Obituary: Denholm Elliott

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MAY I add a note to David Shipman's obituary of Denholm Elliott (7 October)? writes Peter Newbolt. Denholm's unhappy childhood was indeed sad and punctuated with grief. It also brought, however, his first moments of personal triumph, and indications of what was to come.

We first met in 1932 at a small preparatory school in Surrey: the following year I became a boarder, as he was. It is a strange reflection of the customs of those days, and the need for matronly reassurance of youthful regularity, that even at the age of 10 and nine we found ourselves alone together after breakfast each morning, sitting on potties on a bedroom floor. During our weeks of brief confinements we spoke of many things, mostly childish no doubt. Also of two major events in his short life. He told me how it was his thumb had been seriously and permanently damaged in an accident with a lawn mower. It resulted in a distortion of which he was painfully conscious: he cleverly concealed it during his work later, finding it less necessary to do so, it seemed, as time went by. He told me, sadly but unemotionally, how his father had met a violent death in Palestine.

I was never conscious of the fact that he was 17 months older than me: we were in the same (bottom) class for a year together, and he continued in it for a term longer. Members of that class had to form a queue, after morning prayers, and be led in single file to a classroom in a building 50 yards away. I have a vivid picture of him, during his last term of queueing - at the tail-end, like Dopey with the other dwarfs. He was an insecure, waif-like child, in perpetual movement with angular elbows and hunted, flickering eyes.

If at that age he was not particularly bright in routine lessons, he was a hero and a beacon of light at the end of each Christmas term. The school concert was a grand affair for such a school, given on two consecutive nights, and including a short play produced by the classics master, the best teacher I ever knew, RN Bloxam. I give his name as he was also honoured to have directed Denholm Elliott's first three or four stage appearances. They were all outstanding successes, cheered to the echo, and for me they have been memorable nearly 60 years. One was called In the Cellar, in which a gentlemanly household assembles during the course of a zeppelin raid, with members of staff. In this 'upstairs, downstairs' comedy Denholm played the 'tweeny' whose sharp remarks innocently point the errors of all her superiors' ways. He brought the house down - a house of enthralled boys, parents and local dignitaries. It was, I think, from this performance that his talent was recognised: in following years he played leading parts, and his self-confidence in other fields began to grow.

He also played Catharine Parr, with Mr Bloxam as Henry VIII, in Clifford Bax's Alexander's Horse, a two-character sketch at the breakfast-table, based on a royal argument as to whether Bucephalus was black or white, the king of course being wrong and having to withdraw his threat of beheading. Although he was again playing a female part Denholm's skill and presence had already grown sufficiently to give real pleasure to the adults in his audience, and he acted his producer off the stage. He was then 13 years old.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments