Ben Aris

Versatile actor in 'Hamlet' and 'Hi-De-Hi!'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Benjamin Patrick Aris, actor: born London 16 March 1937; married (one son, one daughter); died Esher, Surrey 4 September 2003.

Ben Aris was one of those versatile actors who form the backbone of British drama. Lean and moustached, he excelled as very British officials, often pompous or slightly ridiculous, but he was equally adept playing Shakespeare, Pinero or Rattigan.

His roles ranged from Rosencrantz in Tony Richardson's boisterous production of Hamlet to the dancing instructor Julian Dalrymple-Sykes in Hi-De-Hi!, but theatregoers may best remember him for a role he created in the West End, the diffident Geoffrey, the only male member of a provincial tap-dancing class, in Richard Harris's hit comedy Stepping Out. The show's producer Bill Kenwright remembered him as

a lovely, lovely man, very much like his character in the play - he never pushed himself. He was a dedicated professional, totally reliable, who played in the West End production for a year and never missed a performance.

Born in London in 1937, Aris enrolled at the age of seven at the Arts Educational School and trained there until he was 13, the age at which he was cast in his first film, Gordon Parry's respectable version of Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951), in which he played the schoolboy Tadpole. As a youth he also appeared on television (in the Muffin the Mule series) and on the radio, as one of the "Ovaltinies". Training at the Buddy Bradley School of Dance accentuated his natural poise and elegance, and at the age of 16 he toured in the chorus of the musical which had been a London hit for George Formby, Zip Goes a Million.

After doing National Service, he played small roles in many musicals, including two notorious disasters, John Osborne's satire on the press, The World of Paul Slickey (1959), and Lionel Bart's homage to Robin Hood, Twang! (1965). Happier vehicles were One Over the Eight (1961), a revue starring Kenneth Williams with sketches by Peter Cook, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1963), the joyous Burt Shevelove/Stephen Sondheim musical starring Frankie Howerd as a resourceful Roman slave.

Aris was given one of his first notable film roles when he was cast as the foppish Captain Maxse in Tony Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). Richardson then gave him the role of Rosencrantz in the Round House production of Hamlet (1969), for which Nicol Williamson in the title role won the Evening Standard drama award. When the production went to New York, where it played at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for six weeks before touring the United States, Aris not only recreated his performance as Rosencrantz but understudied Polonius.

The illustrious cast included Francesca Annis, Constance Cummings, Patrick Wymark, Mark Dignam, Roger Livesey, Michael Elphick and Gordon Jackson, and the ensemble included the 17-year-old Anjelica Huston, who understudied Annis as Ophelia. When Tony Richardson directed a film version of the production later in the year the cast was substantially different (Marianne Faithfull was controversially cast as Ophelia), but Aris and Williamson repeated their roles.

Parts at the Royal Court and National Theatre followed, and Aris became a favourite of such directors as Richardson, Lindsay Anderson and Ken Russell, who were at the forefront of the movement to make the British stage and screen more adventurous and less middle-class. Aris was cast in Russell's films The Music Lovers (1971), Savage Messiah (1972) and Tommy (1975), and played the poet Robert Southey in two hour-long television films made by Russell about the Lake poets and collectively titled Clouds of Glory (1978) - David Warner was Wordsworth in one and David Hemmings played Coleridge in the other. Aris also had roles in Anderson's film If . . . (1968) and its sequel O Lucky Man! (1973).

Aris's dancing skills were put to effectively humorous use when he was cast as the flamboyant ballroom instructor in the holiday-camp sitcom Hi-De-Hi! (1984-88), and were further displayed in the play Stepping Out (1984), particularly in the spectacular all-dancing finale. The year after the London production opened, Aris repeated his role of Geoffrey in a world tour of the show produced by Derek Nimmo. The actress Hilary Crane, wife of the play's author Richard Harris, was in the cast and remembers the actor's dedication and genial disposition:

He was in very much the same situation as the character in the play, the only man in a company of women, but he got along with everybody beautifully. He was a very knowledgeable wine connoisseur and a dedicated bird-watcher, a "twitcher" who, when not working, would get out his binoculars and be off sighting rare species in the various countries we visited.

Aris's other stage work included Pinero's The Second Mrs Tanqueray at the National, Rattigan's The Winslow Boy at the Lyric in London, Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession at the Orange Tree in Richmond, Eurydice and Monsieur Amilcar in Chichester and national tours in Michael Frayn's Donkey's Years, John Mortimer's Voyage Round My Father and Noël Coward's Present Laughter. His films included the popular thriller Get Carter (1971), The Ritz (1976), in which he was the patron of a bath-house which becomes the setting for some farcical events, and a surreal comedy about the mores of the British nobility, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1980), in which he played Lord Tarquin of Staines.

His last films were Relative Values (2000), based on the Noël Coward play and starring Julie Andrews, and Up at the Villa (2000), a tepid adaptation of a novella by W. Somerset Maugham. His last appearance in the West End was in support of Maggie Smith in Alan Bennett's hit play The Lady in the Van (1999).

Tom Vallance