Obituary: Llewellyn Rees
Monday 10 January 1994
DESPITE his slim and withdrawn aristocratic bearing, Llewellyn Rees was a professional to his fingertips in the theatre.
Never one to be afraid of tackling roles of all types, sorts and sizes, at one time in his life Rees seemed as happy in the box-office or standing in a theatre foyer as he was taking the stage in both large and small parts. Later he accommodated himself to films and television, making something of a niche for himself in playing professional gentlemen of all types - once even an American newspaper reporter, which was out of character for an actor who specialised in barristers, solicitor's clerks, courtroom ushers, coroners and even judges. But he excelled at depicting doctors, clerics, undertakers, accountants, coroners and all top-class tycoons who behaved as men of erudition instead of like the stock city merchant and movie mogul so often showily enacted on stage, screen and television.
Throughout his long life, Rees was never afraid to accept a challenge and he would have played dustmen and plumbers if called upon - it was just that he didn't look the parts he might have played, even if he would have had a shot when called upon.
Rees spent over 70 years on one stage or another during a full and active life during which time he was an actor-manager and honorary president of the International Theatre Institute among other things. He was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and Keble College, Oxford, after which he elected to study for the stage at RADA in the early Twenties, being engaged simultaneously as a private tutor and working as an actor part- time. He made his first professional appearance at the Empire, Nottingham, as a police inspector in The Joker. Repertory followed (after playing minor roles in several touring productions) at Newcastle, Whitley Bay, Cardiff and Leeds, before he made his London debut in September 1932 at the Embassy, Swiss Cottage, in the war play Miracle at Verdun, which transferred to the Comedy in the West End immediately.
At the Arts and Westminster theatres Rees next played as Carrington in Dorothy Massingham's poetical play The Lake, and the following year he was a resident member of the Greater London Players where he used to say he played 'everything from the flowerpot in the window to the kitchen stove'.
Appearances in the West End followed in rapid succession; at the Comedy again, as the introspective Eustace in Mrs Nobby Clark (1935) and the refined George in Hervey House later the same year.
Rees's first taste of producing came in 1935-36 with the Scottish National Players, before his return to London in Elmer Rice's Judgement Day, at the Strand, in the part of Malinov. Later the same year Rees's versatility was further stretched when he 'took the corner' by stage-managing his friend Gerald Savory's play George and Margaret in New York.
Always intensely interested in trade union affairs in particular, and politics in general (as well as, at one time in his life, spiritualism, criminology and a study of comparative religions), Rees assumed the mantle of general secretary of British Actors' Equity in 1940, during a stormy period in that union's life. He filled the post with distinction for over six years, resigning himself to much desk, instead of acting, work. At the same time he became joint secretary of the Provincial Theatre Council, running it in concert with yet further work as secretary of the Federation of Theatre Unions, finally being made governor of the Old Vic and, later still in the same decade, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the International Theatre Institute (1948-51). It was but a short step to becoming Administrator of the Old Vic in 1949.
Like the proverbial conjuror Rees kept many balls in the air, but succeeded, because of his experience and adroit skill, in not letting any of them drop. An exception, the sole one I can recall, was when he was in dispute in the early 1950s with his fellow executives at the Old Vic Theatre Centre Michel Saint-Denis, Glen Byam Shaw and George Devine. The last three resigned owing to a dispute with Rees, after which the centre closed and the centre's school carried on for only one further year. It had been considered the most serious and important drama school ever to be run in Britain.
This was a huge setback to the talented and industrious Rees. Although he became a friend of mine down the years that followed he was reluctant ever to discuss the true cause of what lay 'behind the story behind the headlines'. Many reasons have been given, numerous conflicting versions depending as to whom one spoke. But Rees maintained a dignified silence at that time which certainly won my respect and doubtless a number of others as well.
He took further work as Administrator for Donald Wolfit in 1952, which he combined with active membership of the British Council Drama Committee and work as an Honorary Councillor on the Council of Repertory Theatres - posts which he held to the end of his life.
Never daunted and showing a self-respect rare in public life by figures who have not enjoyed success to the bitter end, Rees reappeared as an actor, , first at the Oxford Playhouse in The Public Prosecutor (1954). He continued to work solidly on stage and screen and no role in television was too small for the man who was an actor at heart.
He played in a number of productions at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in the Sixties and Seventies as well as at the Bristol Old Vic where he was a good Polonius in Hamlet and a stalwart supporter of Wolfit again in The Strong Are Lonely (Theatre Royal, Haymarket) in which he played the Bishop of Buenos Aires before continuing his stage clerical career as the Dean in My Friend Judas at the Arts (1959) and Brandy in Settled Out of Court (Strand, 1960). He played Worthy in Lock Up Your Daughters at both the Mermaid and Her Majesty's in 1962 and Sir Henry James QC in The Right Honourable Gentleman (at the same theatre in 1964).
During the next decade he was still at it playing more priests, this time Father Ambrose in The Servants and the Snow and an upstanding Duncan in Macbeth. In 1961 he married the talented actress Madeleine Newbury.
A few days before he died, Llewellyn phoned me to say that he was completing his own memoirs and could he consult me about a point which I might be able to confirm. He said with laughter in his voice, but with hindsight I suppose rather grimly, that he hoped he would live to end the last few pages.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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