TALL and debonair, the epitome of the English gentleman, Peter Graves could play a roguish cad or a gallant hero with equal aplomb. He could sing too, and in such operettas as Dear Miss Phoebe and After the Ball combined his matinee- idol appeal with elegantly stylish serenading. Part of the fading tradition of finely articulated high style associated with the era of Coward and Novello, Graves had a twinkling, self-deprecating sense of humour and immense charm, enabling him to sustain a long career on stage, screen and television. He was the eighth Lord Graves, but 'wore his coronet lightly' as his fellow actor Michael Denison puts it, and his marriage to the late Vanessa Lee was one of the happiest in show business.
The son of the seventh Lord Graves, he was born in 1911 and educated at Harrow. After working briefly in estate agents and insurance offices he decided to be an actor. He made his stage debut in CB Cochran's revue Streamline (1934) and the following year played a small role in Glamorous Night at Drury Lane. It was the start of a long association with the composer-actor-manager Ivor Novello. Graves was given a featured role, plus the job of star's understudy, in Novello's Careless Rapture (1936) and in Crest of the Wave (1938) was given a song of his own, 'Clementine', for the first time. He was Franzel in The Dancing Years (Drury Lane, 1939), which closed when war was declared, and starred with Mary Ellis in Arc de Triomphe (1943). Among straight plays in which he acted were two produced by Novello: Clemence Dane's The Happy Hypocrite (1936), featuring a young Vivien Leigh, and a revival of Shakespeare's Henry V (1938, as the Dauphin), plus Novello's own Ladies into Action (1940) and We Proudly Present (1947).
He toured the United States with Gertrude Lawrence in September Tide (1949) and the following year had one of his biggest triumphs in Dear Miss Phoebe, singing 'I Leave My Heart in an English Garden'. He appeared with Anna Neagle in the Coronation Year pageant The Glorious Days and as Lord Windermere in Coward's After The Ball (1954), followed by the Vivian Ellis musical The Water Gipsies (1955). When he played Captain Von Trapp in a highly successful Australian production of The Sound of Music (1961-62), his wife took over the female lead during the run and the couple would frequently tour together in such shows as The Merry Widow, An Ideal Husband and The Last of Mrs Cheyney.
Graves is credited with a small role in the film Lily Christine (1932), but his main career in movies started with Kipps in 1940. He made several films for Gainsborough, including two Arthur Askey comedies. In the under-rated musical I'll Be Your Sweetheart (1945), a film that combined the pace and vitality of the best Fox musicals with a trenchant look at flourishing music piracy at the turn of the century, the rakish Graves was the rival of the unsophisticated but honest Michael Rennie for the hand of Margaret Lockwood. Graves and Lockwood later toured in Noel Coward's Private Lives, but neither was ideally cast in a production that the author said had 'all the chic of a whist drive in Tulse Hill'.
Graves also became part of the Wilcox-Neagle team, and in the best of their 'London' films, Spring in Park Lane (1948), he gave a splendid account of an egocentric film star. Other films included The Admirable Crichton (1957), Alfie (1966), and his last film, The Slipper and the Rose (1976).
Television appearances included Shades of Darkness, Bulman, the mini-series The Woman He Loved and most recently the Christmas special of Sherlock Holmes. His last West End show was No Sex Please, We're British. It was during the run of the show that I experienced the Graves charm and modesty personally when I mentioned the film I'll Be Your Sweetheart. While recalling the film with obvious pleasure, Graves's first comments were to praise his co stars and the writer-director Val Guest, before adding, 'I think we all did quite a good job on that, didn't we?'
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