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Finlay, Frank (1926-)


Main image of Finlay, Frank (1926-)

Possessed of a steely gaze and almost vulpine features, Frank Finlay was a powerful, occasionally intimidating presence on stage or screen. In a varied career spanning five decades he proved extremely adaptable, essaying dashing swashbucklers, forbidding patriarchs and bizarre eccentrics with equal aplomb.

Born in Farnworth in 1926, he dabbled in dramatics at an early age, playing the Mad Hatter in a school play. At the age of 13 he followed his father into the butchering trade, but a holiday job as assistant stage manager and juvenile actor led to a season in rep and eventually a scholarship to RADA. Upon graduating he spent several seasons at the Royal Court, and in 1964 was approached by Laurence Olivier to play Iago to his Othello at the National Theatre. Although Finlay's stage performance was not initially praised by critics, he received an Academy Award nomination when the production was recorded and released as a film by Stuart Burge the following year.

Throughout the 60s he had a succession of minor parts in television and film, but did not attain lead status until 1967, playing Jean Valjean in a 10-part adaptation of Les Miserables (BBC, 1967). However, it was as the titular Venetian adventurer and eroticist in Casanova (BBC, 1971) that he first captured the public's imagination. Dennis Potter's script, which required Finlay to age from 30 to 73, characterised Casanova as an individual seeking to escape the prohibitions of eighteenth century high society, and Finlay's striking interpretation struck a chord with viewers. He subsequently won BAFTAs for his paranoid lead performance in The Death of Adolf Hitler (ITV, tx. 7/1/1973), and as Sancho Panza, playing opposite Rex Harrison in The Adventures of Don Quixote (Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 7/1/1973).

In film he played Porthos in The Three Musketeers (d. Richard Lester, 1973) and The Four Musketeers (d. Lester, 1974), and also appeared in The Wild Geese (d. Andrew V. McLaglen, 1978) as priest Father Geogahan. Another defining television role came with Bouquet of Barbed Wire (ITV, 1976), in which he played Peter Manson, a doting father whose comfortable middle class existence disintegrates following his daughter's engagement to what he perceives to be an unsuitable American. The subsequent sexual entanglements proved so popular with Friday night viewers that a sequel, Another Bouquet (ITV, 1977), was immediately commissioned.

Subsequent decades saw more guest appearances than leading roles, including a memorable turn as the unsavoury Witchsmeller Pursuivant in The Black Adder (BBC, tx. 13/7/1983), and Marley's ghost to George C. Scott's Scrooge in an American production of A Christmas Carol (1984). In the late 90s he portrayed another disapproving father in Simon Nye's offbeat sitcom, How Do You Want Me? (BBC, 1998-1999); as flint-eyed farmer Astley Yardley, his glowering attempts to split up daughter Charlotte Coleman and misfit Dylan Moran sounded an at times disturbing note. Later roles included Jane Tennison's father in Prime Suspect: The Final Act (ITV, 2006), and Anhora, the keeper of the unicorns, in Merlin (BBC, 2008).

Richard Hewett

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