Harcourt Williams

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Williams in 1920

Ernest George Harcourt Williams (30 March 1880 – 13 December 1957) was an English actor and director. After early experience in touring companies he established himself as a character actor and director in the West End. From 1929 to 1934 he was director of The Old Vic theatre company; among the actors he recruited were John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. After directing some fifty plays he resigned the directorship of the Old Vic but continued to appear in the company's productions throughout the rest of his career. He appeared in thirty cinema and television roles during his later years.

Life and career[edit]

Williams was born in Croydon, near London, the son of John Williams, a merchant.[1] He was educated at Beckenham Abbey and Whitgift Grammar School, Croydon.[1] After taking drama lessons he joined Frank Benson's touring company in 1897. He remained with Benson for five years, and made his London debut at the Lyceum in 1900, playing Sir Thomas Grey in Henry V.[1] He then worked for three other companies, including that of Ellen Terry, which he joined in 1903.[2]

In 1906 Williams made his American debut, with H B Irving, touring the US for a year.[1] After returning to Britain he was in George Alexander's company before returning for another period with Irving. He married the actress Jean Sterling Mackinlay in 1908. Their son John Sterling became a well-known pianist.[3]

One of Williams's most notable parts of this period was General Lee in John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln in 1919;[3] he later switched to the role of the Chronicler in the same production.[4] In 1922, in Mary Stuart by Drinkwater, he was "exquisitely repulsive" as Darnley.[5] In a third historical drama by the same author he was John Hampden in Oliver Cromwell at His Majesty's in 1923, to the Cromwell of Henry Ainley.[6] In 1923 he directed G K Chesterton's play Magic at the Everyman Theatre.[7] In 1926 he appeared in John Barrymore's production of Hamlet at the Haymarket Theatre, as the Player King.[8]

In 1929, when he was forty-nine, Lilian Baylis appointed Williams as the new director of her Old Vic theatre company. He was responsible for engaging first John Gielgud and then Ralph Richardson to join the Old Vic as leading man.[3] Over the next four years Williams directed about fifty plays for the company, also acting in many of the productions.[3] He expanded the Old Vic's traditional repertoire to include modern works by Bernard Shaw and others.[3] The biographer Jonathan Croall writes of Williams:

A sweet, gentle and trusting man, a conscientious objector during the Great War, he was universally known as Billie, and as a vegetarian lived on Bemax [a wheatgerm healthfood] and bread and cheese. … But behind the eccentric façade was a fanatical enthusiast for the theatre. … Williams was an imaginative producer, with a great feel for Shakespeare's poetry, and a desire to introduce a more psychological interpretation of character. He was also a man with a mission: to get rid of the mannered "Shakespearean voice", to break down the deliberate style of verse-speaking which made productions over-long and tedious. … Scene changes, which often held up the action, would be swift and simple. Above all, the text would be inviolate.[9]

After leaving the directorship of the Old Vic, handing over to Tyrone Guthrie after the 1933–34 season, Williams frequently accepted invitations to act with the company, for Guthrie and his successors.[3] He appeared in thirty film and television roles between 1944 and 1956.[10] Williams celebrated his golden jubilee as an actor while appearing in a long-running production of Shaw's You Never Can Tell described by The Times as "the liveliest show in town".[11] He died in London after a long illness, aged 77.[3]

Screen roles[edit]

Williams's cinema and television roles were:

Year Title Role
1944 Henry V Charles VI of France
1947 Brighton Rock Prewitt
1947 Vice Versa Judge
1948 No Room at the Inn Rev Mr Allworth
1948 Trottie True Duke of Wellwater
1948 Hamlet First Player
1949 Third Time Lucky Doc
1949 Your Witness Beamish
1949 Under Capricorn Coachman
1949 The Lost People Priest
1949 For Them That Trespass Second judge
1950 The Frog Prince (television) Script
1950 A Midsummer Night's Dream (television) Peter Quince, the carpenter
1950 Thérèse Raquin (television) Monsieur Michaud
1950 The Admirable Crichton (television) Earl of Loam
1950 Cage of Gold Dr Kearn
1950 The Master Builder (television) Dr Herdal
1950 The Lady's Not for Burning (television) Hebble Tyson, the Mayor
1951 The Late Edwina Black Dr Septimus Prendergast
1951 Green Grow the Rushes Chairman of the bench
1951 The Magic Box Tom, workman at Lege & Co
1952 The Bishop's Treasure (television) The Bishop
1952 Music at Night (television) Charles Bendrex
1953 The Blakes Slept Here Narrator
1953 Time Bomb Vicar
1953 Roman Holiday Ambassador
1955 The Hideaway (television) Mr Collins
1955 The Flying Eye (television) Professor Murdoch
1955 The Adventures of Quentin Durward Bishop of Liége
1956 Around the World in 80 Days Hinshaw, Reform Club steward

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Parker, pp. 990–991
  2. ^ Hayman, p. 51
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Obituary, Mr Harcourt Williams", The Times, 14 December 1957, p. 11
  4. ^ "Abraham Lincoln Revisited", The Times, 28 November 1919, p. 10
  5. ^ "Mary Stuart", The Times, 26 September 1922, p. 8
  6. ^ Parker, p. lxi
  7. ^ Parker, p. lxvii
  8. ^ Parker, p. cxvi
  9. ^ Croall, pp. 113–114
  10. ^ a b "Filmography", British Film Institute, retrieved 24 February 2014
  11. ^ "Wyndham's Theatre", The Times, 4 October 1947, p. 6

References[edit]

  • Croall, Jonathan (2000). Gielgud – A Theatrical Life, 1904-2000. London: Methuen. ISBN 0413745600. 
  • Hayman, Ronald (1971). Gielgud. London: Heinemann. ISBN 0435184008. 
  • Parker, John (1925). Who's Who in the Theatre (fifth ed.). London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons. OCLC 10013159. 

External links[edit]