Frank Shelley

Talent-spotting artistic director of the Oxford Playhouse
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The Independent Online

One of the many actors who benefited from the guidance of Frank Shelley, during his time (1946-56) as an actor and Artistic Director at the Oxford Playhouse, was Ronnie Barker, who, later, in his beguiling memoir of his early repertory days Dancing in the Moonlight (1993), wrote of Shelley that "without men like these, there would be no theatre".

Frank Shelley, actor and director: born London 6 February 1912; married 1952 Susan Dowdall (marriage dissolved, died 2000; three sons, one daughter); died London 8 November 2004.

One of the many actors who benefited from the guidance of Frank Shelley, during his time (1946-56) as an actor and Artistic Director at the Oxford Playhouse, was Ronnie Barker, who, later, in his beguiling memoir of his early repertory days Dancing in the Moonlight (1993), wrote of Shelley that "without men like these, there would be no theatre".

Shelley indeed was a major figure in the last golden era of true repertory theatre. As a leading and much loved actor-manager (a breed virtually extinct, with only the Globe's Mark Rylance as an outstanding instance), he had a long and distinguished acting career too - always happiest in his favourite dramatists Shaw and Chekhov - with several West End appearances and a later-career Indian summer with three seasons, all offering him juicy roles, at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

It was at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he began reading English, that Shelley's passion for theatre really took hold. He left after a year to study journalism at University College London, but the persuasive influence of Eileen Thorndike, actress-sister of Sybil, took him to the Embassy School (now Central), where she was on the staff, to train as an actor.

Shelley was in considerable demand as soon as he entered the profession; his rich, distinctively timbred voice and commanding looks initially brought him opportunities, mainly in period plays, and early London work included Coriolanus (Old Vic, 1938), with Laurence Olivier in the title role, and good supporting parts in a lavish Henry V (Drury Lane, 1939), with an unlikely but mostly successful Ivor Novello as a mellifluously patriotic hero-king.

In more experimental waters, Shelley was widely noticed as the catalyst-figure of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms (Westminster, 1937). After initial directorial assignments in Scotland for the Perth Repertory Theatre which led to a spell as its Artistic Director, Shelley took up the same post at the intimate Playhouse in Beaumont Street, Oxford, across from the Ashmolean, and turned it into one of the most prestigious regional theatres of the post-war era, offering an enviable range of classic and modern productions alongside box-office fail-safes.

He always encouraged young talent; alongside Barker, discoveries who received early breaks during his regime included a young Maggie Smith ("She has the essential stuff in her" he noted in 1953) and Francis Matthews.

Highlights of Shelley's performances at Oxford included his sprightly Fancourt Babberly, coquettishly energetic in drag in the perennial rep standby of Charley's Aunt and the dragon- landlady (also in drag) in Ben Travers's A Cuckoo in the Nest with Ronnie Barker. His inventiveness helped save the show during a tricky performance of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile when an actor missed his cue for an agonising number of minutes, filled by Shelley improvising an entire new scene with Barker. He said afterwards that, given the standard of Christie's dialogue, it wasn't nearly so difficult as it sounded. Another - even more noteworthy - departure from the text came the night he proposed sotto voce to the actress Susan Dowdall on stage in mid-performance (she accepted).

Freelance directing work after Oxford included, most regularly, the Theatre Royal, Windsor and the Bristol Old Vic. A major return to the stage came with his striking performance as Professor Staupitz in John Osborne's Luther (NY, 1964) with Albert Finney. A lengthy period in South Africa followed, based mainly in Durban, where a busy life directing and acting on stage and, extensively, on radio made him an immensely popular figure.

When he returned to England and a transformed regional theatre, Shelley's career became predominantly concentrated on acting. He enjoyed himself hugely in Patrick Garland's ebullient version of Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree (Vaudeville, 1978) and as the exotic teacher Signor Emannelli in Mary O'Malley's rites-of-a-Catholic-girlhood Once a Catholic (Wyndham's, 1980).

A rewarding association with Chichester's Festival Theatre under first Keith Michell and then Patrick Garland began in 1981 when Shelley gave a ripely comic but touching portrayal of Pischik, unabashedly sponging off Claire Bloom's Madame Ranevskya in The Cherry Orchard and a striking Queensberry, memorably malevolent, in The Trials of Oscar Wilde. Subsequent Chichester performances included Pardranath in a favourite Shavian rarity, On The Rocks, Father Mahoney in Sandy Wilson's impish Firbank musical Valmouth and an Asquith etched with flint in Cavell with Joan Plowright (all 1982).

Tubal in The Merchant of Venice (1984) provided the chance for a remarkable Shelley performance. This was a classic instance of the illumination of a comparatively small role and, intriguingly, only in Shylock's scene of intemperate rage at his betrayal with Tubal did Sir Alec Guinness's central performance, elsewhere disconcertingly subdued, begin to flicker from banked fires into genuinely dramatic life. Shelley's stillness in the scene was an object-lesson in how to listen on the stage.

Shelley continued to relish new challenges and to work with young directors. In the 1990s he made several appearances on the London fringe, including the premiere of Vaclav Havel's Redevelopment at the Orange Tree in Richmond, and he enthusiastically took to the Roundhouse's collective atmosphere for Hauptmann's The Weavers.

Although he made only a handful of films, Shelley landed some telling cameo roles including the priest briefly resorted to by Julie Christie in Darling (1965), the Rev Panton in Christine Edzard's Little Dorrit (1988) and an appearance as Neville Chamberlain in Merchant-Ivory's Remains of the Day (1993).

Television work - which went back to the earliest broadcast plays from Alexandra Palace - included many single plays ( Peer Gynt with Peter Ustinov, which went out live, was especially notable) and many episodes of series such as Ivanhoe and The Avengers.

His valedictory appearance, pleasingly, saw him well cast amid a distinguished ensemble (Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern, Thora Hird and - delightfully for Shelley - Maggie Smith) in Jack Clayton's award-winning TV film of Muriel Spark's Memento Mori (1992).

Alan Strachan



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