John Forrest: Actor, painter and magician who worked with David Lean and Lord Olivier


John Forrest was a magician before he was an actor. The painter, Stanley Spencer's black-sheep brother Horace, taught him card tricks in a boat on the Thames when he was 10. And "magic" fascinated him for the rest of his life. Or, as he put it, "illusion". "Everything I've done has been to do with illusion," he said in a 1996 Radio 4 documentary: "acting, painting, and making things appear and disappear. Perhaps I couldn't deal with reality"

Forrest was born John Forsht in Connecticut in 1931. When he was five his mother moved with him and his sister to England and, at the beginning of the Second World War, settled in Taplow on the Thames, where she took in lodgers. One of them was Horace Spencer, a gifted magician who drank too much and ended up falling into the river and drowning. Forrest remembered him with affection – as his entry into the world of illusion and as a proof that success and misfortune are very close neighbours, something he was to discover for himself.

Forrest went to school during the war at the Imperial Service College, Windsor, where a fellow pupil was the racing driver, Stirling Moss, who also fancied himself as a conjuror and inspired the young Forrest to put on his own shows. For a painfully shy boy, performing in public, as so often in showbiz, was a way of dealing with terror, and when in 1946, Forrest got the part of the young Herbert Pocket, in David Lean's magnificent film of Dickens' Great Expectations, his life changed. "Suddenly I had responsibility – the sun came out," he recalled, and his other career had begun. Small part though it was, the critics noticed him, and the famous fight between the young Pip and the young Herbert is described in the Best of British film guide as "the funniest scrap ever seen on the screen."

After the war Forrest and family moved to a flat in Kensington where he was to spend the rest of his life. His mother, a gifted painter, began to encourage the talent in her son, something he developed at Highgate School. But the acting wouldn't go away and in 1949 he got a part in Laurence Olivier's Aldwych Theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Again, it was a small role – the Young Collector – but Blanche DuBois was Vivien Leigh, an actress with whom he half fell in love. Among the posters, theatre programmes and magic equipment that filled his flat to overflowing was a small collection of '"holy relics"; in pride of place was a lipstick-stained cigarette as smoked by Vivien Leigh on the last night of Streetcar.

The film part that followed, Flashman in the 1951 version of Tom Brown's Schooldays, was perhaps the movie role by which Forrest is best remembered. By now long and thin and handsome in a slightly sardonic way, he could do upper-class cruelty to perfection and the Time Out Film Guide, praising the film in general, ends by saying: "But it's Forrest's show as the caddish bully Flashman, dispensing ignominy with a curl of the lip and a dash of hauteur."

By now he was working as a professional magician – his first engagement was at Fulham Town Hall in 1955 – graduating to the Inner Magic Circle. Meanwhile, from the late 1950s he had begun a distinguished career as a radio actor, his velvet voice making him particularly suitable for the classics. He often worked for the Third Programme producer and father of stereo radio drama, Raymond Raikes, and in the 1970s was a member of the Radio Drama Company, performing in everything from Aeschylus to Wilde. On stage he appeared opposite Barbara Jefford in a 1952 production of Pinero's Trelawney of the Wells and in the 1955 West End run of The Remarkable Mr Pennypacker, starring Nigel Patrick.

Film work continued through the '60s and Forrest was particularlyeffective in the 1961 British comedy thriller Very Important Person, starring James Robertson Justice. Playing "Grassy" Green, an undercoverGerman agent in a POW camp, he can be seen in a YouTube clip intercepting the would-be escapees with the classic lines: "Thinking of leaving us, gentlemen? Arrest these men, major, they're imposters!"

But while he continued to get work in film, TV – including a role in Dr Finlay's Casebook – and the theatre, Forrest devoted more and more time in the 1980s and '90s to magic, developing his eight-minute tour de force in which he made clocks appear, disappear and float through the air to Hank Crawford's "Cajun Sunrise". This act was booked all over the world from Chile to Palm Springs and made him plenty of fans, if not much money.

To meet Forrest for a meal or drink always turned into an informal magic show: card-tricks, mind-reading, rearrangement of cutlery without any apparent human intervention. But behind the patter and the dexterity there was sadness and – when he told you about them in his usual self-deprecating way – a list of personal disasters, some major, some minor: his sister's death in a fire, the loss of all his magic kit in transit from Naples to Rome, an exploding cooker, a stolen car, illness, and deep personal loneliness.

He would immediately deflect you from all this with another trick, an account of a bird-watching expedition in Ireland, a painting trip along the Cornish coast or the story of making Laurence Olivier's watch vanish, but the sense of melancholy remained. For the catalogue of his exhibition of paintings in 1995, he wrote: "I do hope you enjoy yourselves: Just a little peace. Just a little pleasure. Just for once." He seemed to be writing as much to himself as to the visitors.

Piers Plowright

John Forrest, actor, magician and painter: born Connecticut, US 14 May 1931; died London c. 28 March 2012.

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