Above: Allan Cuthbertson playing the Australian Ambassador in the German TV mini-series Der Schwarze Bumerang (The Black Boomerang) (1982). Screengrab from Film Parade channel on Youtube. Almost all the high quality photos of Cuthbertson are firmly held by commercial photo archives. The reader will thus have to forgive the grainy quality … Continue reading
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.”Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film, P155, Methuen BFI 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.
Above: A very young Allan Cuthbertson c1941. The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, Page 4. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove
Allan Cuthbertson once 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.Hal Porter(1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, P244-248. Rigby 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.”The Australian Women’s Weekly 12 Jun 1963, P10 Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove
The Cuthbertson family of Perth
Born in Perth, Western Australia, on 7 April 1920 Allan Darling Cuthbertson RAAF Service record, 415569, via National Archives of Australia 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 Left: Ernest Cuthbertson, c1929 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.Sunday Times (WA), 1 Jul 1934, P1 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
Henry first appeared in radio drama in 1936, while 18 year old Allan directed his first play in 1938, and also wrote some plays. Sunday Times(WA) 10 Jul 1938, P13, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove 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.Porter, P245
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.”The Daily News (WA) 21 Feb 1939, P1 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
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 University of Western Australia Historical Society 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 (RAAF) 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 performing in radio versions of plays, including as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.Mount Barker and Denmark Record (WA) 5 Aug 1946, P4 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
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.”The Age (Vic), 8 Oct 1947, P2, 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.”  The Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 April, 1947, P17. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove Also on board was a young Gertrude Willner, whom Allan would marry in London in late July 1949. (see Note 1 below)
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.The Stage, 14 August 1947, P1 via British Newspaper Archive 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.The Stage, 15 July 1948, P5 via British Newspaper Archive
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.
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!” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 12 Jun 1963 P10 via National Library of Australia’s Trove 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.“Porter, P247 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.Patricia Rolfe, The Bulletin (Aust) 8 June 1963, P22, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
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. Amongst his last appearances was a supporting role in Michael Palin’s semi-autobiographical East of Ipswich, a poignant story of English seaside holidays in the 1950s.
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 – even before he 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”.Patricia Rolfe, The Bulletin (Aust) 8 June 1963, P22, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
Allan Cuthbertson died in England on 8 February 1988. Obituaries appeared in Britain, and the irony that a quintessential stage and screen Englishman was actually Australian born was usually noted. Not so in Australia, where his passing went completely unnoticed.
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
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.
Updated 1 January 2023
In addition to copyrighted photos held by commercial photo archives, the following are held in Australian libraries;
- Film, Radio and TV:
Most of Allan Cuthbertson’s films are available for purchase. Because early radio and TV shows are rare, some are listed here, together with several trailers.
- A BBC Saturday Night Theatre radio version of Carrington VC can be heard here (1957)
- A BBC Saturday Night Theatre radio drama The Last Chapter can be heard here (1970)
- Room at the Top (1959) CLIP
- The Stranglers of Bombay (1959) Trailer
- Danger Man (1960) TV Series – Episode The Island
- The Benny Hill Show (1963) TV Series – Episode The Visitor
- BBC Play of the Month (1965) TV Series – A Passage to India
- The Archive Television Musings blog also has a number of reviews of Allan Cuthbertson’s TV work here.
- Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
- Richard Dalby “The Allan Cuthbertson Collection.” Book and Magazine Collector. P 64-73. No 201, December 2000.
- Richard Lane (1994) The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923-1960. Melbourne University Press.
- 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
This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive
|↑1||Screengrab from Film Parade channel on Youtube. Almost all the high quality photos of Cuthbertson are firmly held by commercial photo archives. The reader will thus have to forgive the grainy quality of many of the digitized photos used here|
|↑2||Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film, P155, Methuen BFI|
|↑3||The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, Page 4. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑4||Hal Porter(1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, P244-248. Rigby|
|↑5||The Australian Women’s Weekly 12 Jun 1963, P10 Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑6||Book and Magazine Collector (UK), December 2000, No 201. Author’s Collection|
|↑7, ↑33||Allan Darling Cuthbertson RAAF Service record, 415569, via National Archives of Australia|
|↑8||The West Australian, 9 August 1929, P26. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.|
|↑9||Sunday Times (WA), 1 Jul 1934, P1 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑10||Sunday Times(WA) 10 Jul 1938, P13, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑12||The Sydney Morning Herald , 28 Oct 1947 P11 via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑13||ABC Weekly, 26 June 1954 via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑14||The Daily News (WA) 21 Feb 1939, P1 via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑15||University of Western Australia Historical Society|
|↑16||Mount Barker and Denmark Record (WA) 5 Aug 1946, P4 via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑17||The Age (Vic), 8 Oct 1947, P2, via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑18||The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Jun 1946, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑19||The Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 April, 1947, P17. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑20||The Daily News (WA), 13 Sept 1947, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑21||The Stage, 14 August 1947, P1 via British Newspaper Archive|
|↑22||The Stage, 15 July 1948, P5 via British Newspaper Archive|
|↑23||The Sketch, 14 March 1951, P219. Copyright held by by The Illustrated London News Group. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive.|
|↑25||Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 June 1955, P53. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑26||The Australian Women’s Weekly, 12 Jun 1963 P10 via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑28||Australian Women’s Weekly, 12 June, 1963. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑29, ↑32||Patricia Rolfe, The Bulletin (Aust) 8 June 1963, P22, via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑30||The series is now in the public domain and can be watched here at the Internet Archive.|
|↑31||Screengrab from Film Parade channel on Youtube|
|↑34||ABC Weekly, 24 July, 1954, P8 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove|