August 15, 2011

9 Yearning to Express Myself: The Life and Career of Tom Courtenay

"As artists we would always have something to learn and our lives would always have meaning. I remember hoping against hope that I might possibly become one of these artists. It was the only thing that would give my life meaning."
—Tom Courtenay, Dear Tom: Letters from Home (2000)

In the early 1960s, the groundbreaking films of the British New Wave introduced four young actors who seemed destined for an important place in cinema history. Richard Harris (1930-2002) had been acting in films and television for several years before his breakout performance in This Sporting Life (1963) as a Yorkshire coal miner who becomes an overnight rugby superstar, a performance that earned him not only an Oscar nomination but the best actor award at Cannes. But after this auspicious role in one of the seminal films of the British New Wave, his career veered all over the place—from the lead in Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) to King Arthur in the big-budget musical flop Camelot (1967) to an unlikely leading man for Doris Day in one of her last movies, Caprice (1967), and even several pop music albums—before fizzling away to leads in mostly forgettable films and then supporting character roles in better films like Unforgiven (1992).

Alan Bates (1934-2003) had better luck with his career. After becoming familiar to American audiences playing opposite Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek (1964) and a couple of years later opposite Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl (1966), he enjoyed a strong career for more than twenty-five years, dividing his time between the stage (in 1972 he won a Tony for Butley, which he later filmed as part of the American Film Theatre series—costarring Jessica Tandy, directed by Harold Pinter and highly recommended) and American and especially British films, giving consistently fine performances for some of the best directors of the time, such as John Schlesinger, Joseph Losey, Ken Russell, and Robert Altman.

After his breakout performance in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961), Albert Finney (b. 1936) became a huge star in the Oscar-winning Tom Jones (1963). Today he continues to be one of our greatest film actors, the recipient of five Oscar nominations and certainly the most successful, not to mention the most versatile, of his generation of British New Wave actors. Appearing as a romantic leading man opposite Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road (1967), in heavy disguise playing Hercule Poirot while still in his thirties in Murder on the Orient Express (1976), in heavy disguise again as a senile elderly actor in The Dresser (1983), as a self-destructive alcoholic British expat living in Mexico in John Huston's Under the Volcano (1984), as a Prohibition-era Irish-American gangster for the Coens in Miller's Crossing (1990), as Julia Roberts's bemused boss in Erin Brockovich (2000)—nothing seems beyond his reach.

The fourth of these young men, Tom Courtenay, has had the most perplexing career of all. As gifted an actor as Bates and Finney, he saw his career soar in films of the early and mid-sixties before settling into a leisurely pattern of sporadic success largely in stage and television roles. Unlike the clearly ambitious (but also temperamental and alcoholic) Richard Harris, though, Courtenay's relatively obscure later movie career seems to have been by choice. "I never did anything about my stardom, it never meant anything to me," he said in a 1995 magazine interview. "I didn't like the parts I had and I just longed to work in the theatre, and so that's what I did."

Tom Courtenay was born in 1937 in the Yorkshire coastal town of Hull in northeast England. "Mother told me that the evening before I was born she heard 'Pennies From Heaven' on the radio. As I was expected any minute she thought of it as my signature tune [theme song]," he writes in Dear Tom: Letters from Home, his autobiographical book published in 2000. His family was working class, and he attributed the success of his early career at least in part to the fashion of the early sixties for casting young actors from working-class backgrounds in films about working-class young men: "Of course my early fame as an actor was due in some measure to my background, but I never beat my chest about being either North Country or working class. . . . I wasn't proud of it and I wasn't ashamed of it. I certainly didn't want to make a career out of it. It's just the way it was."

Tom grew up in the area of Hull called Fish Dock, where his father and most of his relatives worked in some capacity as part of the commercial fish trawling industry. His description of his boyhood makes it sound virtually impoverished, growing up in a small nineteenth-century row house without even an indoor toilet or bath, although I don't think this was that unusual in working-class houses of the time in northern England. Despite the lack of money, he describes a tight community and a close and supportive relationship between his own family and their large extended family and neighbors. Even though for years his mother complained bitterly about their terrible living conditions and dreamed of a house in the suburbs, after finally moving to a council house away from the city center when Tom was in his twenties, she felt isolated and unsettled and longed for the liveliness and sociability of Fish Dock.

Tom's academic talent took him to the local grammar school (at the time the British equivalent of a college prep high school), Kingston High, one of only two in his middle school class of fifty boys to qualify. Here he developed a lifelong passion for literature and the theater and appeared in his first plays, playing Mr. Knightley in a school production of Emma. In his senior year he was head boy and won a scholarship to University College London, the first in his family to attend university. Although he majored in English literature, a course of study he hated because of its emphasis on historical minutiae and arid literary analysis, his real love was always acting, and he soon found his life at UCL dominated by the college's drama society. In fact he chose UCL over other universities because it was just down the street from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in Bloomsbury. He held back from revealing his ambition to become a professional actor, though, because he feared his family's reaction to what he thought they would consider an impractical dream. He felt he owed it to them to complete his university education before applying to RADA. In the end he failed his final exams at UCL and didn't earn a degree but had no difficulty getting a place at RADA.

His family was actually very supportive of his pursuit of an acting career, especially his mother. Tom had a particularly close relationship to his mother. Both his parents had left school at fifteen—this was the norm in Britain before the Second World War unless you were going to university, which was really out of the question for children of the working class—but his mother Annie was clearly an intelligent and sensitive woman who loved both classical and popular music (she could play the piano by ear), poetry, and literature and encouraged her son's interest in these things. "The yearning to express myself and the instinct for doing it I got directly from my mother," he writes in Dear Tom. Much of this book consists of the weekly letters his mother wrote to him during the five years he spent in London at UCL and RADA, and the book is really as much about her as it is about himself. Her life was essentially restricted to her household and neighborhood, yet in her letters to Tom she expresses the beauty and poetry she found in everyday things. In those letters she comes across as a woman of delicate health who was frequently depressed, a sensitive and artistic woman who felt frustrated and restricted by her lack of education and was determined to see that Tom got the opportunities she never had.

Even before Tom began attending RADA he was being called "the next Albert Finney," and he soon made a name for himself there. Also in Tom's class at RADA were Sarah Miles and his lifelong friend John Thaw (television's Inspector Morse), who actually beat Tom for the Kendal Medal, the top prize of the last term at RADA. But despite the praise of others, Tom himself was unsure of his talent. He saw himself onstage as "too fidgety, too emotional, and too uncontrolled," and apparently some of his instructors agreed. "At present he is inclined to be uncontrolled and do more than is quite necessary," wrote one instructor in an end of term report. Today such a view is hard to reconcile with the gentle, introspective, and restrained image he has projected for practically his entire acting career.

Tom's big break came during his next-to-last term at RADA when he was given the lead in, of all things, a musical called Shut Up and Sing, in which he played the leader of a gang of East End teddy boys. He was a good singer—he'd been performing for his family since he was just a few years old—and fortunately wasn't required to dance. Representatives of the top London talent agencies attended to check out the promising young actor. He soon signed with one of these agencies and was on his way to a professional acting career. "I have always thought of that little musical at RADA as the greatest success I have ever had," he writes. "For the first time I felt certain that I had been right all along in wanting to become an actor. That I would become one. That my dream of being an artist was going to be fulfilled."

Even before graduating from RADA in 1960, Tom was offered the lead in the Old Vic production of Chekhov's The Seagull, costarring with Judith Anderson, and invited to become a member of the Old Vic company. He played the part for a month at the Edinburgh Festival and later at the Old Vic Theatre in London, receiving rave notices for his performance. At the same time, he was also being interviewed by Peter Hall for the Stratford Shakespeare company and by the most famous of the British New Wave film directors, Tony Richardson, who immediately promised Tom the lead in the movie version of a novel by Alan Sillitoe he was planning to film, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. In 1961 Tom replaced Albert Finney in Billy Liar, his first West End theater triumph, a part he later repeated in the film version directed by John Schlesinger.

Tom's first film was The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which finally started shooting in February 1962. "My first day filming The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was the longest of my life," he writes. But he soon settled into the process and actually came to enjoy it. "Tony Richardson made it as easy for me as possible," he recalls. "I scarcely remember a shot ever lasting more than one or two takes. He gave me the impression that he was letting me do whatever I wanted, even sometimes asking me to say whatever I wanted. . . . Tony made me feel very much the man of the moment. And I liked that." When it was released in the fall of 1962, the film was a smash, and Tom received the BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer.

Shortly after filming of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner began, Tom's mother was admitted to hospital, and it soon became apparent that she was suffering from a recurrence of the breast cancer for which she had been operated on several years before and that it was untreatable. She died that spring, before The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was released, and was never able to enjoy the great success that launched her son's long acting career. Tom later credited his mother with helping him form his philosophy of acting. He writes that when he and his mother discussed ideas for his grammar school essays, "we were expressing ourselves, making little stories out of our lives. That I chose to give voice to other people's words rather than my own, hardly matters. Good acting always tells a story. . . . Inner life and outer life seem to be connected. If that's not a story, what is?"

Recommended Viewing

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). In his first major film, Courtenay is Colin Smith, a rebellious teenager sent to a borstal (reform school) for a petty crime. The school's governor discovers Colin's talent for running and enters him in a sports competition with a posh prep school. While practicing, Colin reflects in stream-of-consciousness on his past and the events that brought him to his present situation. Brilliantly directed by Tony Richardson, this is for me the best British New Wave film of them all. With Michael Redgrave as the borstal governor, James Fox as a runner from the prep school, and Courtenay's RADA classmate John Thaw as one of the other borstal inmates. (In 1998 Courtenay was a guest star in an episode of Thaw's British TV series Kavanagh QC.) Knowing that Tom's mother was dying while he was making this picture and how close he was to her makes his performance all the more poignant.

Billy Liar (1963). Courtenay plays Billy Fisher, a North Country undertaker's clerk who dreams of being a television writer in London. At moments of stress or boredom, Billy retreats to his fantasies, where he is the king of a mythological place called Ambrosia. Billy's love life is a mess. He is engaged to two different girls and in love with a third girl, a bohemian named Liz. The highlight of the film is the fantasy sequences in Ambrosia, directed with surreal comic panache in the same style director John Schlesinger would later use in Midnight Cowboy. With Mona Washbourne as Billy's mother and a ravishing 22-year old Julie Christie as Liz. (Christie replaced another actress who dropped out when she got ill and whose footage had to be reshot.) Courtenay had replaced Albert Finney in the stage version of Billy Liar (directed by Lindsay Anderson). It's hard to imagine Finney bringing the comic wistfulness to the role that Courtenay does. Courtenay received a BAFTA nomination for best actor for his performance.

King and Country (1964). Courtenay plays Private Arthur Hamp, a 23-year old British soldier suffering from battle fatigue who is court-martialed for desertion during World War One. The last survivor of his original unit, he simply walks away from camp one day and heads home for England. Directed with great visual flair by Joseph Losey, the film shows this war in all its folly—the filth and brutality, the class divide between officers and enlisted men, the grim resignation of men caught up in the machinery of a self-perpetuating process. Courtenay's understated performance as the young soldier too naive to grasp the gravity of his situation, an ordinary man trapped in circumstances beyond anyone's control, is remarkable. Losey is smart enough to leave just a little room for doubt as to Hamp's ultimate fate and to avoid portraying those in authority as two-dimensional martinets, making the film seem more melancholic than truculent. With Dirk Bogarde as the "soldier's friend" assigned to defend Hamp. People writing about this film at IMDb and Netflix complain of the poor quality of the available DVD, especially the sound. I was fortunate enough to see a very good print of it on TCM. This is surely a prime candidate for a quality DVD release so that it can take its place alongside those other great film indictments of World War One, All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. Courtenay received yet another BAFTA nomination for his performance.

The Dresser (1983). Courtenay stars as Norman, the fawning gay dresser to an aging, temperamental stage actor he calls simply Sir, supposedly based on the actor Donald Wolfit. As they tour England during World War Two, with Sir appearing as King Lear, Norman has to cajole and flatter the failing, alcoholic, and nearly senile actor every night to get him onstage. Norman idolizes Sir, and Sir is almost totally dependent on Norman to keep him going from one performance to the next. Courtenay is very touching in his devotion to his idol and almost heartbreaking in the picture's sad conclusion. Courtenay played the role on the stage and received a Tony nomination. Sir is played with a flamboyance that matches Courtenay's by his one-time rival Albert Finney, the first of two times they have appeared together, and both received BAFTA and Oscar nominations for their performances. With Eileen Atkins as the long-suffering stage manager.

Me and the Girls (TV) (1985). Based on a story by Noel Coward, this BBC production was broadcast in the US in 1986 as part of the five-part series Star Quality: Noel Coward Stories shown on Masterpiece Theatre. Courtenay plays Georgie, the gay head of a troupe of female singer-dancers who tour England and Europe. The story is told in stream-of-consciousness style while Georgie is dying of cancer in a clinic in Switzerland. Courtenay is just marvelous—by turns funny, tragic, noble, and pathetic as he faces death with stoic courage. The British musical theater actress Nichola McAuliffe costars as Mavis, Georgie's best friend in the troupe, his singing and dancing partner and would-be lover. Their performance of "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is a highlight and, given the circumstances, very moving. Tom finally did have to learn to dance for this production and does a creditable if not exactly graceful job. His singing, though, is quite good. Me and the Girls is available as part of a seven-disc DVD box set released in 2008 by BBC, The Noel Coward Collection, which contains quite a few other choice productions as well.

A Rather English Marriage (TV) (1998). This was the second time Courtenay costarred with Albert Finney. Roy Southgate (Courtenay) first meets Reggie Conyngham-Jervis (Finney) in the hospital as both are visiting their wives, who are dying. Later a helpful social worker suggests that Roy move into Reggie's large country home so the two widowers can keep each other company, and Reggie, effectively cut out of his rich wife's will with only a modest yearly stipend, agrees. The two are complete opposites—the working-class Roy a quiet, modest man and the upper-class Reggie a loud, assertive man who takes the privileges of his class for granted. The two soon develop a relationship not unlike Norman and Sir in The Dresser, with Roy waiting on Reggie and organizing his life for him. Finney and his boisterous Reggie dominate the first half of the film, but as Reggie becomes more dependent on Roy, Courtenay and his character gently edge their way into the foreground. Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) costars as the gold-digging divorcĂ©e Reggie romances. Both Finney and Courtenay were nominated for the BAFTA television award as best actor, with Courtenay winning.

Little Dorrit (TV) (2008). Courtenay plays the heroine Amy Dorrit's father in this Dickens classic. Dorrit is an inmate of debtors' prison, a spiritually broken man who clings to the prison as a refuge from the cruelties and injustices of the world. When the family's fortunes unexpectedly change and the Dorrits are not only released from debtors' prison but become rich to boot, Dorrit undergoes a complete change of personality, becoming obsessed with concealing the family's shameful past and keeping up social appearances. Courtenay is utterly convincing in his transformation from excessive shame to excessive pride, giving Dorrit a quiet intensity that lingers in the memory. Little Dorrit has everything we expect from the BBC's adaptations of Dickens: lavish production values, great period detail, an intricate plot filled with a number of interlocking subplots, a love story, a sadistic villain (played with real menace by Andy Serkis), a host of eccentric supporting characters, satirical humor, tragedy, and moments of almost surreal weirdness. In an impressive cast of British actors, Courtenay walks off with the acting honors and received an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor.

In 2000 Tom Courtenay received a knighthood. The working-class boy from Fish Dock in Hull is now Sir Thomas Daniel Courtenay. Albert Finney was knighted in 2000 and Alan Bates in 2003. Except for the one quotation from an interview published in Empire magazine in November 1995, all other quoted material comes from Dear Tom: Letters from Home (London: Doubleday, 2000). This is a wonderful book that concentrates on Courtenay's formative years and his family, especially his mother Annie. It is intelligent, candid, gently funny, and at times quite movingrather like Tom Courtenay himself, I imagine.


  1. The British cinema of the late 50's and early 60's was golden and the four actors you discuss were at the center of it. I only recently watched KING AND COUNTRY and found Courtenay's performance, as well as Bogarde's, riveting. If I remember correctly, THE LONLINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER was the first of the British Wave films that I ever saw and it remains favorite. Fascinating review here R.D.

  2. Superb profile of Tom Courtenay! As you know, I'm a big fan of the British New Wave and, along with Dirk Bogarde (who started earlier) and Laurence Harvey, these actors were the most significant of that genre. My favorite Courtenay film is still THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER. I thought he was excellent in LITTLE DORRIT; in fact, I forgot he was in the cast and didn't recognize him at first! Of the four actors you highlighted, my favorite may be Alan Bates. I have been looking for one of his films for years. I saw NOTHING BUT THE BEST, sort of a black comedy version of ROOM AT THE TOP, as as a teen...and haven't seen it since. Keep thinking it will be released on DVD, but not even VHS yet.

  3. John, I think of this period as a golden age of British cinema. I've been fascinated with it since seeing a handful of films from this period years ago when I was in college. In the last few years I've been able to fill in many of the gaps, and I have to say that TCM is in large part responsible for this. I wrote on "A Taste of Honey" a few months back after finally being able to see it on TCM. It is unavailable on home video. TCM is also where I saw "King and Country" recently after being turned off by the negative comments at IMDb and Netflix about the available DVD. I'd been interested in writing about Tom Courtenay for some time but would not have done so without being able to see "King and Country" first, so you might say TCM made this post possible.

    Rick, I'm as big a fan of the British New Wave as you. I don't really think of Dirk Bogarde as part of this movement but of the previous generation, as he was 10-15 years older than the four I discussed at the beginning of the post and had been making movies since the late 40s. But he was a wonderful actor and did some of his best work with American expat Joseph Losey. My favorite performance of his is in "The Servant." Did you know Vincente Minnelli wanted him for the lead in "Gigi" but he wasn't available? I'm less enthusiastic about Laurence Harvey, but he was superb in "Room at the Top" and did appear in some British New Wave films like "Darling." Of the four I talked about, Albert Finney is my own favorite. I had to stop myself from mentioning more than just a few of his performances! Like you I'm very fond of Alan Bates. So many wonderful movie performances. But like Finney and Courtenay he was also a great stage actor, and the films he did for the American Film Theatre, while limited as cinema, capture his strong stage presence. I've seen "Butley" and "Three Sisters" (directed by Olivier), and he is superb in both. I'm planning to watch "In Celebration" soon. I only recently heard about "Nothing but the Best" in an interview with Bates while researching this post. He called it "one of my favourites," so I'm going to have to try to locate it.

    It's a pleasure to discuss this period in British cinema with people as enthusiastic about it as myself. It seems to have been rather neglected in recent years.

  4. True, Dirk predates the British New Wave, but I still think of him because of films like DARLING, ACCIDENT, and THE SERVANT, which exhibit traits of the genre. I haven't seen THE SERVANT in years, but remember how Losey used spacing between the two main characters to convey which one was in "control." The American Film Theatre series was an intriguing experiment--it might have been financially successful as a BBC television presentation...but then it might not have attracted its powerhouse stars. I keep hoping Criterion will surprise me with a release of NOTHING BUT THE BEST. I'm intrigued to see if I like it as well. I finally saw THE DEADLY AFFAIR, a John Le Carre adaptation, for the first time since my teen years. It was pretty decent, but not the marvelous spy film I remembered.

  5. A great piece, RD. I thought Tom Courtenay was wonderful as Mr Dorrit in the recent BBC/Andrew Davies 'Little Dorrit', and I've also enjoyed many of his other performances over the years. I tend to think of Tom Bell together with the other British actors of the same era you have discussed here, as he was also so talented, though I suppose he never quite achieved what he could have done - still, he was great in 'the L-Shaped Room', and many years later in 'Wish You Were Here'.

  6. Judy, thank you. I enjoyed "Little Dorrit" immensely. I love the BBC adaptations of Dickens, and this was one of the very best. The casting was just amazing, with wonderful actors in even the smallest roles. British actors show such commitment to their profession that they can make even a small part memorable! But still Courtenay made the strongest impression on me. Dickens's characters tend to be rather two-dimensional, but there are so many of them and so much happening that I don't often notice it. When Dickens does create a full-blooded character like Pip in "Great Expectations" it just takes my breath away. This is surely the prototype for all the many novels about a character re-examining the past and finding how his perceptions at the time were all illusory. Anyway, I thought Courtenay brought more to Mr. Dorrit than Dickens probably intended--haunted by the past like Pip.

    I also like Tom Bell and recall him from the two films you mentioned and, of course, the TV parts I've seen him in, like Jane Tennison's nemesis in the "Prime Suspect" series.

  7. The recent LITTLE DORRIT is a impressiive for sure, though I've playfully sparred with Allan over whether it compares to the previous Ezuard version. (I say it doesn't) In any case, this is quite the celebration here of an acting icon, who is more than fondly remembered for THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER, BILLY LIAR, KING AND COUNTRY and THE DRESSER. You've done a fascinating job framing Courtenay's accomplishments in light of the other British greats, and your extensive capsule work on each individual work is buffo.

    That was indeed some fireworks display by Courtenay and Finny together in THE DRESSER.

  8. Sam, I haven't seen the earlier version of "Little Dorrit." I've read conflicting things about it, but everyone seems to like Alec Guinness, who plays the same part as Courtenay. I started the post with the four actors I thought personified the British New Wave movement because of all of them, it seems to me Courtenay has been the most overlooked. I have the 2004 ed. of David Thomson's "Biographical Dictionary," and he doesn't even get an entry, although the other three do. I saw him years ago in "King Rat" and didn't even remember him and in "Dr. Zhivago" and barely remembered him. It wasn't until I saw "Me and the Girls" on TV in the 80s that I was really aware of him. All the other films I covered in the capsules I've seen since then, most of them in the last few years.

    As for Courtenay and Finney, it was interesting to read about the young Courtenay being compared to the young Albert Finney because they seem so different to me--Courtenay a very introverted actor and Finney a very extroverted one. That comes through clearly in the two films they starred in together. But their styles did make a great complement.

  9. Well, R.D, I'm a lifelong Dickens obsessive (I've read all his novels countless times, and have also read all 12 volumes of his letters, loads of journalism, short stories, etc, etc!), and I think he fully intended all the complications in Mr Dorrit, who is at least partly based on his own father - a darker version of Mr Micawber. I agree with Sam that I also loved the previous version of LD, which is visually more powerful - but I never tire of seeing different interpretations of Dickens on screen. With his bicentenary next year, there are several new adaptations coming up, including a new version of Edwin Drood, possibly my favourite, so I'm wating for that one with bated breath!