Current Biography 1969 comes this information about Bates's
youth: "The oldest of three brothers, Alan Arthur Bates
was born in the Midlands suburb of Allestree, Derbyshire, on
February 17, 1934. He has described his family as 'middle middle
class'; his father, Harold Arthur Bates, is an insurance broker,
and his mother Florence Mary (Wheatcroft) Bates is a housewife.
Both parents are amateur musicians, and they encouraged Alan
to become a concert pianist. But by the time he had reached eleven,
Bates had other plans for his future.
'I just up and said I wanted to be an actor,'
he recalled in an interview with Edwin Miller of Seventeen
(May 1963). His parents substituted speech lessons for piano
instruction, and for a time he studied acting with Claude W.
Gibson. Bates attended the Herbert Strut Grammar School in Belper,
Derbyshire and then studied on a scholarship at the Royal Academy
of Dramatic Arts in London, where he received most of his training
in the classics of the theatre. He took out two years from his
career to fulfill his military service in the Royal Air Force.
'. . .After making his stage debut in 1955
at Coventry with the Midland Theatre Company, Bates did not enter
an apprenticeship in the traditional way with the Old Vic or
at Stratford-on-Avon, but joined the English Stage Company, a
London repertory group [based at the Royal Court Theatre] whose
productions included many plays in the new realism as well as
other modern works and some classical drama ... His most important
appearance was in John Osborne's landmark anti- Establishment
drama, Look Back in Anger, which had its premiere under
the direction of Tony Richardson on May 8, 1956."
Look Back in Anger, which had a successful
run on Broadway, launched Bates's career in both England and
the US. From the beginning he was an actor for all media, and
his early identity as an "angry young man" seemed more
linked to a particular moment in post-war Britain than in his
actual acting forte, which was always protean. From the eerie
Mick in Pinter's The Caretaker, to Laurence Olivier's
homebody son in The Entertainer, to the fugitive in Whistle
Down the Wind and the honest young dreamer in A Kind of
Loving, these early roles are stamped with the Alan Bates
signature: he became his character in every detail: his eyes,
his hands, his posture and breath belonged to the role he was
playing -- one reason that these films are still so engaging.
Directors who worked with Bates noted that he had an almost childlike
absence of ego. It was as though he kept a space in himself vacant
into which his current character could be poured.
Bates's professional relationships lasted a lifetime, and included
associations with the great contemporary writers, directors and
actors of this rich period in English theatre and filmmaking.
As film historian Brian McFarlane says, "His work is central
to any study of British cinema of the last three decades."
He appeared in eleven Simon Gray plays, which are among his finest
work: Spoiled (BBC, 968), Butley
(stage and film 1972), Plaintiffs & Defendants and
Two Sundays (BBC 1975), Otherwise
Engaged (1975), Stage Struck (1977), Melon
(1987), Unnatural Pursuits (tv 1991), and Simply Disconnected
(1996), a sequel to Otherwise Engaged; and Life Support,
their final collaboration, (1997).
He worked with Harold Pinter at least six times: The
Collection (Granada, 1976), The Caretaker (stage and
film, 1964); The Go-Between (Pinter screenplay, 1971);
One for the Road (1984); Victoria Station (1984);
Life Support (Pinter directing,1997); four major roles
Olivier: The Collection (tv, 1976); The Entertainer
(1964); The Three Sisters (film,1969, also directed by
Olivier); and Voyage Round My Father (tv, 1982); John Schlesinger directed him in four films:
A Kind of Loving (1962), Far from the Madding Crowd
(1966), Separate Tables (tv, 1983), and An Englishman
Abroad (1983).He did two classic
Bennett plays [the two Alans are shown at here during a break
in filming]: An Englishman Abroad (BBC,
1983) which has been called one of the most perfect hours of
television ever filmed, and 102 Boulevard Haussmann (BBC, 1991). His two films with director John
Frankenheimer, The Fixer (1968) and Impossible
Object (Story of a Love Story, 1973) are neglected
He performed often with Glenda Jackson and Julie Christie, and his recent Cleopatra,
de la Tour. On location for The Return of the Soldier,
with Jackson. Christie and Ann-Margret, "The quality of
their harmonious relationship owed a tremendous amount to the
shrewd diplomacy of the amiable Alan Bates. He became their go-between,
acting as a buffer to any possible clashes. ... By constantly
deflecting their conversations onto neutral subjects, it was
not long before the three female stars were chatting about recipes
and restaurants, which, certainly as far as Glenda was concerned,
was no mean achievement." [from Glenda Jackson: A Study
in Fire and Ice, by Ian Woodward, St. Martin's Press, 1985.]
Many articles over the years show a man at ease with himself
- supporting his colleagues, confident of his abilities without
the show of ego that sometimes afflicts great artists.
From the Madding Crowd pressbook reveals another side to
Alan Bates. "The son of a cellist father, ... and of a mother
who also was devoted to music, the actor had never drawn on his
musical heritage until he was required to play the flute for
a sequence. ...He could easily have faked the playing but, instead,
started taking lessons several weeks before filming began. As
a result, when audiences see the picture, it is flautist Alan
Bates on the soundtrack. 'My parents were terribly pleased when
they came to visit me on location in Weymouth and heard me play,'
he says proudly. ... Since time was of the essence, the actor
spent every evening practicing on a century-old flute. Bates
admits that during that week there were some knockings on the
walls from guests in adjoining rooms."
1970, Bates married Victoria Ward. Their twin sons, Benedick
and Tristan, were born in 1971. (When asked in an interview about
his work in The Go-Between, he said, "The thing I
mostly remember about the filming was that my children were about
to be born, so I was rather preoccupied!") In 1990, tragedy
struck: Tristan died during an asthma attack while working as
a model in Tokyo. Two years later Alan's wife died. According
to a 1994 interview with Matt Wolf of the Washington Times,
"the actor's busy schedule in recent years has helped him
recover from the death of his son ... and then that of his wife.
... His most recent stage appearances in London were dedicated
to their memories: David Storey's Stages to his wife;
Thomas Bernhard's The Showman to his son."
Bates on Bates
Reporters including Simon Fanshawe of the
Times, have noted the poignance of Bates's 1997 role in
Life Support, in which he attempted to revive his comatose
wife, and struggled to come to terms with guilt and grief. Bates
himself called the play cathartic. "I had pure ambition,"
he said in the Fanshawe interview. "But when terrible things
happen in your life, your priorities are changed - not sharply,
but subtly and slowly. You think about somebody like Tristan
and think he would probably have been an extremely good actor.
I've already had 40 years and if he wasn't allowed that, why
should I have any more? And then you think, hey, wait a minute:
he was one of the main inspirations of my life. I'm going to
do it for him."
Alan Bates was appointed C.B.E. (Commander
of the British Empire) in the 1995 Queen's Birthday Honours,
and attended the December ceremony accompanied by his mother,
his brother, Martin Bates, and his son, Benedick. He was knighted
in the 2003 New Year Honours, only weeks before he learned that
he had cancer.
Bates has been praised for work, including Edinburgh Festival
performances of Schiller's Don Carlos; Vanbrugh's Restoration
comedy The Relapse, for the Glasgow Citizens Company;
and for his Chichester Festival appearances in the Turgenev comedy
Fortune's Fool , and in Simon Gray's Simply Disconnected,
playing opposite his father (in fact, holding him at gunpoint).
His recent work includes guest starring roles in "Real Women,"
"Highlander: the Raven," and "The Bill."
"Semi-Monde," a rarely-performed Noel Coward play was
a West End success in 2001. Ben was co-starring with Nathan Lane
in a sell-out Boston revival of "Butley" in November
2003. It is sad that Alan was unable to see his old friend and
son in a play that was so important to him.
Bates Theatre was established by the Bates family at the
Actors Centre, Covent Garden. Alan was the third Patron of the
Centre (which offers a wide range of support services to Equity
actors) succeeding Lord Olivier and Sir Alec Guinness, the first
and second patrons.
"Can you talk about acting with Alan Bates?"
asks Bruce McCabe, of the Boston Globe, in a 1980s interview.
'You can talk around it,' he [Bates] said.
'You can say things about it. But you need
understanding of it. It's something that's inside of you. You
hope for inspiration to enable you to speak for another person
so that the audience will believe that you are that person. I
like to let the part creep through me, insinuate itself into
me. I like physical things about a part. I can start walking
with a stoop without being aware that I'm doing it. I sort of
let it come through.' As an actor, Bates says he tends more toward
the instinctive than the analytical. 'It has to do with the imagination,'
he says. 'It's mysterious. I can't say what it is.'"
In 1990 he wrote the following words in a
memorial essay about his friend and colleague Ian Charleson,
which might well apply to Alan himself. At the very least, they
suggest what was important to him:
I don't know how you define special spirits: you just know
them when you meet them. ... Success didn't turn him into a spoiled,
ridiculous man who believed in his own image. He was wise. He
saw life as a whole thing - not as a series of mistakes and accidents.
That, I think, must have been the line which gave him an ability
to cope with anything."
Alan Bates revealed his own special
spirit through his work. Over the years he gave us an unforgettable
gallery of husbands, fathers, lovers, brothers, friends, heroes
and villains, each unique, each alive with the Bates blend of
humor, passion, intelligence: Gabriel Oak, Rupert Birkin, Saul
Kaplan, Yakov Bok, Ben Butley, Michael Henchard, Sergei Diaghilev,
Guy Burgess, Hamish Partt, Simon Hench, Jeff Golding, Reg Green,
Paul Parsky, and the unforgettable Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin...
the list is long, and we will savor our memories of his art for
many years to come.
for the Alan Bates Archive
27 January 2004
Written material © copyright Karen Rappaport,
2004; photo copyrights remain with the photographers.