How Alan Bates had anger thrust upon him

There is a tendency to want to slot all artists into the prevailing emotion of an era

Of all those phrases that sum up a movement in the arts, the one with real staying power is "angry young men". Who knows, perhaps one day television's Grumpy Old Men will replace it in the cultural vocabulary. But for nigh on 50 years the angry young men who brought a gritty realism to theatre in the mid to late 1950s have personified an era in British arts and become part of the language.

But this week the phrase took me by surprise. It was used repeatedly in newspaper and television stories about the death of the actor Alan Bates. I don't think there was a single story on TV or in the press about him that didn't describe him as one of the original angry young men. This does not actually mean that 15 or so writers and broadcasters were all struck with the same thought. The Press Association news agency tends to issue the first report on celebrity deaths, and the phrases it uses are picked up by all the various media outlets.

And so Alan Bates was remembered as a former angry young man. That came as news to me. I'm not sure how angry an actor can be - barring Russell Crowe on a night out. The Angry Young Men of the 1950s were playwrights such as Arnold Wesker and, most notably, John Osborne, who rather muddied the waters by becoming a grumpy old man before he even got old.

It was Osborne's play Look Back in Anger that expressed disillusion with post-war England, with its anti-hero Jimmy Porter declaring: "There aren't any good brave causes left." Its dingy bedsit setting with ironing board on stage gave rise to the phrase "kitchen sink drama"; the critic Ken Tynan described the piece as "the best young play of its decade", and the rest is theatrical history.

Alan Bates appeared in Look Back in Anger, though not as angry young Jimmy Porter, but as his appeasing and benevolent pal Cliff. Bates was also a member of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, which staged the play and which, along with Joan Littlewood's company at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, was challenging theatrical conventions.

But I can't see that working for the English Stage Company or acting in Look Back in Anger made Alan Bates an angry young man, any more than the label should be applied to the late Harry H Corbett, who was a member of Joan Littlewood' s company before going on to become Harold Steptoe. Peggy Ashcroft was a member of the English Stage Company, but was neither young, male nor angry. The anger, such as it was, belonged to the writers.

They strove for anger. Alan Bates has had anger thrust upon him. That, I suspect, is a result of a tendency to want to put all artists into a movement, or at least slot them into the prevailing emotion of an era. When it is time for the Damien Hirst generation to meet their maker, every artist of the period will probably be characterised as a part of the Britart phenomenon, and every pop star of the early Nineties a part of Britpop. It keeps things neat; but it's not cultural history.

¿ It was good to see Ray Davies's name in the New Year Honours list. I have always found it a mystery why this quintessentially English songwriter has never had quite the credit he deserved. Why, for example, has the Kinks' front man (or the whole group) not received a lifetime achievement award at the Brits? Pretty well every other big name from their generation has, and quite a few lesser names too. Let's hope that the Brit Awards panel takes the hint from the honours list.

One reason why Davies may not have the international reputation he deserves is that the Kinks never really made it big in America. Davies tells a poignant story to explain this. On an early tour there in the mid Sixties, they performed their hit of the time, "A Well Respected Man". All was going swimmingly until Davies sang the line "He likes his fags the best."

A harmless observation about smoking took on an entirely different meaning in the US, where fag is short for faggot. Radio stations banned the song, and the Kinks came home without transatlantic fame and fortune. It's strange to think how different their lives might have been if the word "cigarettes" had scanned.

¿ My favourite moment on television over the holiday season was provided by a notable artiste. Lesley Garrett of the English National Opera was one of the celebrity contestants on the BBC's Test The Nation. When a question about Wembley came up, the diva was asked if she had any particular memories of the stadium. Most certainly, she replied, noting with pride that she was "the last person to lead the singing at a Wembley cup final of, er, what was the name of that song?" It's called "Abide With Me", Lesley; it's the traditional cup final song. And singing it was clearly a memorable experience for you.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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