Albert Finney obituary: Charismatic actor who never gave in to the establishment

Finney, who married gruff charisma with technical precision, turned down a knighthood

Albert Finney: the actor in Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Albert Finney: the actor in Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

 

Albert Finney
Born: May 9th, 1936
Died: February 7th, 2019

There were endless revelatory moments in British cinema and theatre as the 1950s fizzed into the 1960s. Few were as notable as the opening of Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Albert Finney, playing Arthur Seaton, a machinist at the Raleigh bicycle factory in the English city of Nottingham, casually talks us through his personal philosophy. “What I’m out for is a good time. All the rest is propaganda!” he says.

This was 1960. England was enduring the societal phoney war that set in before the arrival of The Beatles. But Seaton offered warning of what was to come. With money in their pockets, and no longer required to suffer national service, young northerners and working-class southerners were ready to take over the culture.

Finney, who has died at 82 following a short illness, built on that breakthrough to forge a durable career in film, theatre and television. He was nominated for five Oscars without winning. He excelled in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, in 1963. He created the definitive Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, from 1974.

Albert Finney: the actor being made up as Hercule Poirot for Murder on the Orient Express, in 1974. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch/Corbis/Getty
Albert Finney: the actor being made up as Hercule Poirot for Murder on the Orient Express, in 1974. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch/Corbis/Getty

Throughout his life he married a gruff charisma with technical precision to rival any in the business. But Finney never gave in to the establishment. Unlike working-class contemporaries such as Tom Courtenay and Michael Caine, he turned down a knighthood. Arthur Seaton would have been proud.

Finney had been around for a while before Saturday Night and Sunday Morning happened. Born in Salford, the son of a bookmaker, he actually identified himself as “lower middle class” (these things matter in England), but he remained proud of his roots. “It’s part of you,” he said. “It’s in the blood really.”

He acquired a passion for performance when at Salford Grammar School and subsequently secured a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was a heady time to at Rada. Classmates included Alan Bates and Peter O’Toole.

After graduation he found work with Birmingham Rep, the Old Vic and the National Theatre. “My dad was great. He was very droll, very dry,” he said in 2003. “The first time that he came to London, I was in the theatre and my name was in lights for the very first time and we had the same name… He just said: ‘I never thought that I’d see my name in lights.’”

Nobody much noticed him opposite the powerhouse that was Laurence Olivier in Tony Richardson’s film of The Entertainer, but there was no shrugging off Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Richardson cast him as the hero in his adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and – to some surprise – the film won best picture at the Oscars. Finney lost the best-actor award to Sidney Poitier, but he did a good job of not minding. “It seems to me a long way to go just to sit in a nondrinking, nonsmoking environment on the off-chance your name is called,” he said later. “It’s as if you are entered into a race you don’t particularly want to run in.”

Finney was never a fully integrated participant in the Swinging Sixties – a little too old and not sufficiently groovy – but he remained a vital cultural shaper

He was the first choice for the title role in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia; the reasons for his replacement remain unclear to this day. Finney continued to prosper. He was never a fully integrated participant in the Swinging Sixties – a little too old and not sufficiently groovy – but he remained a vital cultural shaper.

Charlie Bubbles, from 1968, Finney’s debut as director, remains one of the most underappreciated films of the decade. Based on a script by Shelagh Delaney, the picture follows a working-class writer as he returns to Manchester following success “down south”. Finney excels in the lead. In her first credited film role, Liza Minnelli deserved more recognition as the protagonist’s secretary. Finney never directed another feature.

It was, perhaps, to his advantage that, though good-looking, he was never a conventional leading man. In the decades that followed he slipped comfortably into middle-aged character roles. He was unrecognisable as Poirot. He was strong as an Irish-American hoodlum in the Coen brothers’ 1990 film Miller’s Crossing.

Then only in his mid-40s, Finney was a little to young for the decrepit theatrical monster in The Dresser, from 1983, but he still managed to boss his way to another Oscar nomination. More recently, he had recurring roles in the Jason Bourne pictures and a significant part in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall.

Albert Finney: the actor with this second wife, the French actor Anouk Aimée. Photograph: Central Press/AFP/Getty
Albert Finney: the actor with this second wife, the French actor Anouk Aimée. Photograph: Central Press/AFP/Getty

Finney developed into an ornament of his nation while remaining harder to caricature than many of his contemporaries. Caine was the wry geezer. O’Toole was the greatest entertainer at the loudest party. Although he lived a busy, glamorous life – married to the French actor Anouk Aimée at the height of her fame – Finney never gained that sort of easily reducible identity. That is to his credit. He remained an incorruptible professional to the end.

“Walking around in the spotlight having to be me is not something I’m particularly comfortable with or desire. I’d sooner pretend to be someone else,” he said.

Albert Finney is survived by his third wife, Pene Delmage, and his son, Simon, from his first marriage, to Jane Wenham.