Obituary: David Langton
Friday 29 April 1994
As the ambitious politician Richard Bellamy, the master of the house in Upstairs, Downstairs, the actor David Langton achieved his ambition of reaching an American television audience. The popular British series about life in Edwardian England was watched avidly by 300 million viewers in 50 countries and won five Emmy Awards in the United States.
Set at 165 Eaton Place, in Belgravia, central London, between 1903 and 1930, the series featured him as a politician who was much helped on the path to success and power by his wife Lady Marjorie Bellamy's money and influence, she being a prime minister's daughter.
What made the programme different from the costume dramas that had long been popular on the small screen was the fact that it showed life below stairs as well as above, with the servants led by Angela Baddeley as the cook Mrs Bridges and Gordon Jackson as the butler Hudson.
The formula was a winner and the series - which started in 1971 and was dreamed up by the actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, both of whose parents had been in domestic service - achieved world-wide screening and many repeats. During its five-year run and 68 episodes, it reflected many historical events of the time, such as the First World War, the suffragette movement, the General Strike, the Wall Street crash, and various political scandals. When the actress Rachel Gurney wanted to leave her role as Lady Marjorie, she was simply written out with the sinking of the Titanic and Richard Bellamy was later married to a Scottish widow, Virginia Hamilton, played by Hannah Gordon.
He was born Basil Langton- Dodds, but changed his professional name because there was another actor called Basil C. Langton. His Scottish mother had returned to her homeland so that he could be born there, although the family returned to England four years later. His father, who had worked for a London wine firm and then lost all his money in an import-export business in Canada, encouraged him to go on the stage, arranging a job for him at the age of 15 with a touring Shakespeare company.
However, Langton subsequently despaired of getting more theatre work and decided to try his hand at writing. To find peace and inspiration, he became a sheep farmer in the Shetland Islands, off the northern tip of Scotland, but this enterprise proved a disaster and after two years he gave it up.
War came and Langton rose to the rank of major in the Royal Artillery, serving in Germany, France, Holland and Belgium, and getting a mention in despatches. After the war, he was more successful in his attempts at carving a career in the theatre and made his West End debut as Jack Bauer in Fifty Five at the Strand Theatre (1946), although acting roles were hard to come by over the next few years and he switched to stage management, for the productions of Jonathan (Aldwych, 1948), Captain Brassbound's Conversion (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1948) and The Lady's Not for Burning (Globe, 1949).
Langton was soon back on stage in front of an audience, but he made headlines of the wrong sort when in 1953, a year after the death of his father, he disappeared during the West End run of Seagulls over Sorrento, in which he played a rough cockney sailor, Able Seaman 'Lofty' Turner, at the Apollo Theatre. Having suffered a nervous breakdown, he was discovered in New York en route to see his businessman brother Donald in
With this episode put firmly behind him, Langton went on to appear as Anthony Anderson in The Devil's Disciple (Winter Gardens, 1956), alongside Tyrone Power - who persuaded Langton to appear with him in the film Seven Waves Away (1957) - Gerald Harcourt in A Touch of the Sun (Saville, 1958) and Jim Dougherty in The Pleasure of His Company (Haymarket, 1959).
Although most of his work was in the theatre, Langton appeared in various films, having made his debut as the juvenile lead in a pre-war thriller whose title has long been forgotten. He was later in The Ship that Died of Shame (1955), Saint Joan (1957), A Hard Day's Night (1964), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), The Incredible Sarah (1976), Quintet (1979) and, alongside Michael Caine, in The Whistle Blower (1986), which was directed by his son Simon, a successful director of television series such as Smiley's People, Anna Karenina and Mother Love.
Playing to the Bellamy type, Langton subsequently appeared on television as a cabinet minister in Winston Churchill - the wilderness years (1981), Asquith in Number 10 (1983), Lord Mountbatten in the television film Charles & Diana: a royal love story (1982), as well as the award-winning play Lent, Take Three Girls, Clouds of Witness, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Last Video and Testament.
His last West End roles were as David Mathews in Killing Jessica (Savoy Theatre, 1986) and Lionel Hampton in Jeffrey Archer's Beyond Reasonable Doubt (Queen's Theatre, 1987). He also played General Allenby in Ross, the story of Lawrence of Arabia, at the Old Vic (1986). Just six months ago, he moved to Stratford-upon-Avon to live in semi-retirement.
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