Monday 13 February 1995
That he was rarely out of work, except from choice, for nearly 70 years testifies to the reliability of his talent. He conferred dignity on a wide range of respectable characters, from judges and churchmen to soldiers and other figures of authority. Able at the flick of an eyebrow or sigh of well-bred resignation to portray the patrician type at his most favourable in an often unfavourable dramatic climate, Shaw added to his weatherbeaten features, hesitant manner and aristocratic airs and graces a touch of individual warmth which made stick-in-the-muds less sticky and stylish aristocrats less dull.
He was especially good at courtly or military pomp. His Polonius to Alan Howard's Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company was unrivalled in his complacency and sense of circumstance. Who could forget, either, his long- suffering humiliation as Gloucester (to Eric Porter's Lear) as his eyes were put out?
He himself was anything but self-important if his stint at the Royal Court in the mid-1960s is anything to go by. When William Gaskill wanted to re- establish a repertoire, Shaw, by then in his sixties with half a century of experience on the West End stage, did his elegant bit to continue ushering in the so-called new wave - or rather the second wave - of British drama instigated by Look Back in Anger a decade before.
Shaw brought all his tact and paternal encouragement to one of the most mixed bags in dramatic history. Ranging from Osborne's A Patriot for Me (for which the theatre had to turn itself into a club to escape censorship), Ann Jellicoe's Shelley, Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance, N.J. Simpson's The Cresta Run and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside to Wesker's Their Very Own and Golden City, it hardly offered the old actor much worth doing; but he made a fond patriarch to the otherwise young company.
Shaw played four parts in Shelley and a private soldier in Arden's Serjeant Musgrave's Dance: but the Royal Court cause had still to be fought, as had that of the trade union in Wesker's play and Shaw, if he wasn't for once playing a toff, made a remarkably moving figure of the union organiser.
Repertoire which Shaw had known since his early days with Randle Ayrton - his favourite actor-manager - at Stratford-on-Avon in the 1920s was of no interest to modern Chelsea. So it was no surprise when he seized a chance to move to Peter Hall's RSC, still mixing new writers like David Mercer (Belcher's Luck, After Haggerty), Trevor Griffiths (Occupations) and Edward Albee (All Over) with the old, but giving Shaw a better chance to flex his muscles.
His beautifully phrased Duncan to Scofield's Macbeth, the already noted Polonius and Gloucester, Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet (he had played Romeo at Swiss Cottage in 1932), Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing, Vincentio in Measure for Measure, Boyet in Love's Labour Lost, Justice Overdo in Bartholomew Fair followed and - two cherished memories - Sir Eglamour in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Sir Oblong Fitz Oblong in Robert Bolt's surely "classical" children's play, The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew. Then came two other friendly authors for such a well-graced old actor. Gorky with Summerfolk and Chekhov with Three Sisters (with the rubicund Shaw as the drunken doctor).
If his virtues were never widely celebrated (except sometimes in British films of the 1930s when he classed himself as "a piece of cinema beefcake") it was the price a character actor always pays for being in work while the leading men wait for leading roles.
Shaw was a leading man occasionally before the war and made, they say, a lot of hearts throb. As Lewis Dodd the romantic artist in The Constant Nymph, a role which Coward and then Gielgud had just made famous, Shaw toured when touring was still big business. As Wyndham Brandon in the West End Sunday try-out of Rope he went on to Broadway in 1929 and then began making films, though not at the expense of the stage, with Caste (1930) and Taxi to Paradise (1933).
As Valerie Hobson's sailor husband in Michael Powell's The Spy in Black (1939) when she got involved with Conrad Veidt's monocled German naval captain at the end of the 1914-18 war, Shaw did his heroic bit; and in Men Are Not Gods (1936) he was an actor re-enacting Othello with the anxious Gertrude Lawrence as his wife. In Edgar Wallace's The Squeaker (1937) he played the eponymous nasty piece of work with all the smoothness at his command. He may also be remembered as the pilot in a wartime RAF training film in which Edward G. Robinson coached Richard Attenborough in the rudiments of flying
War films included The Glass Mountain (1948) as the bearded novelist- friend of Michael Denison's musician, and Kevin Brownlow's It Happened Here (1964), which showed what might have happened had Britain lost the war.
The stage, however, never lost its hold in youth or old age, whether in the open air at Ludlow as Everyman in the first English production of Hugo von Hofmansthal's play, or as King Wulfhere in St Chad of the Seven Wells at Lichfield Cathedral, or directing and acting the lead as a detective in his own play Take a Life for Bernard Miles's Mermaid Theatre, or as the Judge at the same theatre in Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Even in his seventies Shaw toured American universities as a teacher and recitalist before returning to the National Theatre as that ancient red-faced, gnarled and crinkly 19th-century Irish pedant who could read Homer in Greek but not Shakespeare in Brian Friel's Translations.
When Tony Richardson and Woodfall Films generously offered to finance the final stages of Andrew Mollo's and my film It Happened Here, we were able to afford a professional for one of the most important roles, writes Kevin Brownlow. We consulted the actors' directory Spotlight, and it fell open at a picture of Sebastian Shaw.
"Now that's the sort of person we want," I said. "not that we could ever get him!"
"Why not?" asked Andrew Mollo.
We telephoned Shaw's agent and arranged a meeting that same night at 11.30pm. Shaw was ideal. He said he would play the role only if he liked the script. He read it and agreed to do the part for a nominal fee. He made two conditions; if the film were ever shown commercially, he would be paid his usual fee, and he would have complete freedom to rewrite his dialogue.
We were only too happy to agree to both. He gave his dialogue an individual slant which enhanced his performance - and he helped us with the casting, introducing us to Fiona Leland, who was extraordinarily good as his wife.
The fact that Sebastian Shaw had been in films of the 1940s - like The Spy in Black - brought an authenticity to this recreation of the 1940s. It was one of those rare occasions when the actor proved far better in reality than in the scriptwriter's imagination.
Sebastian Shaw, actor: born Holt, Norfolk 29 May 1905; died Brighton 23 December 1994.
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