Christopher Downes

Charismatic theatre dresser
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Peter Thomas ("Christopher") Downes, theatre dresser and journalist: born Hendon, Middlesex 22 May 1933; died London 21 November 2003.

As an actor's dresser, Christopher Downes became one of the most charismatic and renowned of the back-stage luminaries who worked at the Old Vic during the great heyday of Laurence Olivier's newly formed National Theatre.

Few outside the acting profession can imagine what qualities and skills this humble-sounding functionary must successfully combine to be on top of the job. Confessor, confidant, candid friend, cheerleader, raconteur, psychologist and nanny - all these and more Downes exemplified in abundance. With his large and capable frame, his bluff Irish good looks, the embracing warmth of his character and his easy natural confidence, he had the personality to inspire a calming trust in even the most nervous or temperamental of actors.

After joining the National Theatre he soon became the favourite dresser of a host of stars including Laurence Olivier, Robert Stephens, Maggie Smith, Colin Blakeley and Albert Finney.

Peter Thomas Downes, the youngest of four children, was born in Hendon, the son of an army sergeant in the HAC and an Irish mother. He renamed himself Christopher after playing Christopher Columbus in a school play.

During the Second World War he was briefly evacuated to Ireland but soon returned to England after his mother obtained a position as housekeeper at a manor-house in Northamptonshire. Among the many grand guests was Winston Churchill, for whom the young Downes would run errands at his mother's behest.

He won a scholarship to Towcester Grammar School and when the family returned to London he finished his education at Willesden Grammar School, where the headmaster noted: "When Downes stops posing he might be very successful."

His first employment was with Simpkin Marshall, the wholesale book distribution company run by the publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, who had spotted Downes as a likely talent and put him in charge of the Maxwell bookshop at the Ideal Home Exhibition. Overcome by a sudden surge of wanderlust Downes then cut adrift and took off to southern France where he spent time on the Isle St Marguerite, then a haunt of rich beatniks. Journeying north to Sweden, he found himself working as a jazz singer in a Stockholm night-club called the Blue Goose, an engagement quickly terminated when, afire with strong Swedish liquor, Downes fell suddenly off the stage in the middle of a number.

Back in London he went to work for the charity SOS as the warden of a hostel off Tottenham Court Road where, placed in charge of highly disturbed inmates, he had his qualities of tact and sympathy tested to the full. Returning to a more conventional way of earning his living Downes next went to Horne Brothers, the gentleman's outfitters, where he discovered that his new-found skill as a bookkeeper allowed him, after his work had been speedily accomplished, to slip away from the office to attend West End matinées.

As a stage-struck young man he had already struck up a friendship with the boisterous American musical star Betty Hutton, after seeking her autograph at the stage-door of the London Palladium. Downes now discovered his true bent and at Shepperton Film Studios he found himself dressing the Beatles as they were being filmed for various television appearances.

His big break came in 1962 when he was summoned to Wyndham's Theatre to dress Michael Redgrave in a play entitled Out of Bounds. Redgrave, notoriously self-critical and highly strung, established with Downes an immediate and easy rapport, finding in him just the kind of sympathetic support he required to quell his first-night fears. He also discovered in Downes a shared love of Milton (Redgrave was then preparing a stage version of Samson Agonistes) and he and Downes would recite to each other long passages of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

When Redgrave was invited by Olivier to join the National Theatre Company in 1963, to appear in Hamlet, Uncle Vanya and Hobson's Choice, he insisted that Downes should accompany him. In 1966, dressing Albert Finney in Feydeau's farce A Flea in Her Ear, Downes achieved a spectacular coup de théâtre. Finney, doubling in the roles of the put-upon householder and the devious caretaker, was required to dive off stage left as the former and rush back on stage right as the latter with barely seconds between exit and entrance. Taking his curtain call, Finney beckoned his dresser to join him on stage. As Downes duly appeared, jauntily carrying the two different costumes, one on each arm, he heard the audience erupt into sustained applause.

During his time at the Old Vic Olivier also became determined to secure Downes's services and Downes acted as Olivier's dresser for his great production of Othello in 1965. Again, there grew up between them an easy camaraderie, with Olivier appreciating his dresser's salty sense of humour and unruffled behaviour in a crisis and Downes never losing his amazement at Olivier's extraordinary ability to immerse himself in a great dramatic role and then the moment he was off-stage to engage with all the pressing and intricate problems of theatre administration.

The actors to whom Downes eventually grew closest, however, were the two great stars of the Robert Stephens/Maggie Smith partnership. It was an association which was to develop into a close and lifelong family friendship.

He worked first for Stephens when he was a rising star of the National Theatre and receiving great acclaim for his performance in The Royal Hunt of the Sun. When Stephens went on location to Edinburgh to join his wife, who was then playing the title role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Downes went too and stayed on to dress Smith.

Again, when Smith and Stephens starred in Noël Coward's Design for Living, first in the West End and afterwards on tour across America, Downes accompanied them. When Stephens was cast in the title role in the film of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Downes's services were written into Stephens's contract. So impressed was Billy Wilder, the director, with Downes's stylishness and verve that he wrote him into the script as a Victorian policeman.

During Stephens's untimely decline into ill-health and alcoholism Downes remained devotedly loyal and did much to sustain Stephens's recovery when his health was restored and his reputation redeemed with superb late performances of Lear and Falstaff.

After leaving his back-stage life Downes remained closely in touch with London theatre. He became a regular theatre contributor to the Camden New Journal and the free sheet West End Extra, for which he wrote lively and perceptive reviews. He also served as an active member on the board of the National Youth Theatre.

For nearly 50 years Downes had shared his life with his partner, Illtyd Harrington, former Chairman of the General London Council. Their maisonette, off Lisson Grove, was open house to a large and eclectic mixture of friends drawn from many worlds with politics, theatre and the arts strongly represented. Peter Mandelson, Fiona Millar and Alastair Campbell were constant visitors.

Friends of Downes and Harrington detected in both of them a merging of the qualities of Falstaff and Prince Hal and suppers in the L-shaped kitchen, prepared by Downes with much flourish and invention, could develop into bacchanalian occasions by the time the chimes of midnight sounded.

Derek Granger

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