EDWARD DUKE was something of a rarity among English stage actors under 40. He could enter a drawing-room. He could dress. He could light a cigarette. He could ask the butler for a whisky and soda; and he could sink into a sofa with a copy of the Times (before it was reduced to running news on the front page) and look at home.
Half the art of acting English comedies of manners consists in making those manners seem normal; and it is because so few actors since the Second World War have been able to do so that drawing- room comedy has grown so scarce. Duke had it at his fingertips. Not that he had reached the heights of a form of theatre which may one day return to fashion if more players of his quality can be found to practise it; but he had made such steady progress by way of Wodehouse, Pinero and Coward that it seems sad indeed that his career should have been cut so short.
What could have been a truer sign of his value to the theatrical drawing-room than that he should have had a role as apparently vacuous as the bachelor house guest in the present West End revival of Relative Values and fill it with the kind of languorous charm and drawling speech rhythms that made Coward's characters seem intolerably snobbish in their day (1951) but so funny now? All he had to do was to butt in on other people's conversations, throw in a sardonic observation or two, and just be present when someone needed someone to talk to.
Older playgoers might have once cast Hugh Williams for such a part, or Ronald Squire; for it takes real skill on the stage to look at ease when one has nothing much to say and even less to do; and Duke, who played the part so ably at Chichester but was too ill to resume it for the transfer to the restored Savoy, conferred precisely the mixture of dry courtesy and amused disdain necessary to such a socially conscious occasion.
He had seemed to possess it from the start. It is certainly not easy for an actor to acquire it. No one was surprised to learn that his father had been a diplomat, that the family had lived abroad, or that the novels of PG Wodehouse had been among the favourite reading of the young actor to be during his days in rep. What did raise eyebrows was his monocled assumption, alone in his mid-twenties in the studio of the Lyric, Hammersmith, of Bertie Wooster and the rest of the Master's chumps and blighters, squirts and coves, and good and baddish eggs in a show called Jeeves Takes Charge.
It took charge of him on and off for 12 years; and though Jeeves did not in fact take charge of the entertainment so much as all the uncles and aunts, schoolgirls and chums, of the redoubtable Wooster, it remained a clever adaptation of the story and it made an unknown actor famous.
Having begun it in a Putney pub one lunchtime in the late 1970s, he took it round the world - North America, Australia, Taiwan - winning, apart from prizes abroad, the Laurence Olivier Award as the West End's most promising actor of 1980.
While such one-man shows give an actor something to fall back on as well as every chance to show his paces, Duke also knew how to revive with the correct kind of social poise and elegance Coward's characters - Victor, for example, in Private Lives (Aldwych, 1990) - and Pinero's people in Preserving Mr Panmure at Chichester and Trelawney of the 'Wells' in the West End.
Who can say what he might not have done had he been able to act in Lonsdale, Maugham, or William Douglas Home if their chance ever came round again?
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