OBITUARY: Patrick Ludlow

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The Independent Online
When he returned to the West End stage in 1987 in The Importance of Being Earnest, Patrick Ludlow as the butler Merriman "moved about with the hangdog expression of a discarded cabinet minister and the timing of a master. Who is this man and where has he been?" a critic wondered.

Ludlow, then in his mid-eighties, was an actor of the old school. He had been on the stage since 1915, when his mother summoned him by telegram from his prep school in Eastbourne to appear in the West End in Peter Pan.

He spent the next 80 years as one of London's or North America's best- groomed touring character actors and occasional playwright, manager, director and author. Much of his working life was spent on the move, when every town had two or three theatres; and though he rarely made the headlines in his 80-odd films and television commercials or the dozens of plays he acted in or directed he was never, until his late seventies, out of work for long.

Tall, slim, elegant and unfailingly civil, Ludlow came from an acting generation which set store by its manners, discipline and personal appearance; and the school of acting into which he found himself pushed was that of light comedy. Naturalistic, debonair, throwaway, it formed a reaction to the Victorian tradition of grand gestures and oratorical flourish. These comedies of manners were shamelessly trivial by modern intellectual values and hopelessly bereft of social, political or philosophical significance. When properly acted, though, they could be funny, graceful and charming. They might even have style.

Ludlow had style, on stage and off. But it was never as easy as it looked. Founded on the principle of the art that conceals art, it had to look effortless. Sir Charles Hawtrey, an early hero of Ludlow's, was its leading exponent. It demanded polish and personality, holding an audience's attention while doing apparently nothing. And immaculate timing.

Not that Ludlow knew anything about such technical matters when Hawtrey turned him down for Where The Rainbow Ends and Dion Boucicault took him on for Peter Pan. Ludlow was 11. Within three years he made a name for himself in the West End, in 1918, then on Broadway in a comedy-thriller, The Luck of the Navy.

He stayed in the United States for two other light comedies, before sailing back to England to join Hawtrey at the St James's in His Lady Friends (1920). The title catches the tone of Ludlovian light comedy; and for the rest of what he liked to call his "see-saw" career spent touring at home and abroad Ludlow remained absorbed by what it is that makes a light comedy worthwhile.

He never gave up. If he was "resting", he would write plays or journalism; in 1988 he published Bloody Ludlow, an autobiography and account of his Civil War ancestors.

He wrote hundreds of articles for national syndication in provincial theatre programmes; and last year dispatched to the National Theatre a play about Hollywood in the Twenties. He failed to understand why the National Theatre should demand the cost of the postage before returning the manuscript.

Even as he lay dying there came an invitation to join on a television show an actress he had worked with 60 years ago; though he himself never possessed a television set.

It was on the small screen that he had acted one of his favourite Shakespearean roles, Cassius, though in a modern-dress New York version of Julius Caesar in 1939. Ludlow was by nature a modern-dress actor. He tried to join the Old Vic in Lilian Baylis's day, and at the height of the London blitz he acted for that defiant Shakespearean Robert Atkins, as Dumain in All's Well That Ends Well and Sir Richard Vernon and Gadshill in Henry IV (Part 1).

But the lean and nimble Ludlow was happiest in dinner tails as pompous lordlings and rejected suitors, reckless lovers and dashing rascals in comedies and thrillers between the wars by authors like Frederick Lonsdale, John van Druten, Noel Coward, Rodney Ackland, Patrick Hamilton, J.B. Priestley, Enid Bagnold and A.A. Milne.

Whether his role in Young England (1934-35) counted as costume or modern dress, he was never funnier (or unhappier) in over 73 years of acting than as Councillor Scoutmaster Ravenscroft in Walter Reynolds's famous flop which inadvertently became a hit. Having to face a nightly barrage of derision and even coins ("they hurt") for a year at four different West End theatres was a test of patience and discipline, as the increasingly rowdy audiences gleefully interrupted the actors, loudly anticipated their lines and wrought havoc with what should have been a solemn drama.

Small wonder if Ludlow, whose frail, comical figure as the hero, an adult Boy Scout, had set the house on a roar (especially when he looked so affronted), withdrew to the film studios, declining an offer to direct the show in New York.

It was while making the film Gangway in 1936 with Jessie Matthews that he found another kind of inadvertent fame; this time as a symbol of the rights of the individual. Waiting for a bus at Knightsbridge one chilly March day, he was wearing a heavy overcoat and, a stickler for sartorial elegance, carrying another to the tailor's to have its lapels pressed. Sidling up to him in a dirty raincoat a scruffy-looking man asked: "What are you doing with that coat?"

Unaccustomed to questions from strangers in the street, Ludlow made to board his bus when another, even scruffier, man appeared next to him and put the same question. Ludlow took them for race-course touts. "We are police officers," one of them announced. Demanding proof, the actor glimpsed a dirty card; and having missed enough buses said: "If you are policemen you may follow me, but I must catch this bus."

They promptly pulled him off it, marched him, one on either arm, to the police station where after a phone call to his father, a solicitor, he was grudgingly released without apology. Not a man to be affronted with impunity, Ludlow brought an action against the police, and in 1938 a jury in the King's Bench Division awarded him pounds 300 against the two police constables for false imprisonment.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart asked:

Is it easy to imagine a more gross indignity offered to a perfectly inoffensive, perfectly innocent and respectable professional gentleman? It is a perilous thing when great powers with the knowledge, it may be, of great force behind are recklessly, foolishly or over-zealously employed.

One of the most priceless possessions is the liberty of the subject. If once we show any signs of giving way to the abominable doctrine that because things are done by officials therefore some immunity must be extended to them, what is to become of our country?

After a well-received performance as Young Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer (Arts 1943), Ludlow formed his own touring company, adapted a French frolic, Mou-Mou, which he had seen in Paris, and in the 1950s ran various local reps. He managed the Norwegian Ballet's tour of Britain. He toured his own revival of Cocteau's The Respectable Prostitute, acted in Shaw and Pinero at Pitlochry, Genet's The Balcony in London, and in the 1960s revived The Luck of the Navy half a century after it first brought him luck as a juvenile, and light comedies in the now defunct Hawtrey tradition bearing such titles as This Thing Called Love and Hot and Cold in All Rooms.

When Donald Sinden brought Ludlow back into the theatre in the 1980s for The Importance of Being Earnest, Ludlow seemed to be making his entrances as the butler late.

Sinden gently raised the subject. "Oh?" said Ludlow in surprise. "Late?" But he was always a little late. It was something he had learned with Hawtrey. "Come on late - but quick!" There was no teaching an old and now very deaf dog new tricks after 72 years. Ludlow learnt his timing in the old school; and, as the critic said, he was still a master.

Adam Benedick

John Patrick Sutton Ludlow, actor: born London 24 March 1903; married 1935 Hylda Taylor (Paulette Ludlow; marriage dissolved), 1955 Maja Garner; died London 27 January 1996.