23 April 1904|
Bromley, Kent, England
|Died||21 January 1999
Ewell, Surrey, England
|Occupation||Stage and screen actor|
French was primarily a theatre actor, as well as a director, singer and dancer, with a varied career that included the classics, musical revue, pantomime and ballet. He became most associated with the role of Ariel in William Shakespeare's The Tempest, and over the years he essayed many of Shakespeare's spirits and clowns, such as Puck, Feste and Touchstone.
French was born in Bromley, Kent in 1904 and was educated at the London School of Choristers. He made his first appearance as a child actor in a 1914 Christmas show at the Little Theatre and left school the same year to join the touring Ben Greet Company as a stagehand and prompter. An early West End job was as an understudy to Bobby Howes in the musical Mr. Cinders, going onto play the title role when the play went on regional tour.
In 1930 he joined the Old Vic, where he played Poins in Henry IV, Part I, Eros in Antony and Cleopatra, the Fool in King Lear and the role with which he became most associated with, Ariel in The Tempest. This latter role saw him share the stage with contemporaries John Gielgud (as Prospero) and Ralph Richardson (as Caliban), the first time these two actors appeared on stage together. French was the first male actor to essay the role of Ariel for many years and did so in nothing more than a small loincloth, helping to make this version something of a talking point at the time. French and Gielgud were also the inspiration for Eric Gill's carving of Prospero and Ariel above the entrance to the then new Broadcasting House in Portland Place.
French continued his stage career at the Old Vic and later the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, specialising in Shakespeare's spirits and clowns, such as Puck, Feste, Touchstone and of course Ariel, roles greatly enhanced by his singing and dancing ability. He also directed several plays including successful stagings of The Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It.
In 1955 he helped to establish the open air Maynardville Theatre in Cape Town, South Africa which had multi-racial casts performing to multi-racial audiences. In 1963 he was awarded the key to the city for his work with the theatre.
He also made the occasional foray into film and television, appearing in two Luchino Visconti films, The Leopard (1963) and Death in Venice (1971), as well as many popular British television programmes. These include Dixon of Dock Green, Armchair Theatre, Z-Cars, The Avengers, Jason King and The Singing Detective. His role as Mr. Woodhouse in a BBC serial of Jane Austen's Emma (1960) is considered one of his most memorable screen performances. French was also considered for the role of the First Doctor in the science fiction series Doctor Who, a part that eventually went to William Hartnell. He finally appeared in the programme in its 1988 serial, Silver Nemesis, playing the Mathematician.
- Strachan, Alan (26 January 1999). "Obituary: Leslie French". The Independent (London: Independent Print Limited). Retrieved 15 January 2011.
- "Leslie French Biography (1904-1999)". NetIndustries, LLC. Retrieved 15 January 2011.
- "Nearly Who". BBC Archive. Retrieved 15 January 2011.
- Howe, David J.; Walker, Stephen James (1998). "Silver Nemesis: Additional credited cast". Doctor Who: The Television Companion. London: BBC Worldwide. p. 520. ISBN 0-563-40588-0. Retrieved 7 March 2011.