Allan Cuthbertson (1920-1988) – from Romeo to Fawlty Towers

Above: A very young Allan Cuthbertson. The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, Page 4. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. Almost all the existing high quality photos of Cuthbertson as a British actor are firmly held by commercial photo archives. The reader will thus have to forgive the grainy quality of photos used here, mostly sourced from digitised Australian newspapers.

Allan 1947
The 5 second version
Western Australian born Allan Cuthbertson forged a hugely successful career on screen and stage in Britain – often playing a stereotypical, frosty, British military type – film historian Brian McFarlane described him as “a superb conveyor of icy distain.” However early in his career he played a variety of roles and in later life was more than capable of sending up the military stereotype he was known for (think Colonel Hall in Fawlty Towers). He is hardly a forgotten Australian but still warrants a place on this site because his Australian acting experience usually only merits a one line mention in biographies, and the context of his interest in acting is never explained. He died in London in 1988, with numerous stage, radio, TV and film performances to his credit. His brother Henry was also an actor and director of note, while another brother William, was killed while serving with the RAF in 1944.
Left: Allan Cuthbertson in The Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 April 1947, P17. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Allan Cuthbertson told Australian theatre historian Hal Porter that one of his earliest memories was of being backstage at Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre, watching his spot-lit father on stage. There is not much doubt that in his case, the passions of his father and older brothers played a part in fostering his interest in acting and his later decision to try his luck in London. Once established there, he remained a great advocate for Australians making the move overseas. “Don’t despair if you can’t land a job as soon as you arrive in London. Do anything. Wash up in a hotel… but keep on trying the agents.”

Above: Screen-grab of Allan Cuthbertson, 35 years after leaving Australia, playing the Australian Ambassador in the German TV mini-series Der Schwarze Bumerang  (The Black Boomerang) (1982). It is unclear why he relented his rule on not playing Australians for this one performance.

The Cuthbertson family of Perth

Born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1920, Allan Darling Cuthbertson was the youngest of three sons of Isabel nee Darling from Adelaide and Ernest Cuthbertson, a Scottish born partner in Hodd, Cuthbertson and North, a large firm of auctioneers and real estate agents in Perth, Western Australia. Amongst his other interests, Ernest was also an enthusiastic amateur performer, and for many years a leading figure in the Western Australia Society of Concert Artists.

A talented baritone, he was well known in Perth for directing performances for the stage. The grainy photo at left was printed when he was arranging a tableau entitled The Founding of Perth, part of the city’s celebrations in 1929. He was active almost up to the time of his early death, aged only 52, in 1936.

Above: Ernest Cuthbertson, The West Australian, 9 August 1929, P26. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Ernest and Isabel’s three sons William (1914-1944), Henry (1917-1988) and Allan all attended Perth’s prestigious Hale School, Australia’s oldest private Boys’ school. William (Bill) had a spectacular academic career – he was twice Dux of his school and went on to complete a Bachelor of Science and then Masters of Science at University of Western Australia. Following in their father’s footsteps, all three boys took a keen interest in theatre while still at school and in time both Henry and Allan joined Perth’s Repertory Club Players.

Henry first appeared in radio drama in 1936, while 18 year old Allan directed his first play in 1938, and also wrote some plays. Then, in March 1938, the two oldest boys – Bill and Henry (or “Bruzz” to his friends) embarked on the SS Moreton Bay for England – Bill to complete a Phd as a Chemist, Henry to pursue his career as an actor. Allan almost certainly had dreams of joining his older brothers, but it would be another 9 years before he too travelled to London. Eric Porter notes Allan went into a Bank on leaving school.

Above: Allan and Henry Cuthbertson. Left: Allan as he appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 28, 1947. But the photo appears to have been taken some years earlier, before he grew his moustache. Right: Henry Cuthbertson in the ABC Weekly, 26 June 1954. Both photos via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Older Brothers in Britain 1938-1944

Henry Cuthbertson found work in Britain as a radio announcer for the English company Radio Normandie and apparently appeared in three films made in late 1938 as an extra, including They Drive by Night and Goodbye Mr Chips. He then joined several repertory companies touring Britain in 1939-40, and was singled out for some positive reviews in regional papers. Isabel Cuthbertson passed on reports of her son’s successes on stage to West Australian newspapers with understandable pride“Henry was quite unknown when he went to London” she reported, “and had obtained all his work on his own initiative.” But in July 1940 he decided to return to Australia, arriving home on the ship Orcades in August. Less than two years later a U-boat sank the Orcades off the coast of South Africa, an awful reminder of how dangerous passenger travel in wartime was.

After completing his PhD at Leeds University, Bill Cuthbertson worked as a research scientist. When war broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force. After the lengthy training required for navigators, he joined 101 Squadron, flying operations over Germany and occupied Europe in Lancaster bombers. On 1 July 1944 his bomber was shot down and Bill and the rest of the crew – a typical Bomber Command mix of young Britons, Canadians and Australians, were all killed. Tragically, Bill had been married only a few months. St George’s College, his University of Western Australia alma mater, have a photo of him on their website (here) and there is a very moving tribute to him (here).

Allan & Henry join the RAAF 1941-1946

Back in Australia, Henry Cuthbertson joined the Royal Australian Air Force in June 1941. Allan joined up in December 1941, the day before Japan launched its assault in the Pacific. They served in separate sections – Allan ended the war as a Flight Lieutenant, flying Catalinas for 111 Air Sea Rescue Flight, while Henry was a Sergeant in RAAF Command, serving at RAAF hospitals. Discharged as medically unfit in 1944, Henry returned to radio in Perth, becoming an announcer for 6PR, and performed in radio versions of plays, including as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.

After discharge from the RAAF, Allan also threw himself back into acting – on radio, and in theatre with the George Edwards Company in Sydney. He would later state, “Thank God for my experience in Sydney radio and with George Edwards, because it was there that I learned something about getting the most out of a script at sight or after only a preliminary reading.”

Above: Allan Cuthbertson rehearsing Murder Without Crime in 1946 with, from left Ross Buchanan, Madge Ryan and (in his arms) Thelma Grigg, and Stage Manager Delemere Usher. Both Ryan and Grigg also travelled to London to try their luck. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1946. P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Allan Cuthbertson in Britain 1947 +

In March 1947 Allan Cuthbertson sailed for Britain on the Rangitiki. “There is so much to learn in London now with the great theatrical revival” he told one Australian journalist in April 1947. “Even by seeing dozens of plays, one can learn a great deal.” Also on board was a young Gertrude Willner, whom Allan would marry in London in late July 1949. (see Note 1 below)

Above: Allan Cuthbertson, The Daily News (Perth), 13 Sept 1947, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Compared to so many other actors who arrived in London at this time, Allan was extremely fortunate with his career. Within a few months of arriving he had played with some repertory companies and then won the leading part of Romeo in a revival of Romeo and Juliet, although a reviewer for The Stage felt Allan and costar Isabel Dean were not experienced enough for the roles. But only a matter of weeks later, Allan was appearing in Noël Coward’s Point Valaine at the Embassy, in its first ever London outing. It ran for a very modest 34 performances, with, again, very modest reviews. However, by mid 1948 The Stage was able to report enthusiastically on Allan’s “vigorous interpretation” of Laertes, in Hamlet, at St James Theatre.

Three other plays particularly stand out in Allan Cuthbertson’s early career – the first being a part in very long run of The Beaux’ Stratagem at the Lyric, followed by a leading role in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, that ran for most of 1951. The Sketch reported “Allan Cuthbertson… does remarkably well in the exacting part of Octavius” displaying great “sincerity of manner.” Even newspapers at home enthusiastically reported on his increasing successes on the London stage.


In 1953 Allan played an important role in Carrington VC. Written by former Royal Artillery officer Campbell Christie in collaboration with his wife Dorothy, it is the tale of a military Court martial, with Allan in the supporting role of the thoroughly unsympathetic Lt-Colonel Henniker. The play was a great success in London, and Allan was asked to reprise the role of Henniker for Anthony Asquith‘s film, made the following year.

Above left: Program cover for the play Carrington VC, which opened in London in July 1953. Author’s Collection. Above right, a scene from the film, with Allan reprising his role as Colonel Henniker, opposite Noelle Middleton playing Captain Alison Graham. Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 June 1955, P53. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Not surprisingly, this role as an authoritarian and unsympathetic military officer became his signature role. Not only did he repeat the part of Colonel Henniker again for TV and for radio, he played a variation of it in at least another two dozen film and TV appearances – like Major Baker in The Guns of Navarone (1961). It is true that later appearances of this character were sometimes in comedies – by the 1970s the military martinet had often become an object of humour (including Colonel Hall in Fawlty Towers and Major Daintry in Ripping Yarns). Allan acknowledged this typecasting himself in a 1963 interview during a return visit to Australia: “I used to enjoy playing Charley’s Aunt(a farce)… “but since ‘Carrington’ its been villains.” Tongue in cheek he added “I can’t think why!” About the same time he told Eric Porter that he had “settled down as a film character actor…a sort of symbol of the sneering Englishman.” Here, he was almost certainly thinking of his supporting role as the awful, domineering husband in Room at the Top (1959).

By 1963 he had 70 film and TV roles under his belt and in an interview with Patricia Rolfe for The Bulletin he acknowledged that although he took almost all film work offered to him, often in preference to the stage, he had always avoided playing Australian roles, apparently for fear this would limit his work. (Australian then meaning a broad-accented role). He told Rolfe he had turned down the role of the Australian character “Digger” in The Hasty Heart. Melbourne-born actor John Sherman took the part in the 1949 film version and it certainly did his UK career little good – once typecast in such a role, it was difficult to find others.

Above: Routine TV work. A screen grab of Allan Cuthbertson (playing a wicked nobleman) and Alan Wheatley (as the Sheriff of Nottingham) in a 1957 episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood. The series is now in the public domain and can be watched here at the Internet Archive.

After a long career in film and television – if not playing officers and nasty husbands he often played lords, lawyers or detectives, he did return to the stage. He notably appeared in Charley’s Aunt, at the Adelphi, in 1979 and in the mid 1980s he appeared in a revival of Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green at the Old Vic. And later in his career he also appeared as a straight-man with a number of British television comedians, including Dick Emery, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise.

And he finally relented about playing an Australian. In the 1982 German mini-series Der Schwarze Bumerang  (The Black Boomerang) he had a small part as the Australian Ambassador. However, as his character is dubbed into German, perhaps he felt it didn’t matter. His natural accent almost certainly approximated the one we hear in his films – a cultivated accent being the product of his education at one of Australia’s most prestigious schools, and years of radio and theatre work in Australia – before he even arrived in Britain, aged 27. Australian actor John Wood, with whom Allan performed in Carrington VC, spoke with a similar cultivated Australian accent.

Allan Cuthbertson’s conservative preferences in theatre were well known – he described his tastes as “Edwardian”. Contemporary avant-garde theatre he was not enthusiastic about and he once said he felt Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot had the effect of “keeping people out of the theatre”.

Allan Cuthbertson died in England on 8 February 1988. Obituaries appeared in Australia and Britain, although the irony that a quintessential stage and screen Englishman was actually an Australian was not mentioned. In private life he was a collector of antiquarian books, art and caricatures (Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank and modern artists like Ronald Searle). The collection was sold up in 2000, and some of it is now held by the Cartoon Art Trust in London.


Henry Cuthbertson in Australia 1946 – 1988

Henry Cuthbertson enjoyed a very long association with the theatre in Australia. The Australian Live Performance Database lists his last performance, of many on stage, as occurring in 1979, although he also appeared in some Australian TV programs as a supporting actor as late as the early 1980s and apparently also in a film called Backstage in 1988 (unseen by this writer). However, it is through his reputation as Head of Drama for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) that he was most well known – regularly directing radio and television for the national broadcaster. He had married in 1946 and died in Melbourne in April 1988, only a few months after his brother.

At Left: Henry Cuthbertson in 1954, having just become Head of Drama for the ABC. ABC Weekly, 24 July, 1954, P8 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Note 1
In his interview with Patricia Rolfe for The Bulletin in 1963, Allan Cuthbertson explained part of Gertrude Willner’s story. Feminist, writer and philanthropist Lady Jessie Street had met Gertrude in Europe in 1938, and exercised some influence in the difficult task of getting the 27 year old refugee into Australia. She arrived in June 1939 on the Strathallen. For a time she lived with Street, and went on to study Arts at the University of Sydney (she graduated in 1944). She probably met Allan in Sydney after his RAAF service, but they are also both listed (separately) on the Rangitki’s 1947 list of passengers travelling to England, and may have met then. Allan and Gertrude had one child.

Nick Murphy

20 March 2021


References

  • Text
    • Richard Dalby “The Allan Cuthbertson Collection.” Book and Magazine Collector. P 64-73. No 201, December 2000.
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • Eric Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd
    • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage 1950-1959 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Guardian 15 Feb 1988, P35
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The West Australian Fri 9 Aug 1929, P26
    • Sunday Times (WA) 1 July 1934, P1
    • The Daily News (WA) 11 April 1936 P9
    • Sunday Times (WA) 10 July 1938 P13
    • The Daily News (WA) 21 Feb 1939 P1
    • The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, P4
    • Sydney Morning Herald 12 June 1946, P7
    • Mount Barker Record (WA) Aug 5, 1946 )4
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 19 Ap 1947 P17
    • The Daily News (WA) 13 Sept 1947
    • Sydney Morning Herald 28 Oct 1947 P11
    • The Daily News (WA) 16 July 1949, P22
    • ABC Weekly 26 June 1954
    • ABC Weekly 24 July 1954
    • Australian Women’s Weekly 8 June 1955, P53
    • The Bulletin 8 June 1963, P22
    • Australian Women’s Weekly 12 June 1963, P10

  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Reading Mercury 29 April 1939 P24
    • The Stage 14 August 1947
    • The Stage 11 Sept 1947
    • The Sketch 9 June 1948
    • The Stage 24 Feb 1949
    • The Sketch 14 March 1951
    • West London Observer 7 Jan 1955, P4
    • The Stage 30 May 1985
    • The Stage 8 Feb 1988


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