Obituary: David March

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The Independent Culture
AT THE age of six David March played the White Rabbit in a production of Alice in Wonderland standing on a chair. "I shouted the first line so loudly that the audience fell out of their seats. I knew I had a voice," he said. He also knew that he had to become an actor.

What he did not know until some time later was that for most of his career his performances would be heard and not seen. For nearly 50 years David March was one of the most sought-after and admired of those members of the acting profession who devote themselves almost exclusively to working in radio. As a leading man or character actor he was a master of the art and craft of performing the widest range of roles with truth and subtlety through the voice alone. This mastery was publicly acknowledged when he received the 1985 Sony Award for Best Radio Actor for his performance in a dramatisation of Mr Norris Changes Trains.

Highly intelligent, controlledly emotional, very musical and a chameleon by nature, he explored the sound medium with unequalled versatility. His performances, even in minor supporting roles, always possessed a depth to match their variety. The microphone loved him and he returned that love. As a frequent member of the BBC's own Radio Drama Repertory Company (affectionately known locally as "The Rep"), he had the opportunity to play a wide range of parts. The fact that he could undertake several different characters on air in a single week certainly kept boredom at bay, and boredom he dreaded. Also, the clubbable milieu of Broadcasting House in the Fifties and Sixties, even into the Seventies, suited the gregarious side of him and provided the company of numerous, ready-made friends.

Although a very private individual who had once entertained ideas of the Roman Catholic priesthood before becoming a serious Jungian, he enjoyed company. He was a good raconteur with a sharp wit and, at times, an even sharper tongue. Behind this lurked genuine caring and a quiet compassion and his targets were the pretentious, the pompous or the unprofessional.

He trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art during the mid-years of the Second World War, when the majority of students were, inevitably, female. Miriam Karlin, a coeval, recalls playing a distaff Rosencrantz to his highly sensitive Hamlet in a production whose court had about it more women than just Gertrude and Ophelia.

On leaving Rada, after seasons in repertory at St Andrews and Perth, he joined Robert Atkins and the Shakespeare company at the Stratford Memorial Theatre and instantly made a mark as a juvenile even when playing a minor role such as the Eunuch in Antony and Cleopatra or, more substantially, as Rodrigo in Othello. In 1946 he followed Atkins to the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park in the days when the audience sat in deckchairs and delighted in Shakespeare au champetre. He spent two seasons there playing in the statutory Dream as Flute and Philostrate and as an original and captivating Patroclus in a daring Troilus and Cressida.

He joined the company at the Oxford Playhouse in 1950 and is remembered by the director James Roose-Evans, then a student at Oxford University, as giving two of the most moving and touching performances he has ever seen. These were as M Henri in Jean Anouilh's Point of Departure and as the Clown in Leonid Andreyev's He Who Gets Slapped.

When Roose-Evans subsequently came to run the Hampstead Theatre Club he directed March in a one-man show in 1959 based on the writings of his favourite author, Virginia Woolf, called Stories and Designs. For him he also played St Francis, and Tiresias in Oedipus. At Hampstead in 1964 he had a personal triumph in Marguerite Duras' play The Square which drew plaudits from the percipient (and sometimes idiosyncratic) critic Harold Hobson. Despite this huge critical success, it was to be the last stage performance he gave.

The ubiquitous radio drama producer R.D. Smith had seen March as de Stogumber in Esme Percy's production of Saint Joan, starring Rachel Kempson, at the Q Theatre, a role he was to repeat in the production of Saint Joan with Siobhan McKenna in the lead role. He gave him his first part in a radio play in 1953. The duck was in the water, took to it and never left it. The list of David March's credits over 45 years covers 60 close-typed pages. They read like a catalogue of radio drama over that period, ranging from the most erudite Third Programme production to the highly popular daily serial Mrs Dale's Diary.

In this he played the ongoing part of a fastidious and somewhat pompous author, Richard Fulton, who had an on-off relationship with Mrs Dale's sister, the charming, much-liked Sally, played by Margaret Ward. Eventually the characters married. Then, as the daily soap was wrenched into the Swinging Sixties, both the audience and the actors were shocked when the story-line revealed that Fulton was bisexual. It was daring stuff at the time, but March secretly delighted in the fuss caused.

His own private life was shared with his partner, Derek Lewis, for nearly 40 years. They had in common a love for music, especially opera, and in his younger days March had been a keen violinist. After Lewis developed Parkinson's disease he nursed him devotedly until his death two years ago. A light seemed to have gone out and he was left sad and occasionally depressed, but sustained by a glass of wine and the company of a few good friends. His sudden death, without the pained lingering suffered by his friend, was the end he would have wished.

John Tydeman

David March, actor: born Leamington Spa, Warwickshire 18 February 1925; died London 25 August 1999.