Albert Finney was one of the important actors for me in the 1960s when I branched out into art cinema and the new cinema of British realism. I vividly remember how I and friends marvelled at how his Arthur Seaton downed a pint of beer in a Nottingham public house.
Finney had studied at RADA and then worked at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Intriguingly one of his early appearances on the London stage was in the play ‘The Party’ which was directed by Charles Laughton, one of the great British actors of preceding decades.
Finney’s first film role was in The Entertainer (1960) as Archie Rice’s (Lawrence Olivier) son Mick. Mick is captured by the Egyptian forces during the Suez invasion and dies in captivity. The film was one of the early dramas to address (at least partially), the national disgrace of 1956. This was one of the film’s directed by Tony Richardson from the play by John Osborne. Both were important figures in the breakthroughs at that time in both theatre and on film.
Finney then took the starring role of Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s adaptation of his own fine novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Even before attending a screening I was agog with anticipation; partly because of publicity that claimed that “it makes Room at the Top look like a vicarage tea-party”. I had already seen Room at the Top and this promised, and delivered, something for more involving. If one had to pick ten British films for a desert island this would undoubtedly be one of the prints.
Finney played ‘Billy Liar’ on stage and on Television; however, I saw Tom Courtney in the part on both stage and on film. Courtney was excellent but I always regret not seeing Finney’s interpretation. Finney then played the lead in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963); a fine romp from Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel. Finney was excellent as the miscreant hero and Walter Lassally provided excellent colour cinematography whilst the film made use of a number of techniques seen in the nouvelle vague films. There was too the most erotic meal seen up until that date in a home-made film. The film led to Finney being voted by exhibitors as the most popular star of the year at the British Box office. I also had a tenuous connection with the film: a friend earned £5 wearing a smock and floppy hat as an extra in the execution scene.
Finney also performed on stage and television; later I caught his outstanding performance in ‘Luther’ when it appeared on BBC television. Finney then formed a production company, Memorial Films, with fellow actor Michael Medwin. The company was involved in some fine British independent films including Privilege (1967), Peter Watkins’ interesting but flawed entry into feature films. And there was If…, directed by Lindsay Anderson, the seminal British film of 1968.
Finney himself appeared in two productions by the company. He starred in but also directed the 1968 title Charlie Bubbles. This was an off-beat comedy written by Shelagh Delaney and co-starring the fine actor Billie Whitelaw who won a BAFTA for her performance. Finney plays a successful and now bored writer who returns to his roots in Manchester. It is thus emblematic of the films of the 1960s with an occasional surreal touch also found in these times.
The other film in which Finney starred was Gumshoe (1971), a private eye film set in Liverpool. Again it starred Billie Whitelaw alongside Finney and was directed by Stephen Frears. This was another oddball drama which played with genre conventions. The film had censorship problems because of an explicit scene involving heroin.
Finney’s career continued with both theatre work and films. But increasingly he took parts in international or US production. Some of these were fine. I liked both his performance and that his co-star, Audrey Hepburn, in Two for the Road, directed by Stanley Donen and scripted by Fredrick Rafael. And John Huston’s Under the Volcano, (1984) was an excellent film and lead performance. It was adapted from a partly autobiographical novel and was some way from mainstream conventions.
Even in commercial properties Finney was always good value. As the lawyer in Erin Brockovich (2000) he offered an interesting foil to the lead played by Julia Roberts. However, I have never been able to bring myself to view Annie (1999). I did watch the ‘Bourne Trilogy’; one and three are particularly effective. Finney as Doctor Albert Hirsch in the ‘Ultimatum’ gives a barn-storming performance but the part as written is pretty stereotypical.
Looking back Finney’s work in theatre, on film and on television is impressive. But I feel that his best work was in the earlier periods. I would suggest this has as much to do with the values of the periods as to the skills of the actor. His work on relatively independent film stands out. And one can make that point with regard to both British and US film productions. His key films, especially for the British ‘New Wave’ stand out and stand up today. I am always happy to revisit the best of these.