda, that she scored her biggest critical success. For her role as a delusional ‘platinum blonde’, she won a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actress and was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe in the same category. At the time, she strangely cited anger at being nominated for the Oscar without first being asked; stranger still, she then attended the ceremony.

All mod cons: Susannah York, star of the Swinging Sixties, caught out looking cheeky both by photographer Philip Townshend (left) and in a scene from Battle Of Britain (right)

Susannah York, however, will perhaps be most fondly recalled as an undeniable figure of London’s Swinging Sixties period in the mid-’60s, when film, theatre, art and the zeitgeist of the time seemed literally to revolve around the centre of Britain’s capital, with both the upper- and middle-class movers and shakers of the cultural firmament (The Queen’s cousin, photographer Lord Lichfield, say) rubbing shoulders with working-class upstarts (for example, Michael Caine and The Beatles). Into this mix whirled the young, attractive, talented girls of the moment, such as Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Marianne Faithful and Julie Christie (whom York somewhat resembled). York herself too then, was undeniably one of these girls – seemingly photographed by trendy phtographers like Philip Townshend, and thus being part of the moment, as much as she was starring in the movies of the time.

That sort of profile can only last so long, mind, and come the ’70s, hers began to fade. There were one or two high-profile films, though – the South Africa-set mine adventure Gold (1974) co-starring James Bond himself Roger Moore, as well as a cameo opposite Marlon Brando in Superman (1978) as the comic book hero’s mother (and, yes, she certainly did still look good in ’78). In fact, she also won the 1972 Best Actress award at Cannes Film Festival for her role in Robert Altman’s psychological thriller Images, in which a children’s fantasy novel she’d written In Search Of Unicorns (1973) was actually excerpted – she would go on to write another, Lark’s Castle (1976).

From the end of the ’70s onwards, York really focused on theatre. Her work in ’60s cinema had seen her in a collection of high-quality, interesting roles and her forays on-stage would be no different. In 1978 she starred on the London stage in The Singular Life of Alfred Nobbs, then the following year she appeared in Paris, acting in French in the Henry James-penned Appearances. In the ’90s she made headlines by starring in RSC productions of Hamlet and The Merry Wives Of Windsor. Earlier, in the ’80s, she revealed the rebellious spirit of the ’60s hadn’t left her when she became an anti-nuclear campaigner in dramatic fashion, calling for the release of Israeli dissident Mordechai Vanunu, who had been jailed for revealing to the world his country’s nuclear weapons programme.

In recent years her face has remained in the public eye thanks to a role in the high-profile TV drama series Holby City and Casualty, while in 2007 she appeared in a UK national tour of Wuthering Heights and just last year received critical acclaim for her acting all over again in a triple bill of Tennessee Williams plays in London.

In the end, though, despite being an icon of the Swinging Sixties and to some extent representative of its feminine freedoms (she divorced her husband of 16 years in 1976 and took a number of acting jobs merely to pay the bills as she brought up her children), she liked to describe herself as rather a home-body and lover of family. She was survived by her two children and her two grandchildren, whom by all accounts – like the world did her, especially its male half – she loved dearly.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2011 12:05 pm

    Being the big wuss that I am, I actually cried when I heard about Pete’s passing. One of Britain’s greatest actors who will be sadly missed.

    It seems incredible that we should lose Susannah York at the same time. A wonderful actress who was, by all accounts, also a wonderful human being.

    Thank you for paying such a respectful homage to these greats of theatre and screen, Georgio.



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