Richard Bebb

Actor and theatre historian
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The Independent Online

Richard Edward Bebb Williams, actor and theatre historian: born London 12 January 1927; married 1952 Gwen Watford (died 1994; two sons); died London 12 April 2006.

The possessor of a distinctive voice, rich in timbre - one of the hallmarks of his extraordinary record in radio drama - the actor Richard Bebb was also an outstanding connoisseur of the human voice both operatic and dramatic. Although he was acting until shortly before his death - earlier this year he recorded a complete Canterbury Tales - in later years it was on occasion difficult for Bebb to fit in engagements between the demands on his world-famous archive of recordings, particularly in the field of early-20th-century opera.

Bebb's breadth of interests - over many years he also collected models and figurines of actors and singers, amounting eventually to a unique collection which he generously gave to his beloved Garrick Club - meant that unfortunately he never completed any of the major works of theatrical history on which he at various times began research.

He wanted to write a biography of Sir John Gielgud (his favourite actor and a friend), partly to correct the countless howlers he had noted in Sheridan Morley's "authorised" work (Bebb's standards of scholarship made him at times famously splenetic on the subject of sloppy research) and he was fairly advanced on the work for a fascinating project tracing Harley Granville Barker's collaboration with Gielgud on an Old Vic wartime King Lear.

Born in London and educated at Highgate School, Bebb developed a schoolboy interest in the theatre which was fuelled further at Cambridge, where he read English at Trinity. There, like so many generations of undergraduates, he fell under the sway of the charismatic King's don George ("Dadie") Rylands, often appearing under his direction in Marlowe Society productions.

Rylands had directed the undergraduate Michael Redgrave in the 1920s and it was he who suggested Bebb and another gifted undergraduate, Gillian Webb, to play small roles in the Macbeth at the Aldwych in 1947 in which Redgrave played an unusually barbaric thane. He also (unwisely) co-directed with the American designer Norris Houghton, his lover. Bebb's roles included the "cream-faced loon" and his memories of the production remained vivid after over half a century; although he admired Redgrave's determination to avoid convention or cliché, he felt that the actor's unpredictability meant that "you can't discuss a Redgrave performance unless you were there the same night".

Another significant mentor for Bebb was that suavely debonair Anthony Hawtrey, the illegitimate son of the great comedy stylist Charles Hawtrey, who ran various repertory companies including one based at the beautiful Playhouse in Buxton. Bebb played a staggering range of roles in two seasons at Buxton where he also met the gravely beautiful actress Gwen Watford who became his wife in a long and profoundly happy marriage.

When Hawtrey took a lease on the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, turning it into London's most enterprising off-West End theatre, he employed Bebb regularly; he appeared as the Doctor in a powerful production of Strindberg's The Father (1948), with Redgrave harrowing as the Captain who cannot master his fate, and in a rare revival of Jerome K. Jerome's allegory The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1949).

In the early 1950s Bebb gave several striking performances at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, where his commanding presence and strong voice were considerable assets; he played Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice (1950) and Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew (1951) for Robert Atkins. Although he worked in leading repertory companies over the years, stage work occupied Bebb less as the demands grew for his talent in radio and on television.

Bebb was one of the great voices of a golden age for radio drama, most enduringly perhaps in the original 1954 BBC version under Douglas Cleverdon of Dylan Thomas's "play for voices" Under Milk Wood, sharing the narration with Richard Burton. Bebb contributed to countless broadcasts, from children's programmes to the most challenging of Ibsen, Shaw and Shakespeare for Third Programme classic dramas.

On television, he was similarly versatile, his work ranging from early televised Shakespeare to series including Z Cars, Dixon of Dock Green and Softly Softly and including a lengthy soap-opera stint in the magazine-world setting of the serial Compact. Throughout the 1990s he made frequent appearances in (and contributed regular voiceovers to) the Poirot series. He also had cameo roles in several British films, most recently the uneven King Ralph (1991) starring John Goodman and with Peter O'Toole.

His wife's staunchest admirer and champion, Bebb was deeply affected by Gwen Watford's death in 1994. He lived on in their delightful house in Temple Fortune Lane - for many years their close friends in the same street included that other passionate collector Donald Sinden - with the walls featuring several beautiful portraits of Watford.

Alan Strachan