Obituary: Godfrey Kenton

GODFREY KENTON made his last appearance on the stage in Stairway to Heaven, a musical play, at the King's Head Theatre in Islington, on 21 November 1994, at the age of 92. His debut had been made at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, on 15 May 1922, so that this stalwart of the British stage contributed to it an astonishing 72 years of service. It was appropriate that his final appearance was as a messenger of God, because all his life he was blessed with one of the finest and most distinctive voices of his time.

Originally intended for a career in the Church, he duly studied for at theological college. However, the lure of the theatre was too strong and I doubt that he ever regretted his decision. Despite a career that had as many lows as highs in it, he must have been outstandingly handsome in his youth, for he maintained his good looks almost to the end of his life - at the age of nearly 90, he was still in fine fettle and looked at least 25 years younger.

After a period of study at Rada, and the usual round of smaller parts, he joined Lena Ashwell's company for two years as leading juvenile. He was with the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival company for two seasons in 1925 and 1926 playing second juvenile leads - these were still the days when actors were engaged to play a recognised "line" of parts, so that, if As You Like It was in the repertory, you knew that, as second juvenile, you would be playing Silvius and not Orlando.

Shakespeare, in fact, became the central passion of Kenton's professional life, and it would seem from his listings in Who's Who in the Theatre that he rarely turned down an opportunity to appear in any of the plays. It is worth noting that to have a specific career as a Shakespearean actor is not an option in the English theatre of the 1990s.

He appeared at the Old Vic in 1930 as Malcolm to John Gielgud's Macbeth and as Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He was Orsini in Twelfth Night at the gala opening of the rebuilt Sadler's Wells, and was therefore the first actor to speak in the new theatre. But, only two years later, the insecurities of the actor's life forced him to accept the small part of Poins in Henry IV part I with George Robey as Falstaff, at His Majesty's. In between these London appearances, he did seasons with the Birmingham and Northampton repertory companies and two Malvern Festivals, where the new plays of George Bernard Shaw were tried out. He appeared in the world premiere of Shaw's The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles and as Tom Wrench in Arthur Pinero's Trelawny of the "Wells".

A notable appearance was in the premiere of Rodney Ackland's fine play After October in 1936, but it was the 1937 Stratford season that brought him to real prominence - his parts included Oberon, Edgar to Randle Ayrton's Lear, and Laertes to the Hamlet of his contemporary Donald Wolfit, who was also playing Kent in King Lear. This became, after the Second World War, Wolfit's most admired role, and Kenton always maintained that many very touching details and general "business" were copied by Wolfit from Ayrton's great performance. Never mind, the point is Wolfit most certainly made them all his own. Kenton was in a particularly good position to judge this, as he later played Edmund to Wolfit's own King Lear.

Two months after the war started in 1939, Kenton played Brutus in a well- received modern dress production of Julius Caesar at the Embassy and His Majesty's. The Stratford season of 1940 saw him as Romeo, Mark Antony and Orsino, after which he joined the BBC for the duration of the war. He joined the Donald Wolfit Shakespeare company as the war was ending and toured all over the country.

Even Wolfit's sympathetic biographer, Ronald Harwood, likened the atmosphere in the company to that of a concentration camp, but, according to Kenton, he was more or less left to get on with it, and he soon accustomed himself to the Stygian gloom allotted to the supporting company by the actor-manager. It was, at least, Shakespeare.

He much enjoyed a trip to New York to appear with Robert Morley in Edward, My Son in 1948 - this was his second visit as he had made his debut on Broadway in 1938, as Alan, the sensitive son, in J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways. Shortly after his return, he joined the BBC Drama Repertory Company, and devoted much of the latter part of his career to broadcasting - he was still appearing occasionally in radio plays well into his nineties.

He was on the "Rep" for three two-year periods, plus three years with the BBC Schools "Rep". He also did a great deal of freelance broadcasting between his periods of full employment, and returned to the theatre whenever opportunities allowed. He played Solanio in The Merchant of Venice at the Haymarket in 1967 with Ralph Richardson, always one of his favourite actors, as Shylock.

But it was his voice that became his fortune, and he must have appeared in literally hundreds of radio plays. It was a beautiful voice with a very distinctive gravity in its tone, and his use of it was masterly. I don't believe that I ever heard (or saw) him give an unconsidered or undistinguished performance. He took his work far too seriously for that.

Godfrey Kenton was, in truth, a model professional actor. I can think of no higher praise.

Godfrey William Kenton, actor: born London 13 April 1902; married first Vivienne Bennett (marriage dissolved), second Mary Whitfield (two sons; marriage dissolved), third Ann Broadhurst (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 27 April 1998.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?