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Alan Bates

MONDAY 3rd May 2004

One of a new generation of dynamic British actors, Alan Bates stormed the London stage in the 1950s, in plays that challenged middle-class values and marked him out as a working-class hero. But in a 45-year career, his range of roles demonstrated his versatility and proved he was far more than just an Angry Young Man.

Early career

Raised in an arts-loving family, Alan Bates first appeared in plays at his Derbyshire grammar school. The playwright John Osborne was a leading local theatrical influence, and this connection would later serve both men well.

Bates polished his craft at Rada and, in 1955, joined the English Stage Company. A year later, he appeared in Osborne's Look Back in Anger at London's Royal Court Theatre.

This kitchen-sink drama broke new ground by giving a voice to the working classes, and Bates shone in the role of Cliff. Further roles in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Pinter's The Caretaker only sealed his reputation as an angry young luminary of the West End stage.

Moving into film

During the 1960s, Bates was able to translate his theatrical success into screen stardom. Tousled and intense, rugged but tender, the actor brought a cerebral, other-worldly quality to his work in such films as Whistle Down the Wind and Far From the Madding Crowd, staying subtle even while wrestling naked with Oliver Reed in Women in Love.

Although his quietly charming performances made Bates something of a sex symbol of the 1960s and 1970s, some critics believe it was only later that he turned out his best stuff. As the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, in An Englishman Abroad, he tapped into all of the sadness and remorse of Alan Bennett's script, and won the 1984 Bafta award for Best Actor.

Personal tragedy and last roles

Bates suffered personal tragedy, with the death of his son in 1990 and that of his wife two years later, and threw himself into work. He was knighted in 2002, the year before he died, and also won a Tony award for his final Broadway performance in Fortune's Fool.

One of his final screen roles was as the butler in Robert Altman's Gosford Park. To this, Bates brought the same conviction that had defined his long career: what the director Ken Russell called "the indelible impression of vigour and intellect that became his signature".