Obituary: Charles Reading

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The Independent Culture
THE MANY-FACETED Charles Reading was a successful actor, designer, writer and director, but will be best remembered for being an important part of a truly golden era of show business - that decade following the Second World War when the London Palladium headlined the cream of America's entertainers.

Reading was right-hand man to the impresario Val Parnell, and advised on the stars who should be approached and the best way in which to present them to the British public. There were a few failures (notably Mickey Rooney), but most of them triumphed, none more so than Danny Kaye, who broke box-office records and was a sensational hit with both the public and the Royal Family. He was to remain a lifelong friend of Reading, who two years ago recounted the story of Kaye's phenomenal 1948 success at the theatre in a Radio 2 documentary Knock on Wood - The Danny Kaye Story.

If any performer could be said to have surpassed Kaye it was Judy Garland, whose 1951 appearance at the Palladium led to the restoration of her career after her firing by MGM and a suicide attempt. Betty Hutton, Jack Benny, the Andrews Sisters, Carmen Miranda and Frank Sinatra were others who entranced the British public, and many of these stars had praise for Reading - Jack Benny insisted that Reading accompany him on his subsequent tour of Britain. Reading could also claim to be the only man to have directed the Duke of Edinburgh in a film, and was earlier a distinguished actor and scenic designer.

Born in Ealing, west London, in 1911, Reading attended Acton High School, where his father was headmaster, and as a youth acted with local amateur groups. He made his professional acting debut at the Tavistock Little Theatre in London, then appeared at the Q Theatre on Kew Bridge before joining the Stratford-on-Avon Memorial Theatre, where he played many leading roles including Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1939), and also designed sets.

The latter talent brought him an offer from Sadler's Wells to design for their opera and ballet productions - Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin were the company's top ballet stars at the time. From there he moved to the Old Vic to work under Lilian Baylis, then proved himself capable of more commercial work by designing pantomimes, along with several West End shows, for the producer Tom Arnold. Val Parnell, manager of the London Palladium, then signed him to be a both a designer and his right-hand man.

In addition to his sterling work with the acts which headlined the music- hall bills, Reading also staged the Palladium pantomimes with such stars as Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers and Max Bygraves, plus six Royal Variety Performances at the same theatre. In 1955, ATV started to relay Sunday Night at the London Palladium every week on a mould-breaking innovation, commercial television, but Reading left at that time to join Associated Rediffusion as a television director.

He moved back into West End theatre briefly in 1958 when he staged a new musical, Mr Venus, with a score by Trevor H. Stanford (better known as the pianist Russ Conway) and book by Ray Galton and Johnny Speight. Starring Frankie Howerd, with Anton Diffring as a man from space, it was an unmitigated disaster greeted with catcalls of derision from the first- night audience - in the Fifties it seemed that nothing was quite as bad as a bad British musical.

Reading also staged variety shows at the Winter Garden, Blackpool, and continued to work in television, where at an audition he met the singer Sheila Matthews, who was to become his second wife. In 1942, when playing Oberon again at Stratford, he had fallen in love with his Titania, Christine Adrian, and the two married. Christine Adrian later died of cancer and in 1957 Reading married Sheila Matthews and they had two daughters.

One of the most successful television shows produced by Reading was Friday's Girl, a fondly remembered late-night musical show starring his wife, who had a beguiling way with song standards which made her a great television favourite of the time.

In 1957 Reading was hired to direct short films for Rank Screen Services and one of his projects was a film promoting the children's charity Unicef in which Reading directed the Duke of Edinburgh in his only cinema appearance. In the Sixties Reading became less active, though his enthusiasm for opera (which started when he designed a production of Don Carlos at Sadler's Wells) led him to amass a large collection of rare recordings which was often called upon by the BBC, along with Reading's own services as a consultant.

In 1992, he wrote a stage show, Glamorous Nights at Drury Lane, which told the story of the theatre through the reminiscences of its resident ghost. It provided a vehicle for Evelyn Laye's farewell tour, and she also appeared in the show at the Palladium. When Laye fell and broke her hip, the leading role was taken over by Pat Kirkwood, who said: "Charles was an outstandingly creative man of the theatre. He acted, wrote, directed and designed - all at the very highest level. We simply do not have that sort of mega-talent around these days."

Tom Vallance

Charles Reading, actor, theatre director, designer and writer: born London 15 February 1911; married 1942 Christine Adrian (deceased), 1957 Sheila Matthews (two daughters); died Southwick, West Sussex 17 May 1999.