Tom Fleming: Actor and broadcaster who commentated on the Coronation and Prince Charles' wedding
Tuesday 29 June 2010
For many years, Tom Fleming's was the definitive voice for commentating on important national occasions, including Royal milestones such as the Queen's Coronation and her Silver Jubilee, and such events as two papal elections and the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of VE and VJ days. He will be particularly remembered for his yearly accounts of Remembrance Sunday and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and in 1981 he had his largest audience ever – an estimated 700 million listeners worldwide – when he and Angela Rippon described the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer to Prince Charles.
Alongside his career as a leading broadcaster, the multi-talented Fleming achieved success as an actor, director, author and poet, his resonant voice and commanding delivery making him a sought-after player for Shakespearean and Restoration roles. His acting career included a rewarding two years as a stalwart of the Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Hall, but he was proud of his heritage, and was a leading figure in the development of theatre in Scotland. Throughout his life, he fiercely promoted the idea of a National Theatre of Scotland, which, in no small part due to his efforts, now exists.
The son of a Baptist preacher, he was born Thomas Kelman Fleming in Edinburgh in 1927 and educated at the city's Daniel Stewart's College. He made his stage debut in 1945 when he toured India with Edith Evans in the play The Late Christopher Bean, after which he spent two years in the Royal Navy. In 1953 he co-founded the Edinburgh Gateway Theatre Company with the playwright Robert Kemp and actress Lennox Milne, and for the next nine years he both directed and acted in old and new plays. Throughout the 1950s he appeared regularly at the Edinburgh Festival, where one of his greatest personal successes was playing the symbolic figure Divine Correction, in Sir David Lyndsay's Ane Pleasant Satyre of The Thrie Estaitis (A Satire of the Three Estates, 1552).
In 1962 Fleming accepted an invitation to join the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford upon Avon. There he played Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure, the Porter in Macbeth (with a persuasive brogue that no one could criticise), the title role in Cymbeline (to Vanessa Redgrave's Imogen) and the Earl of Kent in King Lear. The last production, produced by Peter Brook and starring Paul Scofield as Lear, transferred to the Aldwych in London in December 1962, after which Fleming was back in Stratford playing Prospero in The Tempest and Brutus in Julius Caesar.
He then played The Duke of Buckingham in the RSC's memorable trilogy The Wars of the Roses (1963). After repeating his portrayal of Kent in King Lear for a further run at the Aldwych, he travelled with the same production on a British Council tour of Russia, Europe and the USA during 1964. Paul Scofield was later to describe Fleming as "the perfect Kent". (In 1973 he repeated the role in Peter Brook's film version of King Lear, made in Denmark.) In 1965 Fleming was appointed the first director of the Edinburgh Civic Theatre Trust, founded the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, and after directing his first production at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, he played the title role in Brecht's Galileo.
Other notable stage roles included Knox in James Bridie's The Anatomist (1968, at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow), and Van Gogh in the solo show Vincent, which he performed in Leicester, then at the Hampstead Theatre, the Young Vic, the Adelaide Festival and the Bath Festival. From 1982-87 he was director of the Scottish Theatre Company, an early forerunner of the National Theatre of Scotland.
He made his first television appearance in James Bridie's play The Black Eye (1952). His portrayal of Jesus in the series Jesus of Nazareth (1953) won praise, and in 1959 he starred in the popular six-part children's serial Redgauntlet, set in Scotland and based on Sir Walter Scott's novel about the red-coated champion of the Stuart cause after Bonnie Prince Charlie's defeat at Culloden.
The following year he won praise for his performance in the ambitious 15-part An Age of Kings, which blended five Shakespeare plays, put together to tell a continuous story. In 1963 he played Lord Reith in Roger Milner's two-part biographical drama about the BBC's first director-general. He also authored several books and plays, including two collections of poetry, So That Was Spring and Sax Roses for a Luve Frae Hame.
Fleming was a radio and television commentator from 1952, and in 1953 he was standing outside Westminster Abbey as he persuasively conveyed the many nuances of the atmosphere, sense of occasion and historical relevance of the Queen's Coronation. His mellifluous sonority and keen judgement soon made him the undisputed master for describing state occasions, particularly weddings and funerals, the latter including those of the Duke of Windsor, Viscount Montgomery, Earl Mountbatten, Princess Grace and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. In 1966 he began a tradition of describing the events of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and thereafter his voice became an expected part of the proceedings.
Donalda MacKinnon, head of BBC Scotland, said of Fleming, "He was a consummate professional whose eye for detail was second to none. Major broadcasts like the Tattoo just won't be the same without his authoritative gravitas, which he combined expertly with witty observation."
Fleming, who was unmarried, was appointed OBE in 1980, and for more than 20 years was organist, lay preacher, secretary and reader at the Canonmills Baptist Church in Edinburgh. The actor Bill Paterson, who described his death as "the end of an era", said, "He was that last link with the generation of Scottish actors who could reproduce and really understand the old Scots dialect, the Lallans."
Thomas Kelman Fleming, actor and broadcaster: born Edinburgh 29 June 1927; OBE 1980; died Edinburgh 18 April 2010.
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