Obituary: Actor admired for roles in ‘84 Charing Cross Road’ and ‘A Room With a View’
Rosemary Anne Leach, actor, born December 18th, 1935; died October 21st, 2017
Rosemary Leach: television viewers warmed to her expansive features, beautifully modulated voice and emotionally truthful acting on screen. Photograph: Express/Express/Getty Images
The talented and accomplished actor Rosemary Leach, who has died aged 81, reminded an interviewer in 2012 that she had never been invited to appear with either the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I’m as good as Judi Dench, I’m sure I am,” she added, before saying how lucky she had been to have had such an extensive and all-consuming career on television.
Viewers had warmed to her expansive features, beautifully modulated voice and emotionally truthful acting on screen since the mid-1960s. She appeared in such notable series as The Power Game (1965-69), as the lover of a ruthless building tycoon, John Wilder (Patrick Wymark), The Jewel in the Crown (1984), as Aunt Fenny in the hit adaptation of Paul Scott’s twilight-of-the-Raj quartet and as the victimised widow who falls for a murderous conman and total cad (Nigel Havers) in The Charmer (1987), an acrid 30s drama based on a Patrick Hamilton novel.
She moved effortlessly across the class and social divide, playing royalty – a starchy, porcelain-voiced Queen Victoria in Claude Whatham’s fine four-part Disraeli (1978) and arguably the best of all Queen Elizabeth IIs, in three separate BBC dramas, Prince William (2002), Tea With Betty (2006) and Margaret (2009) – as well as “ordinary” mums: she was luminous as Laurie Lee’s mother in Cider With Rosie (1971) and heartily earthy as David Essex’s in That’ll Be the Day (1973).
Unforgettable on stage
Her true valour was rarely seen on stage, though when it was she was unforgettable. In 1982, she won the Olivier best actress award for her performance as Helene Hanff, the eccentric Manhattan bibliophile, in 84 Charing Cross Road, an enchanting two-hander, adapted and directed by James Roose-Evans, based on the transatlantic correspondence of Hanff and an antiquarian bookshop manager, who never met each other. On the first night, Hanff – small intense, bird-like – appeared on the stage of the Ambassadors theatre alongside her counterpart. Leach looked nothing like her, but had brilliantly distilled the very essence of her charm and character, and made her story profoundly moving.
Born in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, Leach was the second daughter of teachers, Sidney and Mary (nee Parker). Her father was headteacher (as well as organist and choirmaster) at the village school in Diddlebury, near Ludlow. Rosemary was educated at Oswestry school, where she excelled in plays. After a brief spell selling shoes in the Reading branch of John Lewis, she went to London, aged 18, to train at Rada.
She graduated in 1955 and immediately plunged into the dying days of small regional repertory companies in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, then Coventry, for two years. Her roles grew bigger at the larger reps in Liverpool and Birmingham, where she worked with Bernard Hepton (a lifelong friend and colleague) and Derek Jacobi. But while the National and the RSC were getting under way in the early 60s, Leach was establishing herself as a permanent member of what she described as “a sort of television rep”, making her debut in two episodes of the police series Z Cars in 1962.
The TV die was cast – and she would be nominated, in all, five times for a Bafta award, never winning one – when she signed up for The Plane Makers in 1963 with Wymark and Barbara Murray. It was a prequel to The Power Game, set in a fictional aircraft factory with trade union struggles, an infighting management and political and personal chicanery at every turn. These were significant TV dramas, and the six years of them ended only because Wymark died in 1970.
From this point, Leach was in demand. She was Laura, the amenable wife to pint-sized (“male chauvinist piglet”) Ronnie Corbett in No, That’s Me Over There (1967), Now Look Here … (1971) and The Prince of Denmark (1974), with scripts by Barry Cryer, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle. She figured prominently, as lover and mistress, respectively, in Zola’s Germinal (1970), which charted the brutal suppression of a miners’ strike in northern France, and Sartre’s Roads to Freedom (also 1970), an utterly gripping 13-part series set in the period around the start of the second World War.
She returned to the stage in the mid-70s, playing a (then) fashionably bedenimed journalist, a hilariously unlikely amalgam of Jilly Cooper and Jill Tweedie, in Don Taylor’s Chekhovian Out on the Lawn at the Watford Palace (with marvellous performances, too, from TP McKenna, Dinah Sheridan and Edward Hardwicke). She joined the founding company in 1976 at George Murcell’s St George’s theatre, Tufnell Park, which stuttered on for a decade, with a programme devoted to Shakespeare; the opening season comprised Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and Richard III.
Her next (and last) brush with Shakespeare came as Emilia in Jonathan Miller’s richly textured BBC television Othello in 1981, with Anthony Hopkins “blacking up” in the lead, just about before it became impossible to do so, Bob Hoskins as her husband, Iago, and Penelope Wilton as Desdemona.
Although she had been prominent in television films of The Adventures of Don Quixote (1973), with Rex Harrison and Frank Finlay, and Brief Encounter (1974) which gloriously miscast Richard Burton and Sophia Loren in the Trevor Howard/Celia Johnson roles, her most “prestigious” film was Merchant Ivory’s star-laden A Room With a View (1985), in which she ticked off another notable mum, Mrs Honeychurch. She appeared in two television adaptations of Edith Wharton novels, The Children (1990), scripted by Timberlake Wertenbaker and directed by Tony Palmer, and The Buccaneers (1995) directed by Philip Saville, in which she made a marvellous meal of Selina Marable, snobbish Marchioness of Brightlingsea.
In between the Whartons, she materialised in Stuart Urban’s An Ungentlemanly Act (1992) as Mavis Hunt, holding the fort in the Falklands during the invasion alongside her husband, the governor, Rex Hunt (later knighted), played by Ian Richardson. There was more quality work in Jack Rosenthal’s scripts for an early suburban sitcom with Hepton, Sadie, It’s Cold Outside (1975); his adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes (1976) for Laurence Olivier – the only television show Olivier ever directed; and Day to Remember (1986), on Channel 4, in which she struggled through Christmas with George Cole as her husband with dementia. Hepton was alongside, too, in The Charmer, as her “white knight” admirer.
A full decade after 84 Charing Cross Road, she returned to the West End in a superb revival by Peter Hall of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables at the Albery, stretching the critical thesaurus to fully appreciate her magnificent Mrs Railton-Bell, righteous defender of public morality shading into bigotry. The Rattigan revival was safe in her hands, and those of Peter Bowles, Patricia Hodge, Ernest Clark and Miriam Karlin. She toured in some creaky revivals of Emlyn Williams and William Douglas-Home before joining one of the longest-running sitcoms of the new millennium, My Family, starring Robert Lindsay and Zoë Wanamaker, dropping in between 2003 and 2007 as Wanamaker’s “difficult” alcoholic mother. Her last movie was Stuart Urban’s may i kill u? (2012), a low-budget black comedy in which a policeman is transformed into a vigilante killer on the night of the Tottenham riots of 2011.
Leach lived quietly with her husband, the actor Colin Starkey, whom she married in 1981, in Kew and, later, in Teddington. After making The Jewel in the Crown without ever having visited India, she became a devoted traveller to that subcontinent thereafter.
She is survived by Colin Starkey.