Obituary: Geoffrey Kendal

Kuldip Singh
Sunday 14 June 1998 23:02
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TILL THE early Seventies, few Indians knew that the real name of the Shakespeare Wallah - or the man who produced, directed and acted in Shakespeare's plays - was Geoffrey Kendal. Most simply knew this handsome and talented British actor-manager, renowned for playing Shakespearean characters across India, to packed houses, simply by his Indian sobriquet.

For two generations of schoolchildren - now in their fifties - Kendal's Shakespeareana Company provided them their first introduction to the Bard. Accompanied by his wife Laura and, in later years, by his daughters Jennifer and Felicity, Kendal's troupe toured India performing mostly Shakespearean plays but also those of Sheridan, Shaw and Wilde from shabby village halls to opulent maharajas' palaces, often joined by a variety of young local actors who later earned international cinematic acclaim.

Kendal was publicly anointed Shakespeare Wallah after the 1965 Ivory- Merchant film of the same name. In the film - which also featured his wife, daughter and son-in-law, the Indian film actor Shashi Kapoor - three members of an English theatrical family "play" themselves in a story based loosely on the real-life experiences of an English troupe which toured India after the British Raj ended in 1947.

Kendal played the actor-manager Buckingham, down on his luck and trying to cadge bookings from unsympathetic school bursars for his stage productions, locked in a losing battle with raucous, but slickly made, Bollywood movies produced in India's film capital city of Bombay. "It was in some ways close to our experience" said Kendal.

And even though Kendal's world as a wandering actor - he had begun his theatrical career treading the boards of repertory companies across England - was shrinking fast, he never gave up. He performed at boarding schools, colleges, small town squares - wherever anyone was willing to defray basic costs, from the turbulent North West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan), the home of the war-loving Pathans, in the north to the sylvan environs of Ooty in the south. In its meanderings his troupe slept on crowded station platforms, suffering privations even the most dedicated of actors would have happily foresworn.

When money was tight - which was often - Kendal's retinue travelled third class by rail, which in India has always been nothing short of a nightmare.

On one occasion two of his actors had to cling to the side of the train as it pulled out of the station, fastening themselves to their cage by their belts. There were 70 people crammed into a space meant for 12 and when one of Kendal's party got to the lavatory, having climbed over packed, inert bodies in searing hot temperatures he found four people inside the cubicle and a baby comfortably installed in the washbasin.

But things were not always so grim for the Shakespeareana Company of which Countess Mountbatten of Burma and the fabulously wealthy Maharaja of Jaipur were once patrons. In the late 1940s Kendal's "princely tour" took in the royal states of Hyderabad and Travencore in the south to Patiala and Gwalior in the north, where they were feted by the wealthy and glamorous and witnessed at first hand the opulence and majesty of some of India's richest potentates.

But above all, Kendal loved India. He had felt a strong affinity the moment he landed at Bombay in the mid-1940s. It was the place where he found he really belonged. Describing his chance arrival in the country where he spent his most productive and active years, Kendal said he experienced a surge of excitement - a heightened sensation of life. The crowds, he wrote, had an energy he had never seen in Britain, restlessly flowing to and fro, as if the smallest incident was of vast interest. He was to find this same quality in an Indian audience. "They are the best in the world," he declared. "Nothing escapes their attention."

Born Geoffrey Bragg in 1909 in the Lake District town of Kendal - which name he adopted as his surname in the 1930s - into a middle-class family, he developed a liking for the theatre, especially Shakespeare, early in life. His first introduction to India was cursory, through his Uncle Jack who served there in the Royal Horse Artillery and Aunt Eunice, who fell in love with an engine-driver in the garrison town of Ambala in the north.

He attended theatre classes at Lancaster and joined various repertories which performed in small English towns. During one of these tours in Merseyside he met Laura Liddell, also an actress, and married her at Gretna Green in 1933.

After a brief career in the Merchant Navy Kendal enrolled in the Entertainment National Service Association that supplied entertainment to troops serving overseas and came to India in 1944. Ensa also took him to the Far East including Hong Kong, Singapore, the backwaters of Malaya and Borneo where he and his troupe performed to tumultuous audiences.

But he always returned to his beloved India, where his older daughter Jennifer married the dashing Shashi Kapoor, also descended from an established dynasty of Indian stage actors. Kapoor later became leading man in Bollywood films in the Sixties and Seventies while Jennifer (who died in 1984) produced and played the lead role in 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), a woefully sad and moving tale about the pathetic plight of India's depressed Anglo-Indian community.

Jennifer and Felicity had stopped performing in the troupe in the 1960s, but it was another decade before Kendal and his wife returned to England. Kendal was hit hard by Jennifer's death and was convinced he would never return to India again. But he did several times and in 1993 even directed his favourite play, Gaslight, the Victorian psychological thriller by Patrick Hamilton, at the fabulous Prithvi theatre in Bombay built in memory of Shashi Kapoor's father.

All those who knew Kendal describe him as a volatile, obnoxious, "wonderfully belligerent and mad man" who, like a Shakespearean character "drank life to the lees". He enjoyed the company of youngsters, saw adventure in everything, including hard times, and had the ability to make the most mundane event sound like a dramatic happening.

Kuldip Singh

Geoffrey Bragg (Geoffrey Kendal), actor-manager: born Kendal, Westmorland 7 September 1909; married 1933 Laura Liddell (died 1992; one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died 14 May 1998.

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