I cannot allow the death of the brilliant English actor Albert Finney to pass without comment. Throughout the 1960s when I was a correspondent for The Montreal Star in London, I wrote a weekly column about happenings in the London theatre, which at that time was at its peak, delivering week after week memorable and sometimes unforgettable productions.
I saw many wonderful acting performances by men and women whom I considered to be the world’s best actors, but none were greater than that of Albert Finney, at the time a veritable tyro of 29, who played the lead in John Arden’s amazing play, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight. Arden wrote the play at a time when the tribal problems of the Belgian Congo were in the news, and in it he portrayed a period of British history of the early sixteenth century, when raids across the Scottish border into England by tribal chieftains were commonplace events. The play focuses on a character called John Armstrong of Gilnockie, described in the Oxford Index as “an anarchic and immoral rogue”, who repeatedly made cattle raids across the border, in defiance of the attempts by the English to impose their suzerainty over him.
“In this well-constructed piece, Arden explores the relationship between honourable dealing and political expediency,” remarks the Oxford Index. This was a mark of Arden’s plays: though set in the past, they always had relevance to some contemporary event. Anyway, to play the role of this tribal chief, Finney had to be able to show he was a man capable of commanding a disputed borderland. And he had to do it in Scots dialect, which did not come naturally to a Lancashire boy like Finney. Furthermore he had to impose himself despite the fact that his hero suffered from a devastating stutter, which demanded that he have a sort of aural amanuensis standing at his shoulder throughout to finish the sentences he himself could never reach the end of. To say it was an outstanding piece of acting is to say only half of it: I never saw anything more convincing on any stage anywhere.
Finney was a lad who passed through the normal State schools until he enrolled in RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), from which he went right into the Royal Shakespeare Company, and thus into the National Theatre. He became world-famous for his performances in multiple films, from Tom Jones in 1963 on, but he was always a stage actor first, playing everybody from Shakespeare to Beckett and many of the leading playwright in between --- Chekhov, Strindberg, Marlowe, John Osborne, you name it --- even including a live performance in Berlin of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
I can hardly do better, I think, than reprint here something I wrote about him on my blog on May 12, 2014, in relation to his extraordinary performance of Churchill in The Gathering Storm. I had caught just the last few minutes of the film on this occasion, and remarked:
I have seen it twice before and it reminded me of what an extraordinarily brilliant actor Finney is, just those last few minutes of the film. As Churchill he arrives outside the Navy Department in London in a cab with his wife, played by the peerless Vanessa Redgrave.
He makes a pretty little speech to her, thanking her for, he says, “loving me as I never expected to be loved,” such a speech as would melt the heart of the toughest among us. Then he entered the department, strode in, muttered to the attendant as he passed, “I am the new First Lord.”
“Yes, I know, sir.”
Winston stops, inquires, “How do you know?”
Because, says the functionary, they received a notice of the appointment.
“And what did the notice say?” Winston asks.
“Winston is back, sir,” said the attendant.
Finney stops at the head of the steps, turns around, takes a puff of the cigar he had carefully lit while sitting in the cab, especially to prepare for his entrance.
“Winston is back,” he said, and then, pumping both fists in the air and shouting, “Yes, and so he bloody well is!”
What an ending for any film!
I remember seeing a play starring the young Richard Burton, with his marvellous Welsh voice, in the late 1950s in a small theatre called the Lyric Hammersmith, and I recall the experienced critic for the New Statesman writing that the time had come for this young actor to decide whether he wanted to become one in the line of great British actors, or whether he would rather rely on his personality. We know what decision he made, a decision that could almost be said to have killed him, for he ended his life alone and in despair.
Albert Finney, faced with the same choice a few years later, chose the opposite route through life, and was so free of the egotism endemic among the great in his profession that he turned down a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) decoration offered to him when he was 44, and twenty years later refused to accept a knighthood. Enough to be known as a great actor, and that he certainly was.