Obituary: Wensley Pithey
Thursday 25 November 1993
WHENEVER Wensley Pithey came on stage or screen you could be sure of a touch of the truth. Something about his solid presence, his heavy build, his warm personality and his unaffected, naturalistic acting smacked of sincerity, whether he was being sincere was beside the point. He seemed so.
No matter who the author was - Shakespeare, Moliere, Dickens, Shaw, Chekhov, Barrie, Maugham, Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets - Pithey's brooding, bulky presence somehow looked at home. If character actors are by definition easy to cast, Pithey was one of the best.
He preferred the classics. He knew that the greater the playwright the greater the scope for the actor of even the most marginal role. While the star performers fussed about his central place in the scheme of things Pithey was content to serve his author, however marginal the part.
He started in Shakespeare in South Africa, his birthplace, at the age of 12 as Herbert in King John. Still a boy, he toured variety halls with excerpts from Shakespeare. Could there have been a better way of learning how to make a audience listen, how to deliver verse, how to speak audibly, interestingly?
At the University of Cape Town he trained at its College of Drama, won a broadcasting contest to find an announcer, joined the South African Broadcasting Corporation and became director of the university's little theatre, toured his own company, and in 1947 took the plunge and sailed for England.
A stint in rep at Manchester with Peter Cotes's troupe at the Library Theatre, led to a West End transfer in Odets' Rocket to the Moon. Then came a tour of the Welsh coalfields in O'Neill's Anna Christie for the Arts Council and a spell with the Bristol Old Vic which brought him back to London as Orgon in
Thereafter except for breaks in films he remained one of London's busiest, most reliable and best- trained character actors, bringing conviction to figures of authority - officials, policemen, fathers, lawyers, schoolmasters, old soldiers, board chairmen, baronets.
The line stretched out for six decades, and if he ever tasted what is known as stardom it must have been on the television screen in 1979 though he had been a familiar face in programmes like Charlesworth, Special Branch, Ike, Edward and Mrs Simpson. As Winston Churchill, though, in Suez 1956, he had just the weight and shape - and the authority.
An air of quiet wisdom would sometimes enrich his acting, never more so for example than as Sir Toby Belch at the newly opened Birmingham Rep when he was brought in to give the company some much-needed weight in 1973, or as the delightful neighbour Pishchick in The Cherry Orchard for the opening production of Riverside Studios six years later.
Sometimes his acting was worth a detour for connoisseurs. As the elderly, long-resigned lover for instance of Constance Cummings's rouged and raddled Lady Kitty in The Circle (Guildford, 1974), he scowled and grunted, groaned and battled with with his false teeth in such a way as to set the house on roar while still reminding us what a catch the old boy must have been in his prime.
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