The English Boy: Richard Warwick’s Great Performances

The third of four sons, Richard Carey Winter was born in the Kent village of Longfield on 29th April 1945, but grew up near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. He would always consider the county his true home and speak fondly of it, marvelling at its rich history and once telling a friend that, as he sat in a local dentist’s chair, he delightedly realised that he was in the very room from which Margaret of Anjou had observed the bloody aftermath of the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.

With a father who was an aeronautical engineer, and no familial acting connections, it came as a surprise to his parents when Richard won a place at RADA after leaving the Dean Close School in Cheltenham. From RADA, Richard joined the National Theatre, and, having adopted the stage name ‘Warwick’ for Equity reasons, at the age of 23, he was cast as Gregory in Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish Romeo and Juliet.

At the same time, he appeared as the recusant sixth-former Wallace in If…., Lindsay Anderson’s brutal dramatisation of the English public school system. Catching the counter-cultural wave that was spreading across Britain and other parts of Europe in the 1960s, the film was a cinematic triumph, and was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969. Malcolm McDowell, may have been the film’s main protagonist, but as Anderson said of Warwick, ‘I never met a young actor like Richard! Without a touch of vanity, completely natural yet always concentrated, he illumines every frame of the film in which he appears.’ His enormous talent, stage presence and charmingly boyish looks made Warwick ideal for the televised plays then loved by British audiences.

Above: Trailer for If…. (1968)

In 1969, Warwick was Nicky Lancaster in a television version of The Vortex by Noël Coward, a gritty exploration of drug use and implied repressed homosexuality in 1920s London. Coward was left astonished by Warwick’s portrayal of the cocaine-addicted composer, exclaiming ‘There has never been a more superb Nicky – except yours truly of course.’ Lending a degree of personal empathy towards the character, was the fact that, as a homosexual himself, Warwick necessarily kept quiet about his private life given that homosexual acts between men had only recently been decriminalised in Britain. Additionally, his agent and various directors were concerned that any revelations about his sexuality might alienate his growing number of female fans.

The disappointing 1970 release, The Breaking of Bumbo – Joanna Lumley’s film début, was recalled in her autobiography No Room For Secrets, ‘The first [love scene] I did was in a film called The Breaking of Bumbo, adapted from Andrew Sinclair’s best-selling book of that name. Bumbo was played by the darling boy Richard Warwick, who was so funny and good-looking and gay that it made the whole shoot completely bearable.’

An appearance as Uncas in the television mini-series of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans followed in 1971, and that same year, Warwick was the Grand Duke Dimitry in Franklin J. Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra and also became the recurring character David Ffitchett-Brown in the popular sitcom Please Sir! In the 1972 Tudor period drama, The Shadow of the Tower, Warwick was praised for his depiction of Perkin Warbeck, the young pretender to the English throne whom Henry VII imprisoned in the Tower of London before his execution at Tyburn.

However, while Warwick’s performances were lauded by critics, he remained permanently on the threshold of stardom, never quite crossing over it, due to his reluctance to give interviews and allow himself to become a public commodity, unlike some of his more prolific contemporaries. Neither man ever commented on their rumoured relationship, but in his biography of Alec Guinness, Piers Paul Reed has suggested that Warwick and the Welsh actor Keith Baxter, who coincidentally shared the same birthday, had been lovers. The two had worked together during the 1994 run of Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play Rope at the Chichester Festival Theatre and then Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End.

In 1976, Warwick took the part of Justin in the controversial film-maker Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane, and from 1981 to 1984 he played Judi Dench’s brother-in-law in the ITV comedy A Fine Romance. For the remainder of the 1980s and in the 1990s, Warwick worked sporadically, notably appearing as Bernardo in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet in 1990 and the highly acclaimed The Lost Language of Cranes in 1991. His final role was as John Reed in the 1996 television adaptation of Jane Eyre.

Above: The Lost Language of Cranes (1991)

Having seen too many close friends succumb to AIDS, including the Scottish actor Ian Charleson who starred in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire in 1981, Warwick recognised the symptoms when his own health began to suffer. As a consequence of his own diagnosis, he retired from acting, and on 16th December 1997, ninety-eight years to the day that Noël Coward, who had so admired his Nicky, was born, Warwick died at his home in St John’s Wood. After his cremation, Susan Penhaligon, his on-screen wife in A Fine Romance, wrote The Ashes, a poem dedicated to Warwick, evoking the precious memories he had shared of his idyllic childhood in Gloucestershire, and celebrating his reunion with its ‘liquid earth.’

Selected Sources:

Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography – Piers Paul Read (2003)

No Room For Secrets – Joanna Lumley (2005)

The Daily Telegraph, 19th December 1997

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