Obituary: Dudley Stevens

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Dudley Stevens, actor, writer and director, born Ilford 8 August 1935, died Hove 23 January 1993.

DUDLEY STEVENS was one of the most popular members of the Players Theatre Company, based in London in the early Seventies - no mean feat when the roll-call included Fred Stone, Maurice Browning, Robin Hunter, Sheila Matthews and Archie Harridine.

In that last surviving haven of Victorian music hall Stevens fancied himself as a Lion Comique - one of those stylish chaps in full evening dress who would deliver a patter song at full tilt without dropping a syllable, and Stevens never did. He was less successful when he attempted more low-brow coster songs, but his raised eyebrow at the curtain call let you into the secret: he was only joking. He never allowed himself to become too closely tied to the Players although he readily admitted, as did so many others, that he was grateful for the many times it paid the rent.

Born in Ilford in 1935, Stevens was the first of his family to make a life in the theatre, after a miserable few years in commerce. His stage debut was in New York in 1961 in Ten Nights in a Bar Room and he first appeared in London the following year in Noel Coward's Sail Away.

It was Stevens who was directly responsible for my becoming an actors' agent. Seated one night, after the show, in the bar of the old Players' Theatre he was complaining about his agent. I ventured the opinion that the agent had not done too badly but he offered another suggestion. 'You become an agent and I'll let you represent me.' I did and he did.

Other West End appearances included How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1963), Thark (1965), Trelawny (1972), Gypsy, Something's Afoot (1978; a witty Agatha Christie musical spoof) and Berny Stringle and Cliff Adams' musical Liza of Lambeth (1976) which, despite the universally bad reviews, ran for four months at the Shaftesbury. One of the delights from the show was Stevens's duet with Christopher Neil, 'Good Bad Time', in which Stevens's hitherto unnoted talents as a whistler added a plangent note to Cliff Adams' bitter-sweet tune.

His best moment in the West End came when he took over for a month in 1977 from David Kernan in Side by Side by Sondheim. Nightly he went on stage flanked by Julia McKenzie and Millicent Martin and gave such an account of the tricky Sondheim tunes and lyrics that nobody who came expecting Kernan went away disappointed.

It was perhaps meeting Ned Sherrin in that show that led to Stevens's playing in Sherrin's mid-Eighties satires The Metropolitan Mikado and The Ratepayers' Iolanthe. In the latter Stevens transformed one of Gilbert and Sullivan's courtiers into a Saatchi-style advertising executive: smooth and unctuous.

This part was close to Stevens's best-known role on television. In the mid-Seventies he played John Sackville in Crossroads, an upper-class landowner who wrought havoc among the simple souls who frequented that Midlands motel. One day pausing for petrol somewhere outside Birmingham, Stevens was assaulted by an irate petrol-pump attendant who thought his on-screen behaviour unseemly. Stevens relished the implied tribute. Other television work included many appearances on The Good Old Days for the BBC. He also appeared in the film musicals Oliver] (1968) and Oh] What a Lovely War (1969).

He never wanted to be thought of as 'just an actor' and to that end he both wrote and directed extensively. In the early Seventies his musical At the Sign of The Angel (music by Geoffrey Brawn) enjoyed a successful run at The Players and he wrote a nostalgic piece, 'When the Lights Go On Again', which was popular in Scandinavia. His last finished piece, The Soap Opera, was presented at The Piccadilly in 1987 and, when he died, he was working on a play about the opera-singer Maria Callas.

I remember the day he came to tell me that he had been diagnosed HIV positive. Always a natty dresser, he was wearing one of his flowing and flamboyant Aristide-Bruant-style scarves: scarlet and defiant. He declined my sympathy and told me firmly that he wanted to go on working as long as possible. I'm not the only one who is glad he did.

(Photograph omitted)