Obituary: Marius Goring

IN A long and distinguished career, the actor Marius Goring played many roles both sinister and authoritative, but he will be best remembered for his screen appearance as the wonderfully quizzical, humorous dandy who was executed during the French Revolution but returns to claim for Heaven a pilot who has overstayed his time on Earth in A Matter of Life and Death. Surveying the vivid hues of a mass of rhododendrons, he wistfully sighs, "One is starved of Technicolor up there." The actor also worked extensively in the theatre, starred in the hit television series The Expert and was controversially involved in the struggles within his union, Actors' Equity.

Because of his suave, continental looks, Goring was often assumed to be foreign, but was born in Newport, Isle of Wight, in 1912. His father was a doctor and criminologist who died the 1918 flu epidemic, when Marius was six; his mother, the former Katie MacDonald, was a pianist who had studied with Clara Schumann. Educated at Cambridge and at the universities of Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna and Paris, Goring determined on a stage career while in his early teens - he first appeared on stage in a Cambridge production at 13 - and studied under Harcourt Williams and at the Old Vic dramatic school from 1929 to 1932.

He made his professional debut in 1927, and toured the continent playing classical roles - he was fluent in both French and German. In 1932 he joined the Old Vic, stage-managing two seasons and playing both Romeo and Macbeth among other roles in 1932-34. He made his film debut in Thornton Freeland's The Amateur Gentleman (1935), the screenplay of which was co- written by Clemence Dane, and the following year Goring had a great personal success in the West End production of Dane's play The Happy Hypocrite with a performance Michael Powell was later to describe as "stunning".

Powell cast him in one of his first important film roles, the young U- boat captain Schuster in the absorbing espionage thriller The Spy in Black (1939), and the director later wrote of Goring's "intelligence and impudent charm". Just after the outbreak of war, Goring caused a minor sensation when he portrayed Hitler on a radio series History of the Nazi Party.

The BBC had determined to keep the casting anonymous, but thousands of listeners demanded to know who was giving a performance described by one newspaper as "as full-blooded and emotional as anything that has been heard over the air". ("Man Who Played BBC Hitler is Mr Goring" ran the Daily Mirror headline.)

Already having gained a reputation for playing violently neurotic young men, Goring played just such a role on screen in the Edgar Wallace thriller The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940). He served briefly as a soldier before being loaned to the Foreign Office to broadcast to Germany for the BBC (under the name of Charles Richardson). "We decided not to invent things, but to tell the German people the truth," said Goring. "By the end, the whole government listened to us for their information. It helped to shorten the war."

With the war's end, Goring was given his memorable role of Conductor 71, the aristocrat who lost his head in the French Revolution ("my little operation") in Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946). In 1947 he toured the British zone of Germany performing (in German) Ibsen's Rosmersholm, Shaw's Too True To Be Good and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

He was a screen villain again in Ronald Neame's excellent thriller Take My Life (1947) and was set by Neame to star opposite Ann Todd in The Passionate Friends, but when Neame was replaced as director by David Lean, Goring found himself replaced by Trevor Howard. "David really disliked me," Goring told Kevin Brownlow, "and didn't want me in the film".

Instead the actor rejoined Powell and Pressburger to play Julian, the young composer of The Red Shoes (1948). "He was really too old," wrote Powell later, adding, "It was odd casting, but it worked." Goring would later state that the film he made with Powell and Pressburger were his personal favourites. "Those films were in a totally different category from any others I've done. They were such a delight to work with, and so inventive and they gave actors great scope."

The actor gave one of his finest screen performance as a disillusioned and frustrated schoolmaster, in Lawrence Huntington's Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (1948). "It was a change," said Goring, "because most of the time I was playing Nazi officers when I wasn't working for Powell." He had a small but important role as a musician fatally obsessed with Ava Gardner in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), and a rare romantic leading role as a Nazi officer in love with Maria Schell in So Little Time (1952). "A touching little film," said Goring, "my favourite apart form the Powell films. It was too soon after the war and people thought every German was a horror . . . it's timing was wrong."

But the actor's prime love remained the stage. "I can't say I think much of my later films . . . I never envisaged myself as a film actor, preferring the theatre." Later stage successes included a season at Stratford-on Avon in 1953, A Penny for a Song (1962), The Bells (1968), Anthony Schaffer's Sleuth (1970-73) and Shaw's The Applecart (1986). Television also brought the actor considerable acclaim - in 1955-56 he was Sir Percy Blakeney in a 39-episode series The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel and he starred in a popular series about a forensic scientist, The Expert (1968- 69, the first BBC2 series to be filmed in colour), which was brought back for further seasons in 1971 and 1976. He was also featured in Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1983).

It was during the Seventies that Goring, upset at the influence the Workers Revolutionary Party was having on the activities of Actors' Equity, started a lengthy and costly battle on behalf of the "moderates". He took Equity to court three times, first to ensure that decisions could only be taken after a referendum of all members (a case he won), then to prevent union funds being donated to striking miners.

In 1992, with Equity forbidding its members to visit South Africa or British television programmes to be shown there, Goring went to court to have the policy declared unconstitutional. "We all abhor apartheid," he stated, "and have vowed not to perform in front of segregated audiences. But we are preventing English actors and actresses from making money they need."

His ambition was to take Goldsmith's play She Stoops to Conquer to South Africa with an all-black cast. "The play is about two men who think the owners of an upper-class home are innkeepers and treat them accordingly. It questions why we treat people differently according to their position in society." He added, "I don't give a damn about who's left or right. My concern is to protect actors' and actresses' welfare. I have always loved my profession and I always will, no matter where it leads."

He lost his case, and was faced with a bill for costs that almost bankrupted him. Married three times, his second wife was the German actress Lucie Mannheim. After her death in 1976, he married the television director Prudence FitzGerald, who had directed him in The Expert and who said yesterday, "He was a wonderful man, totally stimulating, and I was very happy to be married to him."

Marius Goring, actor, manager, director: born Newport, Isle of Wight 23 May 1912; Hon FRSL 1976; CBE 1991; married 1931 Mary Westwood Steele (one daugher; marriage dissolved), 1941 Lucie Mannheim (died 1976), 1977 Prudence FitzGerald; died Rushlake Green, East Sussex 30 September 1998.

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