Obituary: Leslie French

DESPITE A remarkably varied career over nearly three-quarters of a century during which he appeared in everything from musical revue and pantomime, through Shakespeare, Milton and Eliot and a final trenchant cameo on television in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986), Leslie French (like his fellow vertically- challenged and similarly farouche contemporary Richard Goolden, the perennial Mole of Toad of Toad Hall) is fated always to be associated primarily with one particular role.

But then his Ariel, first tackled during an annus mirabilis at the Old Vic in a 1930 Tempest to John Gielgud's first Prospero, a memorable performance in itself, also received a kind of immortality often denied to much starrier actors. The performances of Gielgud and French, the talk of London at the time, inspired Eric Gill's carving of Prospero with his staff towering over Ariel above the entrance to the then brand new Broadcasting House in Portland Place (and Ariel remains the title of the BBC house magazine).

All of French's early background and training informed and nourished his Ariel (which he played on numerous occasions during his career) and other memorable performances of Shakespeare's elementals and clowns as well as his equally striking Attendant Spirit in several revivals of Milton's Comus at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, of which he became a mainstay at the height of his career.

He was born in Bromley in 1906. His education in the London School of Choristers developed a natural musical talent and he was incurably stagestruck even before his first appearance as a boy actor in a 1914 Christmas show at the Little Theatre. He joined the touring Ben Greet Company as soon as he could leave school (aged 14), basically as a general dogsbody and prompter, and those apprentice years with Greet fuelled his passion for Shakespeare.

His singing ability and physical grace (he was a first-rate dancer and a superb skater well into old age) landed him an early West End job in 1929 at the Hippodrome, understudying Bobby Howes as the lovelorn hero of Vivian Ellis's musical Mr Cinders, taking over the title role and its hit song "Spread a Little Happiness" on the subsequent regional tour.

Then in 1930 he joined the Old Vic at the beginning of a golden period in its history. After a mutually wary interview, Lilian Baylis had grudgingly agreed a salary of pounds 20 a week for John Gielgud, then an emergent West End star, to join the company. With a run of parts including his first attempts at Hamlet, Lear, Prospero and Macbeth (as well as Anthony, Malvolio and Richard II), Gielgud made the Waterloo Road a vital address for classically-minded younger actors and both Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier soon followed him south of the river. French's Old Vic roles included Poins in Henry IV, Part I (the first production to see Gielgud and Richardson share the same stage), Eros in Antony and Cleopatra, the Fool in Lear and his Ariel.

Under the Old Vic's director Harcourt Williams, an enthusiastic vegetarian dispensing Bemax and occasional inspiration in equal measure, The Tempest (much influenced by directorial input from Gielgud, who was particularly helpful to Richardson in finding his feet as Caliban) was a revelation, not least because of featuring the first male Ariel for a century.

Haunting in the songs, French also found a compelling and deeply touching tension between the fey sprite and the dispenser of practical magic, creating a vulnerably androgynous figure torn between devotion to his master and his yearning to be free. The performance created an additional frisson through French's athletic body- language, his supple body naked except for a minute loincloth (remarkably daring for the English stage in 1930).

After his Old Vic seasons French appeared under Gielgud's direction in one of the 1930s most tantalising near-misses when Rodney Ackland's Strange Orchestra (St Martin's, 1932) received a West End production after a previous try-out at the Embassy Theatre. In this oddity of a mood-piece, set against a louche inter-war Bohemian London in a Bloomsbury flat peopled by lodgers including the lost and the criminal, French played Jimmie, a highly-strung young man intensely involved with fellow-lodger Laura, living just on the edge of things, sensitive and drifting.

Their joint suicide bid galvanised the latter sections of a strange but always absorbing play which despite mainly positive notices (including a perceptive one from James Agate) never caught on at the box-office. The production had not been helped by Mrs Patrick Campbell, long considered unemployable, living up to her reputation as a sinking ship firing on its rescuers. Gielgud risked casting her as Vera, the feckless but generous- spirited landlady at the centre of the play, but after rehearsing gloriously for a fortnight and promising to deliver a magnificent comeback, she flounced out of the production, claiming to understand neither the play nor her characters ("She's not quite a lady, is she? Who are all these people? Does Gladys Cooper know them?"). French, however, emerged extremely well from this succes d'estime.

Shortly afterwards, he worked for the first time at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. His first season was in 1933 and he last worked there in 1958, in somewhat unlikely but extremely successful tandem with the mighty and titan-voiced Robert Atkins, poles apart physically and temperamentally from the slight and urban figure of French. Over those years he often played Ariel and Puck (the latter performance well up to the standard of his Ariel, although his one attempt at Bottom was an experiment that did not come off), as well as a Mercutio of quicksilver wit and panache, Sylvins, Costard, Pisanio, Grumio and a Feste steeped in self-mocking accidie.

Few actors have matched his record in Shakespeare's elementals and zanies; even fewer have managed to invest so many of them with such a potent blend of mischief and otherworldliness. He also directed several times at the Park (The Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It were especially successful), and his subsequent directional career took him on many occasions to South Africa. He helped establish the open air Maynardville Theatre in Cape Town, where the productions had multi-racial casts and audiences; as well as playing familiar roles such as Puck and Touchstone, he was also unexpectedly successful as Shylock.

Really meaty stage roles were thinner on the ground at home in his later years (sadly he never had an opportunity to play a part in which he would have been perfectly cast - the mysterious Lob in J.M. Barrie's Dear Brutus), but he brought lethally silky precision to Dr Warburton in T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion at Guildford (1968) and in Robin Phillips's starry revival of Christopher Fry's The Lady's not for Burning in 1972 he adapted so well so quickly to his first experience of the difficult Chichester hexagonal stage (years of Regent's Park experience coming in useful here) that Richard Chamberlain, Anna Calder-Marshall and even that most larcenous of supporting actors, Harold Innocent, had to look extremely sharp whenever French, in the minor but in his hands tellingly rewarding part of the Chaplain, was on stage.

He had more luck with television work as theatre opportunities dwindled, perhaps most memorably in a BBC Classic Serial of Jane Austen's Emma in which his unshowy but slyly unsentimental reading of the solipsistic Mr Woodhouse not only made the valetudinarian old monster paradoxically sympathetic, but also effortlessly stole the production away from every other actor in it.

Leslie Richard French, actor and director: born Bromley, Kent 23 April 1904; died Ewell, Surrey 21 January 1999.