OBITUARY: Robert Flemyng
Wednesday 24 May 1995
He made his first stage appearance at the age of 19 in 1931 in Truro as Keith Raglan in Patrick Hamilton's thriller Rope, but his first big success came five years later when at the age of 24 he created the role of the dashing Kit Neilan in Terence Rattigan's French Without Tears, that shimmeringly light and beguiling comedy. It was a character to which he brought an immediate and distinctive charm in a play which was the perfect vehicle for bringing him to early prominence. After this he consolidated his reputation as a leading actor and remained so for 60 years.
When he returned to the London stage after the Second World War, in which he had acquitted himself with notable bravery and distinction, he made another success as the decent, progressive schoolmaster in Warren Chetham Strode's long-running problem play The Guinea Pig, about the trials encountered by a working-class boy after being given a place in a conventional public school.
Throughout his career Flemyng was cast in plays which were very much of their period and of a kind, perhaps, which reflected the somewhat bland middle-class values of contemporary audiences; his incursions into classical theatre were comparatively rare. Perhaps this was inevitable, for it was hard for directors and producers not to realise how sympathetically he fitted that role of the decent, average middle-class Englishman from the world of Brief Encounter, a role to which he also brought an infallible attractiveness and likeability.
But he revealed a new, unsuspected, strength when he appeared with Alec Guinness as Edward Chamberlayne, the distraught husband, in T.S. Eliot's poetic drawing-room drama The Cocktail Party Party, in 1949. He seemed to have acquired a remarkable ability to convey the inner anguish of a troubled man of honour forced to face the consequences of his own emotional failings. His fine and sensitive playing of this part left an indelible impression that it could not have been better realised. This new vein of agonised soul-searching stood him in good stead and led to other roles of similar resonance notably as James Callifer in Graham Greene's The Potting Shed, which he played in New York in 1957. In London, in 1954, he had appeared as the enigmatic general Rupert Forster, on trial for cowardice in John Whiting's Marching Song. In Charles Duff's recent study of pre- Osborne London theatre there is a typically self-effacing note from Flemyng himself speaking with acuteness about his playing of this problematic role.
Flemyng was the son of a Liverpool doctor and was educated at Haileybury. He began his career as a medical student but abandoned medicine to become an actor. In 1952 he was touring as Cyril Greenwood in After All, with Violet Vanbrugh, and in that same year joined the Liverpool repertory company where, under the benign but masterful guiding hand of William Armstrong, he polished his craft and worked with a splendid company which had numbered such promising newcomers as Michael Redgrave and Rex Harrison.
After leaving Liverpool he returned to the London theatre, appearing in a number of plays with such evocatively period titles as Wisdom Teeth and Worse Things Happen At Sea until French Without Tears established him firmly as a leading West End player. Two years later he made his first professional visit to New York, appearing in the Irish comedy Spring Meeting at the Morosco Theatre and then in S.N. Behrman's No Time For Comedy, with Laurence Olivier and Katherine Cornell, which opened at the Barrymore Theatre in 1939.
As soon as war was declared he asked to be released from his contract and returned to Britain to enlist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was commissioned and rose to become a full colonel at 33, one of the youngest in the British army. He served with great gallantry in Eritrea and Italy, in both of which campaigns he saw action, and for which he was awarded the Military Cross, in 1941, and a mention in despatches, and was appointed OBE in 1944.
After five years' continuous service Flemyng returned to the stage, appropriately enough on an ENSA tour of another of Rattigan's gossamer comedies, While The Sun Shines, which ended at the Marigny Theatre, in Paris, a city thronged with jubilant Allied troops. His close association with Rattigan continued. He appeared also in Rattigan's Adventure Story as Philotas, in this surprising and untypical study of Alexander the Great; a revival of French Without Tears; and Who Is Sylvia? in which he created the role of the errant young diplomat.
In the post-war years he appeared in a whole succession of famous theatrical hits, including Andre Roussin's The Little Hut, John Van Druten's Bell, Book and Candle, with Kay Kendall, and the light marital comedy To Dorothy, A Son.
His first visit to New York in 1938 had inspired him with a passion for America and, after appearing on Broadway in 1947 with John Gielgud's company, playing Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest and Ben in Love For Love, he took every opportunity to return; in 1952 he joined Katherine Cornell as her leading man in a long American tour of Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife.
Flemyng made a great number of films. His first appearance was opposite Jesse Matthews in Head Over Heels in 1937. He also appeared with Jack Warner in The Blue Lamp (1950) and with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1956). He had leading roles in the war-time spy epic The Man Who Never Was (1955) and also in Young Winston (1972). But his most striking film role was probably the recreation of the young housemaster in the screen version of The Guinea Pig (1949). His last film appearance was in a cameo role in Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands (1993).
He was a familiar figure on the television screen and created leading roles in such popular long-running series of the Sixties as the BBC's Compact (1962-65) and Granada's Family Solicitor (1961).
Flemyng had a huge relish for work and was a rare figure in the theatre of today in taking a particular delight in touring, especially when he returned to his north-west industrial roots in revivals such as My Fair Lady. A few years ago he had a hip- replacement operation which went badly wrong, at first leaving him very lame and in his last years severely crippled.
Undaunted, he continued to fling himself into work and fought against any notion that he should lessen his activities. Within the last decade he played for two seasons at the National Theatre and for over two years at the Savoy Theatre in Michael Frayn's Noises Off. In his late seventies he went on an arduous tour of India with John Dexter's Haymarket company, playing Julius Caesar, and Oedipus in Stephen Spender's version of Creon. Among Flemyng's last stage appearances was playing the judge in Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden, at the King's Head. His last television appearance was as Canon Godwin in the BBC's adaptation of Joanna Trollope's The Choir, broadcast this spring.
Robert Flemyng enjoyed an instinctive sense of honour and a rigorous sense of duty and he worked hugely for the cause of his fellow actors. He served for 10 years on the council of Equity, between 1960 and 1976, and played a key role during the actors' television strike in the negotiations with the independent television companies in 1960. Since 1947 he had served on the Actors' Charitable Trust, became treasurer in 1967 and subsequently vice-president on his retirement in 1978.
To his friends he was a man of great warmth and sweetness of temper, an endearing modesty, a man who was always a marvellously convivial and uninhibited companion. He lived between his small house in Clapham, furnished with the no-nonsense austerity of an urban rectory where equally no-nonsense fare was offered such as grilled chops and red wine, and his tall house on the Brighton seafront, luminously awash with marine light but again a refuge of simplicity and tranquillity which reflected the taste of his beautiful Peruvian wife Carmen (once a member of the great Motley design team), who died last year.
To the amusement and sometimes the exasperation of his friends Robert Flemyng possessed a strong streak of stubbornness which seemed to spur him to test himself even further against age and disability. But that perhaps was an essential part of a remarkably courageous nature. A special Garrick Club lunch held last year in his honour testified to the great love and respect in which he was held in his profession.
Robert Flemyng, actor: born Liverpool 3 January 1912; MC 1941, OBE 1944; married Carmen Sugars (died 1994; one daughter); died London 22 May 1995.
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