Eric Flynn

Thursday 14 March 2002 01:00 GMT

Eric William Flynn, actor: born Hainan Island, China 13 December 1939; married 1959 Fern Warner (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1981), 1981 Caroline Forbes (one son, one daughter); died Llanrhian, Pembrokeshire 4 March 2002.

One of the most talented performers of his day in musical theatre – a fine actor with a powerful flexible voice and a magnetic stage presence – Eric Flynn would have had a much more structured career had the indigenous British musical been in better health during his prime.

As it was he served his time in the blockbusters of the period – appearing at various stages of the long runs of both Chess and Evita in the 1980s (both Prince Edward Theatre) – but too much of his career was spent giving excellent performances in shows often indifferent at best, or overseas.

His background was unusual. He was born in China, where he spent his boyhood, a significant part of it interred along with his family in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. He did not reach England until his teenage years. After leaving his Kent school he won a Rada scholarship; his first professional appearances were in the classical theatre, and something of a baptism of fire.

A Stratford season included small roles in Franco Zeffirelli's disastrous production of Othello (Memorial Theatre, 1961), an ego-trip of major proportions – to describe Zeffirelli's designs, inspired by Veronese, as lavish would be a major understatement – which crushed stars (John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Dorothy Tutin) and supporting players alike; Flynn could be wildly funny recalling this production. He also played a Bassanio of considerable charm in The Merchant of Venice.

With commendable versatility, Flynn then went into a Palladium pantomime, Man in the Moon (1962). Early television appearances led to his casting in the title role of the popular 1970 television serial Ivanhoe, in which his virile good looks and swashbuckling skills reminiscent of his namesake Errol were used to splendid effect.

With the departure of the original New York cast, Flynn had the chance to star in one of the best American musicals of the 1970s, Company (Her Majesty's, 1972), directed by Hal Prince. The central role of Bobby, the bachelor hero much urged towards matrimony by his chic Manhattan friends is a tricky one, a predominantly reactive character who could easily seem cynical or inert. Flynn was first-rate – funny, perplexed and tender in Sondheim numbers such as "Barcelona" (partnered by Julia McKenzie) and infusing Bobby's closing "Being Alive" with a passionate yearning.

Roles of that depth were not immediately forthcoming, however. Not long afterwards he was back at Her Majesty's in Applause (1972), a rickety vehicle for Lauren Bacall which diluted All About Eve's astringency and in which most of the cast had little to do except fill in while the star changed into progressively ritzier costumes. In the role of the director boyfriend Bill Sampson, Flynn played the book scenes with much more zest than Len Cariou on Broadway, but the score gave him no real opportunities. There was even less mileage when he made up one of a talented cast floundering in the mire that was Cockie (Vandeville, 1974), a misbegotten C.B. Cochran "tribute", one of the few bright spots of which was Flynn's presence alongside Max Wall.

Flynn spent a lengthy period from the mid-1970s in South Africa, where he became immensely popular appearing in many plays and musicals. He again showed his artistry in Sondheim with A Little Night Music (His Majesty's, Johannesburg, 1975), a less than ideal production produced and directed by and starring (as Madame Armfeldt – a supporting role) South Africa's self-styled "First Lady of Theatre" Taubie Kushlick. As the lawyer Egerman, ruefully wondering if reading to his still-virgin younger bride will help ("Stendhal could ruin / The plan of attack / And there isn't much blue / In The Red and the Black") and spinning the score's intricate harmonies with stylish ease, Flynn dominated the show.

Back in England, as well as his stints in the long-running hits, he played a lusty Frank Butler opposite Suzi Quatro in Annie Get Your Gun (Chichester and Aldwych, 1987). One final Sondheim appearance saw him back in A Little Night Music (Piccadilly, 1989). Switching roles to the wonderfully self-absorbed and chauvinistic Count, once again his ability to shape the demanding structure of Sondheim's lyrics with wit and total clarity was an object lesson.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s Flynn was also busy in television and films – most notably in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987), in which he revisited his boyhood experiences. More recently, away from the showbiz hurlyburly Flynn and his second wife settled in Pembrokeshire, restoring a beautiful Georgian mansion as a guesthouse and pottery studio.

Alan Strachan

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