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Jack Watling obituary

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Jack Watling, actor, was born on January 13, 1923. He died on May 22, 2001, aged 78.

Actor who began as an unsure youth facing life with a nervous frown, but became the father of a theatrical dynasty

Though it fell short of his youthful ambitions and promise, Jack Watling said he had hugely enjoyed his long acting career in theatre, film and television. And younger members of his family were inspired by his example. In the 1960s, when he was starring in television series such as The Planemakers and The Power Game, it seemed that an acting dynasty was in the making, as his daughters Debbie and Dilys took to stage and screen and even the toddlers Giles and Nicola appeared in commercials.

Born into what his mother was forever reminding him was a lower middle-class family, Jack Watling had an upbringing not calculated to inspire confidence in a young performer. But it was his diffidence that made him so convincing in a succession of roles as a gangly youth, never quite sure of himself and facing life with a nervous frown.

He started acting in school productions, where a chance comment by his form teacher -that while maths was beyond him, he could at least recite Shakespeare -encouraged him to aim higher. His sister helped him along by taking him to the Old Vic, where he claimed to have picked up more useful knowledge about acting technique from the buskers entertaining the gallery queue than from anything that went on inside.

He was then accepted by the Italia Conti Academy, a drama school doubling as an agency which attracted students who could not afford fees but were ready to take on small roles to pay their way. So it was that Watling appeared as a schoolboy in Goodbye Mr Chips, and in The Young Mr Pitt.

After appearing as a timid naval rating in We Dive at Dawn, he was asked to read for the part of a young airman with an overwhelming fear of death in Rattigan's Flare Path. The writer and his director, Anthony Asquith, were sufficiently impressed to give him his first role in the West End. There he came into contact with the Tennent organisation and met the legendary producer Binkie Beaumont, whose attachment to young male talent went beyond the professional. When one of Beaumont's colleagues made a pass at Watling in the back of a taxi, he demanded to see Beaumont, and with the primness of a total innocent delivered the unsurprising news that Tennent was employing a homosexual. It took him some time to figure out why his complaint was taken less than seriously.

No less innocent but with graver consequences for his career was an association with Keith Newman, an Austrian emigre psychiatrist and Tennent voice teacher who became obsessed with Watling as a great actor in the making. It was he who promoted Watling as the star of Flare Path -thereby offending the rest of a distinguished cast and persuading Wat-ling to turn down a lucrative film contract to concentrate on the theatre.

Any doubts Watling may have had about his future were resolved, temporarily, by his call-up into the RAF. This meant that he had to turn down Wild Sunshine, the play Rattigan wrote with him in mind (his role was taken by Michael Wilding), but a posting close to London extended his run in Flare Path by a few months.

When demobbed at the end of the war, Watling was suffering from acute anxiety neurosis, unsure about what he wanted to do or was capable of doing. Fortunately, Rattigan remained confident of his ability, and he was cast in The Winslow Boy as Dickie, the feckless elder brother of the naval cadet un-justly accused of stealing. Having played the role for two years at the Lyric Theatre, he proved himself again in the film, alongside Robert Donat. His subsequent film career consisted, as he said, of "big parts in small movies and small parts in big movies".

In 1947 he married Patricia Hicks, the actress widow of a Battle of Britain pilot, who was happy to exchange her ca-reer for maternal duties. Watling took to family life, which rounded off his acting personality as a gentle, if somewhat vague character, never entirely in command of events. He brought a bewildered air to a succession of television roles in the days of the single play, but on one notable occasion he was cast against type, as a Cockney salesman adrift in the sex war.

His success in this persuaded the producer Rex Firkin to cast him as Don Henderson, henchman to a power-mad ty-coon played by Patrick Wymark in a series called The Planemakers. Its tales of boardroom infighting and amorality touched a nerve of public cynicism, and the series ran for two years, to be followed by the yet more ruthless Power Game. This also lasted two years, and might have gone on much longer but for Wymark's sudden death.

It now occurred to Watling that there was box office potential in casting television stars in the live theatre in plays of their choice -and many jumped at the chance. Unfortunately Watling did not have the business acumen he had portrayed on screen, and the money soon ran out. "I knew something was wrong," he said ruefully, "when I realised that we had more actors under contract than the National."

But he never quite recovered from the management bug, and for twenty years he ran a summer theatre in Frinton on the Essex coast, giving valuable opportunities to young actors needing stage experience.

He continued to appear intermittently in the West End, as, for instance, an admirably patient Colonel Pickering in Pygmalion, coping with the wild excesses of Professor Higgins as played by Peter O'Toole. His last West End appearance, in 1992, was in Keith Waterhouse's Our Song at the Apollo, where he was again the foil to Peter O'Toole, this time as his partner in a publishing house.

Television kept him busy, too, with a long stint in Dr Who and memorable guest appearances in Bergerac and Fortunes of War.

Ever sympathetic to the plight of actors down on their luck, Jack Watling was a long-serving chairman of the Royal Theatrical Fund, which, being housed near to the Garrick, gave him lots of scope for visits to his beloved club.

His wife Patricia survives him, along with their son and three daughters.

Additional keywords: Deborah Watling

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  • APA 6th ed.: (2001-05-24). Jack Watling obituary. The Times p. 21.
  • MLA 7th ed.: "Jack Watling obituary." The Times [add city] 2001-05-24, 21. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: "Jack Watling obituary." The Times, edition, sec., 2001-05-24
  • Turabian: "Jack Watling obituary." The Times, 2001-05-24, section, 21 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Jack Watling obituary | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Jack_Watling_obituary | work=The Times | pages=21 | date=2001-05-24 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=8 December 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Jack Watling obituary | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Jack_Watling_obituary | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=8 December 2019}}</ref>