Obituary: Albert Finney

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Albert FinneyImage source, PA
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Albert Finney, who has died at the age of 82, came to prominence in the era of the "Angry Young Men".

It was a period that transformed the face of British theatre and cinema from the mid-1950s.

He switched effortlessly between blustering roles, such as when he played Winston Churchill, and performances of great wit, charm and elegance.

Powerfully built, he had the resonant voice beloved of earlier generations of stage actors.

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Image caption,
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was one of the first kitchen-sink dramas

Albert Finney was born in Salford, Lancashire on 9 May 1936.

His father, known as "Honest Albert", ran a bookmaking business and Finney never abandoned his working-class roots.

"It's part of you," he later said. "It's in the blood really.

Finney acquired a taste for acting while studying at Salford Grammar School and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada).

He worked first with Birmingham Repertory Theatre before moving on to the Old Vic and National Theatre.

"I was dead lucky," Finney recalled. "It was one of the leading reps in the country."

His first London stage appearance was in 1958 in Jane Arden's The Party, which was directed by Charles Laughton, who also starred.

Social alienation

A year later, the young Finney was at Stratford where he replaced an ill Laurence Olivier in the role of Coriolanus.

In 1960, he appeared alongside Olivier in his first film, The Entertainer, directed by Tony Richardson.

Based on a play by John Osborne, it was an example of a new gritty style of British film-making that became known as kitchen-sink drama.

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Image caption,
Tom Jones made Finney an international star

Its heroes were invariably working-class, the backdrops often that of northern England, and it explored themes of social alienation.

Finney's next film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, gave him a starring role as a young factory worker who was disillusioned with his lot.

The plot, based on a novel by Alan Sillitoe, featured extramarital sex and abortion, earning it an X-certificate from the British Board of Film Censors.

"I remember, in terms of the sex," Finney told the Guardian in 1982, "there were great discussions because the law then was you had to have one foot on the floor."

International star

It also earned Finney the first of 13 Bafta nominations, this one for best British actor.

He was approached to play Lawrence of Arabia in David Lean's film but, after going through a four-day screen test, Finney decided not to take the role that eventually went to Peter O'Toole.

Instead, he teamed up with Tony Richardson again for Tom Jones, an adaptation of Henry Fielding's bawdy 18th Century novel.

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Image caption,
Scrooge proved he could sing as well as act

The film, which had an all-star cast, received 10 Oscar nominations, including one for Finney as best actor. In the event, he did not win, although the film did get four statuettes, including best picture.

Tom Jones made Finney an international star and he was voted one of the top ten British actors of 1963 by cinema owners.

But he refused to abandon the theatre. There was a Tony Award nomination for his performance in the title role of John Osborne's Luther, and another for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.

He also appeared in performances of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.


In the 1967 film Charlie Bubbles, which Finney also directed, he played a writer returning to his northern roots after becoming successful in London.

In one scene, Finney's character is pictured driving his gold Rolls Royce through the crumbling streets of his native Salford.

He also proved he could sing, first in the title role of the 1970 musical film Scrooge and then in the 1982 film version of the Broadway musical Annie.

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Image caption,
The Dresser paired him with Tom Courtenay

In 1974, he played the pedantic Hercule Poirot in the film Murder on the Orient Express.

Finney later complained that he was typecast in the role. "People do think I weigh 300lb with a French accent."

Later he began to specialise in more ebullient characters. There was the fading actor-manager in The Dresser, opposite Tom Courtenay, which gained him another Oscar nomination.

He also received nominations for Under the Volcano in 1984 and the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, although he never actually received a gold statuette or attended the awards ceremony.

Powerful presence

"It's a long way to go for a party, sitting there for six hours not having a cigarette or a drink," he declared. "It's a waste of time."

There was a live appearance as The Judge in Roger Waters' performance of Pink Floyd's The Wall in Berlin in July 1990.

Finney turned in a powerful portrayal of Winston Churchill in the 2002 BBC production The Gathering Storm, which won him awards including a Bafta and an Emmy.

Image caption,
He was a memorable Churchill in The Gathering Storm

He had a magnetic presence off screen too. His lovers included Joan Baez, Carly Simon, Billie Whitelaw, Jacqueline Bisset, Shelley Winters and Diana Quick.

In 1957, he married Jane Wenham, with whom he had a son. The couple divorced just five years later. In 1970, he married the French actress Anouk Aimee.

Later in life, he settled down with Penne Delmarche and admitted to only two vices - wine and horseracing. He owned several racehorses, stabled in America.

"I'm a born flirt and that will never stop, but I would take things no further. I am loyal and content."

He had kidney cancer diagnosed in 2007, and he disappeared from public view, but returned with roles in The Bourne Ultimatum and James Bond film Skyfall.

Together with actors such as Courtenay, O'Toole and Alan Bates, Albert Finney helped transform the face of British theatre and cinema during its renaissance in the 1960s.

He largely ignored the celebrity lifestyle and refused becoming CBE in 1980 and a knight in 2000.

"I think the Sir thing slightly perpetuates one of our diseases in England, which is snobbery," he said at the time. "And it also helps keep us 'quaint', which I'm not a great fan of."

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