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Finch, Peter (1916-1977)


Main image of Finch, Peter (1916-1977)

A charismatic leading man, who filmed internationally, winning a posthumous Oscar and BAFTA for the overwrought Network (US, d. Sidney Lumet, 1976), but remained essentially a British star.

Born in London on 28 September 1916 and raised in Australia from age 10 (his own accounts of his unconventional youth are notoriously variable), he came back to England in the late 1940s, having been spotted in Australia by Laurence Olivier, who cast him in the Old Vic's Daphne Laureola. He appeared in a half-dozen Australian films, before and during WW2; his first British film role was as the murderer in Ealing's Train of Events ('The Actor' segment, d. Basil Dearden, 1949).

Thereafter, films dominated his career. He seemed to work non-stop during the 1950s, appearing as the Sheriff of Nottingham in The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (d. Ken Annakin, 1952), D'Oyly Carte in The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (d. Sidney Gilliat, 1953), the cultivated thief Flambeau in Father Brown (d. Robert Hamer, 1954), the vain TV star in Simon and Laura (d. Muriel Box, 1955), gallant Aussie Joe Harmon in the POW drama, A Town Like Alice (d. Jack Lee, 1956, a BAFTA), the dignified German captain of the 'Graf Spee', in The Battle of the River Plate (d. Powell and Pressburger, 1956), and - his own favourite - the swagman in Ealing's Australian-set The Shiralee (d. Leslie Norman, 1957). It is a showy line-up of leading roles, and he filled them with consummate, stylish ease.

However, the best was still to be. Not the odd skirmish with Hollywood, such as Elephant Walk (US, d. William Dieterle, 1954) or the negligible The Sins of Rachel Cade (US, d. Gordon Douglas, 1961) or even Robert Aldrich's enjoyably florid The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), but his greatest roles in British cinema. He was an infinitely moving, wearily witty Wilde in The Trials of Oscar Wilde (d. Ken Hughes, 1960, another BAFTA), dead-behind-the-eyes as the shallow, opportunist politician in No Love for Johnnie (d. Ralph Thomas, 1961, a third BAFTA), believably unfaithful husband to too-fecund wife in The Pumpkin Eater (d. Jack Clayton, 1964), an alarmingly obsessive Boldwood in Far from the Madding Crowd (d. John Schlesinger, 1967), wonderfully humane, sympathetic and resigned as the homosexual doctor in Sunday Bloody Sunday (d. Schlesinger, 1971, a fourth BAFTA and an Oscar nomination), and a persuasively battered Nelson in Bequest to the Nation (d. James Cellan Jones, 1973).

It is arguable that no other actor ever chalked up such a rewarding CV in British films, and he accumulated the awards to bolster this view. There were tired and bad films among all these, but he emerged unscathed. Dead of a heart attack at 61, he did not emerge unscathed from a life of well-publicised hell-raising, and several biographies chronicle the affairs and the booze, but a serious appraisal of a great actor remains to be written.

Trader Faulkner, Peter Finch, 1979
Elaine Dundy, Finch, Bloody Finch (1980)

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film


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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)

Last of the Powell/Pressburger partnership - a WWII naval drama

Thumbnail image of Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)

Fascinating, underrated study of a troubled marriage

Thumbnail image of Simon and Laura (1955)Simon and Laura (1955)

Soap opera satire: a real-life couple plays a happier version of themselves

Thumbnail image of Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)

Technicolor biopic of the masters of the Victorian operetta

Thumbnail image of Town Like Alice, A (1956)Town Like Alice, A (1956)

WWII drama about women and children forced to trek across Malaya

Thumbnail image of Wooden Horse, The (1950)Wooden Horse, The (1950)

Three British POWs escape from the notorious Stalag Luft III

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