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Horseytalk.net Special Interview
Leonard White
 

“Leonard White and I worked in Toronto, Canada for several years, both in theatre and in TV at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation with Sydney Newman. Later, back in the UK, Leonard White produced The Avengers, the first 40 episodes. He gave me my first job in that series and I was part of The Avengers for eleven years after that! I also worked with him in Armchair Theatre"

Patrick MacNee

“If ever Leonard White wanted me to appear in an Armchair Theatre production I didn’t need to read the script – I just said, Yes. He encouraged me to be versatile, to try many different roles. The first, Fay Weldon’s Poor Cherry – Ernie Gebler’s Call Me Daddy ( for which we won the EMMY Award) – Robert Holles’  The Wind in the Tall Paper Chimney are just a few of the many plays I worked on with Len. His encouragement for writers is yet another reason why I am so grateful to him.”

Judy Cornwell

“Leonard is a friend of yours. It’s simple for you to write a page about his colourful career.” Peter Biddlecombe told me on the ‘phone.

“Simple?” I replied rather surprised.

“Yes. Could you do it by the end of this week? I’d be most grateful.” And that was it.
I slowly put my ‘phone down and had a giggle.

George Mikell

Peter had no idea the mammoth task he had loaded on my shoulders.
It was like asking to write a complete history of Mont Blanc on one page or cross the Atlantic in a rowing boat.

Here I would like to borrow an old saying. Behind every successful man stands a woman.
This could be said of Leonard White. For some fifty years he stood behind the most successful Television dramas. As an actor he appeared in numerous films. Also in London West End theatres, New York and Toronto.

His credits are limitless.
As an actor I have never worked with Leonard or took part in any of his television or stage productions. I met him a few years ago at BAFTA Club in Piccadilly and he and his wife Margaret have been friends of mine ever since.

Showbiz is like the changing colour of an octopus. The appearance is deceiving: maybe because of insecurity of the acting profession. I have had only a few real friends in ‘showbiz’. I can count them easily on one hand. Leonard White is one of them. He’s more to me than a friend. He’s my mentor. He is always there to give me advice and guidance especially in my sprouting profession as a writer in my adopted language. Not that I can say the same of some other friends of mine. The late George Sanders for example. I knew him well for a couple of years before he committed suicide. At the time film companies were still anxious to have his name lit up in lights in front of cinemas. Offers floated in. The scripts he received he immediately removed the relevant pages of his character and the rest was destroyed. The reason for it was that I might read it and discover there was a suitable part for me. The only other true friend I had was Prince Esterhazy in Rome.

I’m very fortunate to have Leonard as a friend. Leonard White is a legend.

 

 
Leonard White
  • The unknown genius of British television drama. Look him up in any reference book or even on the web. He hardly gets a mention. Apart, of course, from his own book, Armchair Theatre, The Lost Years.
  • A living legend. Actor, director and producer. Arguably, he made more television& dramas than anyone in history. He should &be in the Guinness Book of Records. But he isn’t.
  • To most people of a certain age,  he  is the man who put Honor Blackman in a tight-fitting black leather suit for her role as Cathy Gale in the classic television series, The Avengers.

And, he says, he owes it all to horses.

Armchair Theatre - The Lost Years by Leonard White
 

His father was a bookmaker and racehorse owner .

At four-years-old, he sat on his first racehorse.
“I screamed blue murder. My father immediately knew I was not going to be a jockey,” he says.
At seven, he started going to the races with his father. Brighton. Plumpton. Lewes. He still has a film he took of the last day’s racing at Lewes before it closed. He even used to go to the race course that used to be at Gatwick.

 
Leonard's Father, Tom White

“I used to help my father in the business. I used to take telephone bets. I used to collect ready-money betting slips for him. Those were the days, of course, before ready-money betting became legal,” he says. At 14, Leonard bet six-pence on a horse ridden by Freddie Fox in the Epsom “Oaks” at 33 – 1. It came in first.

“Horse-racing was my earliest environment,” he says today, “although, I must admit, it didn’t last long. But, come to think of it, I now wish we had got Honor Blackman riding a horse in The Avengers. That would have been good. Especially wearing that black leather suit.”

 

Leonard White – Many people say he was the  White in black and white television – was born in Brighton Road, Newhaven, East Sussex. His father’s bookmaking business was based in Bridge Street. His mother ran a wholesale newsagents business.

“I was four-years old when I started my schooling at the Newhaven Convent. It was run by French nuns. At seven I had to leave and I went to the local Council School for Boys. There I had this fantastic headmaster. He was an inspiration. Most boys would leave at 14. I thought I was going to as well. But the headmaster set up, what was unbelievable at the time, a pre-6th form class in which he introduced a Company of all boy Shakespeare Players.

“I didn’t want anything to do with it. The thought of acting, of going on stage scared me stiff. I even got my mother to write a note to the headmaster telling him that I did not want to do it and asking that I be excused. He threw that note into his waste paper basket and took no notice of it. He insisted I do it. The worst thing of all was that for my first part I was cast to play Lady Macbeth in the sleep-walking scene.

“The funny thing was that after doing it – been made to do it – I did’t want to do anything else but be an actor.”

Leonard left school at 16. His mother got him a job as a Customs-Entry clerk with a French transport company based at the Port in Newhaven . It specialised in transporting French fashion garments from Paris to London.

 

“My mother was afraid that I might end up getting trapped working in the Bookie biz with my father ,” he says.
“By now, however, my old headmaster had - With his own money - bought an old Chapel in South Road, Newhaven, which he re-named Shakespeare Hall. There he staged his productions and established a Boys’ Club.

“I played Brutus (Julius Caesar). I played Antonio and Portia (The Merchant of Venice) . I was still doing my clerking job. For that I was getting up at 3.15 am to be ready for the arrival of the Mail boat from Dieppe. Quickly to work on all the H.M.Customs documentation. Anything - Notably French fashion garments - that left Paris the night before, were to be in Regent Street by the time that shops opened next morning. I don’t think anyone could do it faster today than we did then.”

Inspired by his old headmaster, Leonard was determined to seek a career on the stage.

“I was 16-years-old. I saw an advert in The Stage newspaper for a “Film Test” in Soho, the heart of filmland. I was determined to take the test. My father was dubious. He insisted on going with me. He was right. The whole thing was a fraud.

Leonard White

Inspired by his old headmaster, Leonard was determined to seek a career on the stage.

“I was 16-years-old. I saw an advert in The Stage newspaper for a “Film Test” in Soho, the heart of filmland. I was determined to take the test. My father was dubious. He insisted on going with me. He was right. The whole thing was a fraud.

“ Undaunted, the next thing I heard about was the famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. They were awarding the Leverholme Scholarship - the only Acting scholarship that was free for one boy and one girl. I went for an audition. I was elated to be recalled. I got to the last six finalists. I didn’t win it. But I was offered a place for a fee. My parents didn’t want to provide the money.

“Soon, I moved to London to be in true Theatreland. I got a job in a shipping company in the City of London and saw lots of top plays and players. I was looking for any opportunity to train for the stage. Very fortunately I was able to join the Tavistock Repertory Company at their little theatre in Bloomsbury. It was a semi-professional group with a splendid reputation . I went on as an extra for a particular production. But immediately got my first speaking role on a London stage. It was an excellent Off. Now I was in the race. I stayed several years and got to play leads in many productions.”

 
Leonard White - directing

Then came the Second World War.

“I was in the Army – the PBI (the Poor Bloody Infantry) for almost seven years. Starting at Brock Barracks in Reading, the Royal Berkshire Regiment , I was early selected to be an instructor in Signals. I tried to transfer to the RAF when they badly needed recruits. I was mad on flying. But the army wouldn’t let me go. Which probably saved my life. Much later I found myself at the 160 OCTU, based in Alton Towers, very unlike the funfair it became, training Signals Officer cadets. Even later, I heard& that the War Office was running a peculiar unit called  The Army Bureau of Current Affairs Play Unit. Some big names in Theatre were involved. I applied for a transfer. I didn’t get in the first Unit. They didn’t take A1s. But after VE Day I did join them.

 

“It was a remarkable team doing “Living Newspaper” type plays created from within the group. Mildly propaganda with political themes.

“Then I was demobbed. In no time at all I heard that a director I had worked with at the Tavistock Little Theatre was then the Manager of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre& at Stratford-upon-Avon. After calling him, within a few days I was rehearsing for the 1946 season in the production of the Birthday Play – Cymbeline. A great break, joining such a fine Company. “

From there, Leonard’s acting career soared higher and higher. He played in most of the theatres throughout the country. He starred in the West End. He acted alongside all the now-legendary theatrical giants.

Leonard White
 

Looking back today, he believes the pinnacle of his acting career came when he played one of four soldiers in Christopher Fry’s famous play, A Sleep of Prisoners, which was set in a bombed out church during the last days of World War Two.

“After two-years or more with that play, it was a difficult act to follow. I started to think of directing. My first chance came from Peter Hall at the Oxford Playhouse. He took me on as an actor but promised me that I could direct one play during the season. Then suddenly he was appointed to run the Arts Theatre in London and I was appointed director of the Oxford Playhouse in his place.

 
Patrick McNee

“Before this television had begun. I was directing in theatre but getting acting roles in television. I was thinking that I would like to direct in TV. Fate took an important turn.

“I got an offer to direct and play my original role in the Canadian premiere of Christopher Fry’s A Sleep of Prisoners. So I went to Toronto. Patrick McNee was there and I cast him in this new production. It was just as well that I did because that led to him being in The Avengers later. Also that Canadian adventure gave me the opportunity to take part in the first television training course run by CBC TV.”

And from that Leonard White was able to build his important career.

 

So if today Leonard White was producing and directing a television series  based on horse racing who would he cast as:-

Honor Blackman in the Avengers
 
Racehorse owner
Brian Cox
Racehorse trainer 
Martin Clunes
Trainer’s wife 
Moira Redmond
Head Groom  
Jason Durr
Stable girl  
Kelly Reilly
Bookmaker    
Julie Graham

“But that’s only dreaming, of course, and I will likely have another dream tonight!” he says.

In fact, come to think of it, if Leonard White had to cast somebody to play him in a film of his amazing life-story who would he choose?
“Nobody,” he says rollicking with laughter as he sat in his home in Newhaven over-looking the harbour. “No actor would want to play me. As you indicated at the start, I’m not a runner in that race. Certainly not in the betting.”

Pity, though, about Honor Blackman and the horse.

 
 

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