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The Times (18/Nov/1970) - Obituary: Naunton Wayne

(c) The Times (18/Nov/1970)


An accomplished comic actor and entertainer

Mr. Naunton Wayne, the actor and entertainer who died in hospital at Tolworth, Surrey, yesterday, was an artist who knew exactly both the limitations of his talents and the areas of strength within them. He was 69.

From revue — he was a skilled and ingratiating compete — to innumerable films and West End plays all he did was effective, precisely, calculated and usually good-humouredly funny. At the same time all his work had a distinct personality of its own ; he presented an intricate series of variations on the theme of the comic Englishman in whom the English are always eager to recognize themselves. Naunton Wayne was not simply the vacuous, golden-hearted aristocrat who, like Bertie Wooster, succeeds in extricating himself from perilous situations. He was, each of his successes assured us, a man battling, with intense mental activity, against a world of almost insoluble problems; that most of them were trivial, and that conversational irrelevancies attracted him more than conversational points, was an indication not of the silliness but of the complexity of his world. The high-breeding could become petulant when another world collided with his own.

Henry Wayne Davies (he changed his name by deed poll in 1933) was the son of a solicitor, born in Llanwonno, Glamorganshire, on June 22, 1901. He was educated at Clifton College and began his career in 1920 as a member of a concert party on Barry Island. Ten years as an entertainer in similar companies enabled him to develop an easy, nonchalant way of winning an audience's sympathy and took him, as a revue compere, to London. He made his first appearance at the Victoria Palace in 1928 as an entertainer and he also appeared at the Palladium, the Coliseum, and the Holborn Empire. For nearly a year he compered the non-stop variety at the London Pavilion.

His first big success came in 1066 and All That, the musical adaptation of Sellers and Yeatman's perversion of schoolbook English history in which it was Naunton Wayne's function, performed with entire ease and an apparent delight in punning, to give a semblance of continuity to a series of detached sketches.

Never without a role, and always capable of playing it effectively. Wayne found himself drawn more and more into the straight theatre and into a memorable film partnership with the late Basil Radford, usually opposing a quick-witted one upmanship to his partners slower, deliberately elephantine obstinacy. In The Lady Vanishes they were unforgettably involved in the murderous skullduggeries of Central European politics while hastening across the continent to reach Manchester in time for a test match. In Dead of Night they provided a light-hearted interlude in an anthology of ghost stories, sinking to the moral abyss in which, for the sake of love, they cheated each other at golf.

In Arsenic and Old Lace, at the Strand in 1942 Wayne occupied the role of the journalist nephew who discovers his old-world aunts to be well-intentioned mass murderers achieving a performance in which horror and bewilderment were expressed within a natural sangfroid. At the end of a run of nearly 1,300 performances, he scored another success in Benn Levy's Clutterbuck, playing for the only time against instead of with Basil Radford as the intellectual novelist baffled and defeated by Radford's invincible obtuseness.

The range of his abilities and the validity of the national type in which he specialized was demonstrated by his appearance as Mr. Sedley, in the musical version of Vanity Fair seen in 1962. In 1964, in William Douglas Home's The Reluctant Peer, he played the Earl of Lister during the play's first year and then took over the role of Beecham, the butler. He was in Justice is a woman at the Vaudeville in 1966 and Oh Clarence! at the Lyric in 1968.

He continued from time to time to appear in cabaret, and appeared frequently on both television and radio. The passage of time did nothing to slow his quick-witted- ness or to remove the mischievous quality by which the observant could sense that his playing was often a joke at the expense of what we like to regard as national characteristics.