Frith Banbury, actor-turned-director and stalwart of the West End, passed away on 14 May at the age of 96.
During his long career, Banbury was most associated with the ‘well-made play’ and more commercially sound projects, and refused to be swayed by the changing tides sparked by Look Back In Anger and the rise of kitchen sink drama. Though a prolific director, he worked predominantly in the commercial world, never directing a production for either the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company.
At the height of his career during the 50s, Banbury worked closely with many of the leading playwrights of his time, such as Robert Bolt, John Whiting, Wynyard Browne and NC Hunter, and directed performers including Ralph Richardson, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Paul Scofield, Michael Redgrave and Vanessa Redgrave.
The son of a rear-admiral, Banbury’s relationship with his father was strained. Their differences were never more obvious than when, during World War II, Banbury registered as a conscientious objector, an application that was approved provided that he continued to work as an actor.
A small part in Gielgud’s 1934 Hamlet almost spelled the end for Banbury’s theatrical career, his confidence plummeting from working with the theatrical master who was famed for speaking his mind without thinking of the consequences. A season in a company formed by Banbury, Robert Morley and Peter Bull soon had the self-belief streaming back.
The turning point of Banbury’s career came in 1947, when he was asked to return to RADA to direct, discovering his ability for the discipline. Building a strong relationship with powerful manager/producer Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont, Banbury championed new plays, premiering pieces including Browne’s The Holly And The Ivy, Hunter’s Waters Of The Moon, Bolt’s Flowering Cherry, Whiting’s Marching Song and Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.
Banbury continued to work as a director past his 90th birthday, staging a touring production of The Old Ladies in 2003 at the age of 91. His association with London theatre continued until the end; at 96, he was the oldest member of the Society of London Theatre.