The Life &
of Leonard Rossiter
June 1962, then
Written by David Turner
Directed by Anthony
Performed at the Belgrade
Written by David Turner
by David Turner
Directed by Anthony
Performed at the Music Box
Theatre, New York.
1st May 1966 (TV play,
of 'Theatre 625' series)
Written by David Turner
Directed by Gilchrist
Produced by Cedric Messina
Broadcast by BBC Television
Written by David Turner
Directed by Leonard
and Alan Strachan
Performed at Greenwich
and on tour.
Semi-Detached was a play
for the 'you've never had it so good' society that existed in 1960s
It was a tale of morals - or lack thereof - and in particular the
and driving ambition of a Midland insurance agent by the name of Fred
Rapidly climbing the business and social ladders, Fred is
via correspondence courses, in dynamic and positive thinking. Not
to merely 'keep up with the Joneses', he stops at nothing to overtake
even down to manipulating his own family and friends. This was one of
favourite roles in the theatre but, despite rave reviews, it never gave
him the national exposure he deserved.
In the Spring of 1962, playwright David Turner was scouting for an
to play Fred Midway, the lead role in a new production called
He went to see a play called 'The Recruiting Officer' at The Playhouse
in Nottingham, where the actor playing the character of Sergeant Kite
out from the rest of the cast, as David remembers: "...a dynamic,
manic figure that caught the eye. It was Len Rossiter. We knew we
to look no further." Semi-Detached was directed by Tony Richardson, and
rehearsals began during May of 1962, with Leonard helping to shape the
play by using his instinctive judgement to tighten scenes in an effort
to refine the comedy potential. As co-star - and later his wife -
Raine (pictured above and below) remembers: "The play was well-written
and very funny, but being a new production we had the chance to shape
the way we felt best and Leonard's influence was crucial to this
The play opened on Friday June 8th 1962 at the Belgrade Theatre in
and ran for a week. It co-starred Gillian Raine as Hilda Midway, Ian
Bridget Turner and Fiona Duncan.
time in his life, Leonard was married to Josephine Tewson, an actress
had worked with many times in Rep. in the 1950s - but their marriage
about to break up. During the play's second run at the Belgrade, in
1963, Leonard and Gillian Raine (pictured above) fell in love and
to live together, although they were not to marry until 1972. Things
going well for Leonard, with another successful play under his belt,
talk of the production going to London - his big break. But it was not
to be. Semi-Detached did transfer to London, in a production again
by Tony Richardson at the Saville Theatre, but it was Laurence Olivier
who played Fred Midway. The performance with Leonard and Gillian did
it to radio, however, and was broadcast in September 1963.
so, an even bigger prize lay over the horizon - Broadway. To celebrate
the 'British on Broadway' season, American producer David Clark decided
the play would work well, and with its original cast. So, in October of
1963, the play transferred to the Music Box Theatre in New York. After
a week of previews in front of enthusiastic audiences, the play opened
to an almost deafening silence. Most critics panned the production,
Leonard's performance was praised. But theatre-goers stayed away in
The play was desperately rewritten, removing British references that
little meaning to Americans. But, after struggling through another
the play closed. So disheartened were the cast that they returned to
UK by boat instead of plane: "We had traded in our air tickets for a
or six day voyage", recalls Bridget Turner, "It was a break we all
Leonard, above all, must have been deeply disappointed but we had a lot
of fun on board and I remember him joking, teasing and laughing".
return to England, Leonard continued to mix theatre performances with
increasing presence on television, including an episode of The
The BBC decided to turn Semi-Detached into a play, directed by
Calder: "He was a superb artist," Calder remembers, "very inventive,
a joy to work with. The sort of actor that, as a director, if you put
a cupful of ideas, you got a bucketful back! He was wonderful to have
the cast, not only because of his warmth as a man and his talent as an
actor, but also because of his generosity to his colleagues." The play,
co-starring Joan Sanderson, Alison Leggatt and Bridget Turner
right), was broadcast by the BBC in May 1966 as part of their 'Theatre
625' series of dramas.
was one more revival of Semi-Detached starring Leonard - and this time
co-directed by him and Alan Strachan. It played at Greenwich Theatre in
February 1979 and then went on a short tour. This version co-starred
Bould and Theresa Watson who had played David and Prue Harris-Jones in
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, and were married in real life. By
this time, however, Leonard had the classic roles of both Rigsby and
Perrin in his repertoire, and his return to the role of Fred Midway was
received, perhaps in comparison to them, somewhat disappointingly.
was accused of over-acting, and the play itself no longer seemed
to the late-1970s.
"Semi-Detached was a major
breakthrough for Leonard and if there had been any theatrical justice,
his brilliantly funny performance should have made him a West End
- Robert Tanitch.
"The writer always said
had to be a Jonsonian character, played in a broad way. They were an
Midland couple, trying to improve their social standing, and he was
literally to do anything."
"He was a great 'company'
man and a great leader of a company. He always expected them to put in
as much work as he did, and because he was a good leader, they did." -
Gillian Raine, co-star, and later wife.
"His Fred Midway,
Machiavelli of suburbia, a latter-day Jonsonian figure plotting and
his way up the social ladder, was another performance marked by a
of high-octane energy which approached that of a dancer. It was always
a particular pleasure to watch him work on a character's body language
in rehearsal, cutting through stage space like a whiplash; his body,
very fingertips seemed to dance with a kind of gleeful grace as another
of his sequence of audacious stratagems began to form and shape itself
before the hapless victims were even aware of his tactics." - Alan
"One of the very first
he did was at Coventry [Belgrade] Theatre, a play called Semi-Detached,
and he made a tremendous success of this. But the London management put
it on without Leonard because he was unknown then, he was not a star.
wanted a big star... and my word they got a big star - they got
Olivier. And I saw the author [David Turner] one day while I was
at Coventry, and he came in looking rather sad and sat down. So I asked
'How's it going, David?' And he said 'Well, you see Jimmy, Laurence
as good as Leonard.' It didn't require what Laurence Olivier did -
was to play it on instinct, and a certain amount of charm. Leonard was
never concerned with charm. He was the least charming person you could
imagine on stage." - James Grout, producer.
"...I will content myself
with praising the pace, energy and comic bravura of Leonard Rossiter's
performance as Dad, a Midland Mosca devoutly battening on the Volpone
local capitalism." - Kenneth Tynan, The Observer.
"...But just keep your eye
on Leonard Rossiter. As the monarch of this realm he is the whole story
and if you watch him you can't go wrong. For a virtuoso performance is
being turned in by Mr. Rossiter, who has the leering grin of a
pumpkin and a rubber band of a body. His is a sensational performance."
- Martin Gottfried,
Women's Wear Daily, New York.
never enters the hideous living room without doing two turns about the
track... Between laps, he jams a cigar in his mouth, rips it out,
the muscles of his mouth until we know each of his molars intimately,
then claps his hands wildly at what I take to be butterflies." - Walter
Kerr, New York Herald Tribune.
"Leonard Rossiter, the
has a perfectly man-eating role and he plays it with enormous vigour,
through a gamut of facial contortions unequalled since the days of
Langdon. He has the ideal, elastic features for a British caricaturist
and he employs them tirelessly and magnificently throughout." - John
"Fred Midway, played
amazing energy and an evil gusto by Leonard Rossiter, is continually
both his lanky body and his foxy little mind... thrusting a cigar into
his toothy and perpetually grinning mouth." - Richard P. Cooke, Wall
"Leonard Rossiter made
bounce and jerk in a St. Vitus' Dance of activity." - Sylvia Clayton, Daily
"It might not have
so funny without Mr. Rossiter, a comic actor of demonic power and
- Maurice Wiggin, Sunday Times.
"That brilliant actor
a fine time with the suburban Machiavelli of a hero..." - T.C. Worsley,
playbill for the first performance of Semi-Detached
Ian McKellen talks about Leonard's role
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Text (c) Paul Fisher
Pictures (c) their