Barry Foster

Wednesday 13 February 2002 01:00
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Barry Foster, actor: born Beeston, Nottinghamshire 21 August 1932; married 1955 Judith Shergold (one son, two daughters); died Guildford, Surrey 11 February 2002.

Barry Foster was the star of the 1970s television police series Van der Valk, playing the Dutch detective Piet Van der Valk. The scenes of canals and bridges in Amsterdam, where the series was set, and its leisurely pace, were in sharp contrast to more gritty British dramas as Z Cars and Softly Softly. Foster's Van der Valk was a thoughtful, intellectual sleuth, impulsive, moody and a maverick. Foster described his character:

He can be just like the kids. It is the style of the place. The police over here cannot be astonished, and this is one thing about the character Van der Valk. He is understanding and does not disapprove. That isn't his job, anyway. He's a lovely guy to play, a thoughtful, unorthodox cop with a touch of the private eye.

Born in Beeston, Nottinghamshire, in 1932, the only child of a toolsetter, Foster and his family moved to Hayes, Middlesex, when he was only a few weeks old. He left Southall County Grammar School to work as an organic chemist in an EMI laboratory, and pursued an interest in writing by submitting copy to advertising agencies. He was met with rejection after rejection.

Then he won a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama and spent two years training, before stepping straight into a theatre job, touring the Republic of Ireland in Shakespearean productions alongside future stars such as Patrick Magee and Kenneth Haigh. He made his début as Lorenzo in The Merchant Of Venice (1952) in Co Cork. "They came for miles by car, on horseback and in their donkey carts," he recalled.

He made his London début as the Electrician in The Night of the Ball (New Theatre, 1955) and later took starring roles as Cornelius Christian in Fairy Tales of New York (Comedy, 1961), and as Dust in Next Time I'll Sing to You (New Arts, Criterion, 1963). After opening at Wimbledon Theatre as Ted in The Private Ear and Julian in The Public Eye (1963), Foster moved with the double bill to Broadway (Morosco, 1963), before transferring with the cast to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Returning to Britain, he played Adhémar in Let's Get a Divorce (Mermaid and Comedy Theatres, 1966) and both King John and Macbeth at Nottingham Playhouse (1968-69), before returning to the West End in two Harold Pinter plays, The Basement and Tea Party (Duchess, 1970).

For many years, Foster was typecast in war films such as The Battle of the River Plate (1956), Dunkirk (1958), King and Country (1964) and The Battle of Britain (1969). However, on television, he realised his potential in a wider range of roles.

Fame came for Foster with ITV's crime series Van der Valk (1972-73, 1977), filmed in Amsterdam and based on books by Nicolas Freeling. A detective with the Amsterdam CID, Van der Valk was not the most diplomatic of policemen, which made his rise to the rank of commissaris slow. The programme was also noted for its theme music, "Eye Level", written by the Dutch composer Jan Stoeckhart under the nom de plume of Jack Trombey, and recorded by the Simon Park Orchestra. "Eye Level" topped the British singles charts for four weeks in 1973.

However, by the time the programme was revived two decades later in seven two-hour specials (1991-92), Van der Valk was a grandfather, with a policeman son, and the drama seemed outmoded.

In between, Foster capitalised on his television stardom by playing Kaiser Wilhelm in Fall of Eagles (1974), the BBC series tracing the collapse of three great European dynasties, John Buchan's officer adventurer Richard Hannay in The Three Hostages (1978), the maverick British major-general Orde Wingate in Orde Wingate (1978), Saul Enderby in Smiley's People (1982) and the cool, calculating army officer Major Trent in the wartime drama The Free Frenchman (1989).

Foster appeared alongside Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in their first television production together, HTV's Divorce His; Divorce Hers (1973), a two-part play by John Hopkins about a marriage under stress. Later, Foster had a supporting role as Pieter Eugene in one series of the BBC minicabs sitcom Roger Roger (1999).

Foster's best film role was as Bob Rusk, the murderous grocer in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). He took the role of an IRA commandant in David Lean's film Ryan's Daughter (1970). He also appeared in The Wild Geese (featuring Richard Burton, 1978), Inspector Clouseau (with Alan Arkin as the bumbling French detective, 1968), Heat and Dust (as Major Minnies in the award-winning Merchant-Ivory film, 1983) and Maurice (as Dean Cornwallis, 1987).

Later in life, Foster lamented that he had never had a significant film career. "My trouble is that I'm not big or pretty enough to be an old-fashioned screen idol, nor am I small enough or bizarre enough to be one of the new lot," he said.

By Anthony Hayward

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