Barry Foster

Barry Foster was a very popular British television actor.   He is chiefly known for his playing of the title character in the series “Van der Valk” which began in 1972.   He has though done some great work on film e.g. “Ryan’s Daughter” in 1970, “Robbery”, “The Family Way”, “Heat and Dust”, “Maurice” and Alfred Hitchcock’s penulimate film “Frenzy”.   He was born in 1927 and died in 2002 at the age of 74.

Philip Purser’s obituary of Barry Foster in “The Independent”

The sudden death of Barry Foster at the age of 70 robs the acting profession of one of its most adaptable stalwarts, equally at home on stage or screen, just as content to play in a difficult or experimental production as to star in a popular television series – and, indeed, unhappy if he couldn’t continually be switching from one to the other.

As Nicolas Freeling’s stolid Amsterdam detective Van der Valk, Foster carried 25 hour-long episodes in the Thames Television version over the years 1972-73 and 1977, quietly eclipsing a rival German series with the same hero, then in 1991 resumed the role in a batch of two-hour stories.

In the interim, he made an appearance, invariably on the wrong side of the law, in almost every other respectable detective saga on the air. The great interrogator was himself interrogated by Inspectors Morse and Dalgleish, and by Detective Sergeant Bergerac. He turned up in John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, and played Elliott McQueen, the dazzling villain of Sweeney! (1977), the first movie spin-off from the TV series of approximately the same name.

Born in Beeston, Nottinghamshire, but brought up in Hayes, Middlesex, where his toolsetter father had moved to find work during the depression, the young Foster was all set for a career in industry when, secretly hankering for something more creative, he won a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama. There his fellow students included Harold Pinter, with whom he went on to tour rural Ireland in a fit-up company whose members also included Kenneth Haigh and Alun Owen.

His stocky frame, bristly curls and rank-and-file origins brought him a stream of bit parts in the second world war films that were still being churned out, including Battle Of The River Plate (1956), Sea Of Sand and Dunkirk (both 1958), and better roles in the plays about service life which figured prominently in the new TV drama of the 1950s and 60s. He was a young officer in Incident At Echo Six (1959), by Troy Kennedy Martin, set in Cyprus during the troubles, and a soldier again that year in the film Yesterday’s Enemy, harking back to the war in Burma.

From shooting wars he stepped deftly to the class war, and a part in David Mercer’s first – and seminal – script, Where The Difference Begins (1961). Now the credits jostle to demonstrate his versatility. He starred as Cornelius Christian in Fairy Tales Of New York in the West End at the Comedy Theatre (1961). At the National Theatre in 1983 he played Ulysses in Jean Giraudoux’s 1935 play The Trojan War Will Not Take Place, directed by his old mate Pinter; and he appeared in several works from the same man’s pen.

In 1994-95 he was Inspector Goole in Stephen Daldry’s fabled production of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls at the Aldwych, which went on to tour in Australia. And until he was taken ill last Friday, he was appearing in the stage show Art, written by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christoper Hampton, at the Whitehall.

Foster’s notable film credits included Ryan’s Daughter (1970), Frenzy (1972) and The Whistle Blower (1986). But perhaps his best – and worst – role in any medium was as the legendary bundle of paradoxes, Orde Wingate. Epic movies had been planned to tell the story of this extraordinary British soldier who founded the Israeli army before Israel existed, restored the Emperor Haile Selassie to the throne of Judah, and led the Chindit operations against the Japanese in Burma until he was killed in a plane crash in 1944.

None of these films was realised, but in 1976 the gifted producer Innes Lloyd finally persuaded the BBC to stump up enough for a stylised (ie cheap) studio production in three 75-minute instalments, entitled Orde Wingate. Written by Don Shaw, directed by Bill Hays and with Foster inhabiting the part, it remains a landmark in television drama. Alas, Foster went on to repeat the characterisation, to much less effect, in an inferior but infinitely more lavish American biography of Golda Meir (A Woman Called Golda, 1972).

Foster was married to the singer and former actress Judith Shergold, in one of show business’s happiest and most durable alliances. One of their recipes for its success was never to be apart for too long. If Barry was working on Broadway or in Hollywood, she would endeavour to join him. They had two daughters, Joanna and Miranda, who followed him into the theatre, and a son, Jason. His wife and children survive him.

Foster loved music, and acted as reciter in performances of such works as Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale and – under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle – Berlioz’s rarely played sequel to the Symphonie Fantastique, Lélio. His favourite place, he once said, was Venice – “a jewel-encrusted treasure house built on water”.

· Barry Foster, actor, born August 21 1931; died February 11 2002

This “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.

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