Obituary: Bill Shine

Click to follow
The Independent Online
What set Bill Shine apart from most character actors was a readiness to have a go at anything which did not compromise his genial gusto.

In the classics or intimate revue, Ealing comedy or Victorian melodrama, Restoration comedy or English farce, his line in affable loafers, military gentleman, vacuous dandies and dim-witted aristocrats made him one of the busiest and most popular of supporting players on stage or screen for almost seven decades. Toff or twerp, he did not mind, as long as he could register his brand of British, or Irish, fun - he had particular successes in Shaw, O'Casey and Paul Vincent Carroll - with that unpretentious zest and snappy timing that were part of his technical equipment.

One of the last players to understand the dramatic uses and abuses of a monocle in comedy, farce and pantomime (as squires and barons), Shine could disport himself in old-fashioned musical comedy with as much relish as he brought to Irish melodrama. He was, after all, born into the business.

His father Wilfred Shine ruled in melodrama of all sorts in the early part of the century and even while Billy was a boy, toured the Lancashire comedy The Jeffersons for seven unbroken years. In 1924 he brought it to London. To the critic James Agate's grief, it foundered, not because it was a bundle of cliches, but because Londoners could not understand the humour of Lancashire as Agate did.

Apart from his notable father, Shine's mother, two uncles, an aunt and grandmother were also on the stage. It was while learning his trade sweeping it or as call boy or watching from the wings that young Billy was judged qualified to make his debut. In 1917 he played a Stork in Princess Posy at the Winter Gardens, New Brighton.

At 15 he appeared with Sybil Thorndike and Charles Laughton at the Arts Theatre in George Moore's Shakespeare play, The Making of an Immortal, but far from going into the theatre Shine seized the chance to work in the talkies throughout the next decade, the Thirties. He made 164 British films between 1929 (High Seas, The Flying Scotsman and Under The Greenwood Tree) and 1971 (Not Tonight, Darling).

Highlights in between ranged from Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) to Ealing comedy, Tommy Trinder's Champagne Charlie (1944) to The Red Shoes (1948), The Chiltern Hundreds (1949), Father Brown (1954), The Deep Blue Sea (1955), Richard III (1955) and Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957). One of his most characteristic supporting parts on screen was that of the wizard-prang type of public school RAF officer; though since he was making as many as four films a year (and usually also appearing on stage at night), Shine's talent for the cameo appearance was never easy to pin down.

During the Second World War, though, he was back on stage touring for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (later to become the Arts Council) in a repertoire of plays headed by Shaw's The Man of Destiny. Then he joined what every playgoer then regarded as the next best thing to a national theatre, since subsidised theatre was then unheard of, Alec Clunes's Festival of English Drama at the Arts. It started with seasons of Farquhar, Sheridan, Pinero and Shaw, and Shine was in everything. I still remember him amusingly alighting on that tiny stage in a pair of angel's wings in The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles - "dropping in from the Elysian fields," as J.C. Trewin put it.

His Joxer Daly in Juno and the Paycock first appeared at Birmingham Rep in 1945 and was revived at Henley 30 years later. His Conn in Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun at the Old Bedford, Camden Town (1950), was something for collectors. So was the whole season. When shall we get a chance to reacquaint ourselfes with such melodramatic treasures as East Lynne ("Dead - and never called me mother!"), Black Eyed Susan ("Intoxicated too - I must avoid him!"), Trilby (in which he made a fine Svengali) and The Bells. How to avoid burlesquing such pieces while playing them for all they were worth? The audience could be as much of a nuisance as anything, giggling at every chance, yet silence was finally imposed by an indefinable theatrical power and Shine knew how to keep both his face and his acting straight.

A year later some of that power was felt again at the old St James's Theatre in London where he played Sewer Man to Martita Hunt's Mad Woman of Chaillot. Shine surely had something of his father's spirit in him. Even if most modern memories recall first the handle-bar moustache, the upper-class accent and the gallery of well-intentioned bunglers, addle- brained aristocrats, amiable incompetents and a whole range of RAF types, eccentric clerics and charming loafers, Shine was trained in a school where the whole physique counted for theatrical expression. He had long since learned how to turn tallness, a sleepy-eyed look, a nimble carriage and a lean build to comprehensively comical or arresting advantage; whether as Lord Summerhays in Misalliance (1943), Horace Vale in The Magistrate (1944), King Phillip II of Spain in That Lady (1951), Lord Foppington in Vanbrugh's Virtue in Danger (1966) or Lord Littlehampton in Maudie! (1974).

On television his most recent part in the 1980s was that of the eccentric inventor Black in the series Supergran, with (of course) smoking jacket and cap. Cliches? Shine gave them a new sheen.

Adam Benedick

Wilfred William Denis Shine, actor: born London 20 October 1911; married first Julia Lang (one son; marriage dissolved 1949), second 1949 Diana Cecil (nee Manship; one son); died London 24 July 1997.