OBITUARY: Paul Eddington

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The stage went black. On came the house lights. It was the interval. Many of us dispersed in search of refreshment or exercise but those who stayed in their seats were treated to a strange sight. For within the half-light of Bob Crowley's set for No Man's Land at the Comedy in 1993 they beheld the silent, still and seated figure of Paul Eddington as Spooner.

Alone and palely pondering the meaning of events in Harold Pinter's enigmatic fable of an encounter between two ageing men from the London literary fringes, he was passing what Spooner in his bookish Hampstead way might have called une nuit blanche. In that faded baggy suit and bright bow tie Eddington cut a sorrowful, lonely figure as a guest all at sea.

As the play continued a rather thuggish manservant brought him, with meticulous attention to detail, a champagne breakfast; Spooner, on his best behaviour, sniffed and sipped the Veuve Clicquot. It was a grotesque situation; but the lean and hungry Eddington of the long shiny face, hollow, wary eyes and drawn cheeks was giving nothing away as he awaited impassively the next Pinterian twist in the weird whirligig.

This was farce at its highest and gravest British level which, in its stately resolve to put manners before sense and to retain deep respect for trivialities, might he traced back to The Importance of Being Earnest. As Spooner, Eddington gave one of the performances of his life.

It was not a great performance. Great acting was hardly possible in such minimalist drama. Hence the lengthy dithering of such eminences grises as Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson before they dipped their toes into modern post-war drama. Olivier never did bring himself to tinker with Pinter. Gielgud and Richardson waited nearly 20 years to do so (in No Man's Land); and nearly 20 more passed before Eddington trod, as Spooner, in the footsteps of his revered mentor, Gielgud; yet, although he would hate to hear it because he thought the world of Gielgud, Eddington was far better.

For one thing, in 1975 Gielgud had looked constricted by the writing. For another, he had made a special effort to look seedy as Spooner, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Such "character" acting struck a false note coming from that most poetic of actor-knights. Moreover Gielgud had had to contend with his old friend and powerful colleague Ralph Richardson as Hirst, whereas Eddington was only up against Pinter himself, making a whimsical acting comeback.

So in 1993 Spooner became, quietly and unforgettably, Eddington's part and the play Eddington's evening. It was also a reminder of how far the actor had come by his mid-sixties since his days as a popular television performer in The Good Life, in which he won so many people's hearts as Penelope Keith's helpless husband, and in Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, in which he created such an authentic impression as that wiliest of Westminster politicians, Jim Hacker, that Eddington himself was sometimes presumed, especially in Australia, to have real parliamentary influence.

Television may come to the financial rescue of an actor with a family to raise - and in his younger days Eddington had often to attend the labour exchange - but a big success on the small screen, never mind two big successes, fixed him in the public mind for ever.

Paul Eddington had been as rigorously trained as any actor in the business. Who else had ever spent as long in rep and made a name? Who today would spend not two or three seasons at Birmingham, Sheffield, Ipswich, Coventry and Bristol but two or three decades? From Bristol Eddington turned up regularly in the West End. In War and Peace he was a notable Andrei, and in Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head he played the sexually obliging psychiatrist, a performance that took him to Broadway.

In 1965 he was back in town as a dry-witted Disraeli to Dorothy Tutin's Queen Victoria in Portrait of a Queen; but, until the Clarence Derwent Award came his way in 1966 for the year's best supporting performance, his was not a name for casting directors to conjure with. It was only in his third successive and at last successful British West End musical, Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, that Eddington caught the fancy of connoisseurs. He played the harassed housemaster whose wobbly production of the school play kept getting up Gielgud's patrician nose as Head Master.

What interested the student of acting was the similarity of Eddington's theatrical temperament to Gielgud's: not in any classical sense but as thoroughly British exponents of high, dry farce or comedy. When Eddington came to play the Head Master himself 16 years later at Chichester and in the West End, Bennett's ironical revue seemed as funny as and maybe funnier than it had been with Gielgud. He compared equally well with his mentor in taking the Gielgud part in David Storey's Home - his last West End appearance - at Wyndham's last year.

The manners of the two actors were so similar that Eddington remembered their both nearly falling off the stage in the original Forty Years On in a mutual fear of upstaging one another. What both actors shared, apart from their slim, light build, fair complexion and lightness of voice, was a superbly disciplined gift for raising laughter from outraged dignity. Eddington was in particular a master of the frozen smile, the expression that suggested he had missed the comic point and that if the joke was on him, which it usually was, he would never be able to see it.

A buffoon, then? Only in the subtlest sense. Eddington's success as Penelope Keith's hen-pecked husband in The Good Life, which ran from 1974 to 1978, and as a nice-natured victim of Whitehall bureaucracy in its junior corridors of parliamentary power in Yes, Minister, which followed from 1980, was well deserved but did no justice to his dramatic range.

If his repertory years had taught him anything it was that reps were the places to take risks. Hence his readiness to return to Bristol's attractive 18th-century stage. In the 1960s he played leads there in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Anouilh, Frisch, Waterhouse and Hall. In the 1970s he took on O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Sherriff's Journey's End.

Then, after several obvious West End opportunities in Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular and Ten Times Table, Frayn's Donkey's Years and Roger Hall's Middle-Age Spread, came the break. In his early fifties he went out on a limb. Only the National Theatre in London felt up to the risk. So, as George, the drunken, drooling, vicious and laceratingly eloquent husband and campus professor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1981), Eddington at last eluded typecasting.

Though he followed it up as the frantically disaster-prone director of a run-down rep in Frayn's Noises Off (Lyric, Hammersmith, and Savoy), the Albee play had shown him what he was made of. It was of sterner stuff than anyone supposed.

He returned to Bristol, this time to tackle something equally demanding: the pathetic old schoolmaster in Rattigan's The Browning Version. It was a brilliant performance which he repeated in the West End, where even spectators who remembered Eric Portman in the premiere of the play and Michael Redgrave on the screen conceded that Eddington's apparently effortless emotional power had deeply moved them.

He was often a surprise. Just as those who had supposed in 1968 that the Head Master in Forty Years On could never be acted by anyone but Gielgud had to eat their words in 1984, so Michael Hordern seemed to claim in 1972 Stoppard's moral philosopher in Jumpers for his own - until Eddington played that zany genius in the Aldwych revival in 1985. At Chichester in 1989 he did the same as Sir Harcourt Courtly in Boucicault's London Assurance which everyone believed after seeing Donald Sinden 19 years earlier to be still in his possession.

Thus Eddington became within a startling decade one of the most original, adventurous and stimulating actors on the London stage, perhaps because he had spent so many years off it, in rep, or perhaps because he had a rare sense of timing: when he did at last come into his own no one questioned it.

Off stage, as on, he was noted for scruples and principles. A dedicated Quaker, he registered as a conscientious objector when called up towards the end of the Second World War, thus making his first stage appearance entertaining the troops with Ensa.

A devoted player with the Bristol Old Vic and a governor of its theatrical trust, he declared abruptly in the 1980s that he would never again act at the Theatre Royal, Bristol. He had learnt that part of that theatre's subsidies came from a local tobacco company. It explained why his Spooner, unlike Gielgud's, which had been based on the chain-smoking W.H. Auden, never lit up.

When Eddington also proclaimed his detestation of private health insurance on the grounds that it enabled people to "jump the queue" he admitted that, if he ever needed treatment, "I might cheat." At least, that was what he feared having once collapsed during the run of No Man's Land in which he never left the stage during its one and three- quarter hours' performance.

Last month he made a moving and characteristically defiant appearance on the television programme Face to Face, in which, interviewed by Jeremy Isaacs, he made light of his disfiguring illness, a rare skin cancer from which he had suffered for 40 years. His autobiography appeared only two weeks ago. His title for it was So Far, So Good.

Adam Benedick

Paul Clark Eddington, actor: born London 18 June 1927; CBE 1987; married 1952 Patricia Scott (three sons, one daughter); died London 4 November 1995.