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Best Of British Biographies – Michael Gambon

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There are times when the events of the world overtake you. I had planned on writing a mini biography of the very wonderful and talented Michael Gambon. What I didn’t expect was for it to be pushed up the list as an obituary. Mind you, he was eighty two so it shouldn’t have been a surprise. That is something that I’ve been getting more and more used to. Nowadays, when I go out to a gig, it is to see a band that I enjoyed as a teenager; new music tends to pass me by. Unfortunately, though, the line up is never the same as it was when I saw them half a century earlier. You forget that, while your heroes on stage only seemed a wee bit older than you when you were watching them many moons ago, they are still a wee bit older than you now. 

And, if my joints are creaking, then I’m sure that their’s will be too. All too often I turn up at the gig and there is only one or two of the original performers and the rest of the band comprises much younger faces. The hits are still just as good. Sometimes they might be in a lower key, but it is still a nostalgic treat; I might be sitting down rather than dancing but I can still imagine myself as the rock god I wanted to be so very long ago. With actors, though, you tend not to get as many opportunities to get one last look at your heroes.  I have tickets to see Susie Blake in a play next year but these chances are few and far between. And so it proved to be with Michael Gambon.

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In The Beginning…

Sir Michael John Gambon CBE, to give him his full title, is one of those actors who I will have seen without realising that I had seen him. Programmes like Softly Softly and Public Eye were favourites of my father and I remember them being on. But we are talking late sixties so I doubt that I would have been paying much attention. Regardless, bit parts in shows like that are where Michael made his televisual debut. Well, he did appear in a couple of Shakespeare productions around that time but my father wouldn’t have been keen on those. 

1972 – Softly Softly: Task Force with Frank Windsor

An occasion I would have definitely seen him would have been in one episode of Tales Of The Unexpected; a series of dramatisations of Roald Dahl short stories. He appeared in the second series episode entitled The Umbrella Man. Again, this was a time when I remember seeing the show but didn’t know who I was seeing! Well, apart from John Mills who was the lead! But when I started watching a programme and realising that I was watching Michael Gambon was in 1986. That was for The Singing Detective; a drama serial written by the controversial playwright Dennis Potter. But that will come in a little minute or two.

Happy Birthday

19th October 1940 saw the birth of Michael Gambon in a Dublin suburb named Cabra. His mother, Mary, was a seamstress while his father, Edward, was an engineering operative. Following the cessation of World War II, London needed a lot of work to repair the aftereffects of five years of intense bombing by the Luftwaffe. Mr Gambon Senior decided to seek work helping out with the reconstruction of the capital. With this in mind he moved his family to Mornington Crescent in the London borough of Camden. Mornington Crescent is one of those places which will either mean nothing to you or will make you think “that’s a real place?” A bit like I used to think that Knotty Ash was made up by Ken Dodd until I found out it was a real suburb of Liverpool. If ISIHAC means anything to you, you’ll be in the second group!

1986 – The Singing Detective

The move to Mornington Crescent came when Michael was six years old. When they were settled in, Edward Gambon took steps to get his son made a British citizen. On side effect of this is that, when the time for honours came, Michael Gambon could be made a substantive rather than an honorary knight. Whether or not that was why Mr Gambon Senior went to the trouble of getting his son citizenship I don’t know. But, all in all, it didn’t do any harm and now seems remarkably forward looking! He was brought up as a strict Catholic and attended St Aloysius Boys’ School in Somers Town and served at the altar. Later he went on to St Aloysius’ College before moving to North End in the London borough of Bexley where he attended Crayford Secondary School.

School Days

Michael left school at fifteen, which was possible back then, with no qualifications, which was also more common than it is now. One of the reasons that leaving early and qualification free was more accepted was the wider availability of apprenticeships. He successfully gained an apprenticeship as a toolmaker with Vickers-Armstrongs; an arms and aeronautical engineering company. He qualified as an engineering technician and stayed in that post until he was twenty two. During that time he acquired a lifelong passion for collecting antique guns, clocks, watches and classic cars…working in engineering will do that for you!

1989 – The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover with Helen Mirren

Eventually, though, he got to the part of his life that we’ve all been waiting for, acting. During his early twenties Mr Gambon wrote a letter to Micheál Mac Liammóir. At that time Mr Mac Liammóir was an impresario who was running the Gate Theatre in Dublin. I have seen Michael Gambon being interviewed many times. What always came across, to my mind, was a keen sense of humour and a roguish twinkle in his eye. He was one of those people who would be saying something and you were never a hundred percent sure whether or not he was telling the truth or teasing you. And so it was with the letter to Micheál Mac Liammóir. He wrote in telling, in great detail, how much experience he had and attached an extravagantly padded CV. He was taken on!

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Fake It ‘Til You Make it

Unsurprisingly, his stage debut was at the aforementioned Gate Theatre. He played “Second Gentleman” in Othello. It’s under fifteen lines. A total of eighty eight words. Not much and they all take place at the start of Act II, Scene I. But at least he had some lines! As I remember Ian Holm made his stage debut as, quite literally, a spear carrier. Even better, this lead to a European tour. A  year later and Michael was using the opening soliloquy from Richard III as his audition piece. You know that speech. Honestly you do! It’s the one that goes “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” and I admit that I know no more than that.

1992 – Toys

One day he was auditioning for something and caught the eye of an up and coming young actor called…checks notes…Laurence Olivier. At that time Sir Larry was on the lookout for young talent to help in setting up a little thing that he would go on to call the National Theatre Company; the first production was Hamlet with Peter O’Toole in the lead. As well as Michael Gambon, the first appointed NTC ensemble included Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, and Frank Finlay. Those are some very big names to be included with but he fitted in nicely. 

The Big Breakthrough

Michael Gambon was a skilled and capable theatre actor. Simon Callow once said: “Gambon’s iron lungs and overwhelming charisma are able to command a sort of operatic full-throatedness which triumphs over hard walls and long distances”. Simon Callow is no lightweight when it comes to projecting his voice. Remember his performance as the funeral in Four Weddings And A Funeral? Mr Callow is definitely in the Brian Blessed school of enunciation and projection so if he said that you could hear Michael Gambon at the back of the auditorium you’d better believe it.

1999 – Sleepy Hollow

Sir Michael spent most of the sixties on the stage doing all manner of theatrical engagements and getting experience do the classics at the National and the Old Vic. In 1967 he took Laurence Olivier’s advice and joined the Birmingham Rep. It was here that he was given the opportunity to take on leading roles for the first time. His particular favourites were the title roles in Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus. But, as well as Shakespeare, he also played the leads in modern plays by the likes of Alan Ayckbourn, Bertolt Brecht, and Harold Pinter. Theatre was his first love and one that he stayed with throughout his career.

Not Just On The Stage

One of the things I tend to do when I am doing one of these pieces is to combine lists of the actor’s TV, film, and theatre appearances. Usually what you tend to see is a lot of theatre work at the start of their careers. Then TV appearances start cropping up and they are often followed by film credits. Sometimes the numbers of TV and film appearances are reversed but what usually happens is that the number of theatre appearances tail off. This is partly down to the spectre of fame when live audiences are involved. 

2004 – The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou with Bill Murray and Own Wilson

Occasionally, a big star will take to the stage for any number of reasons; to go back to their dramatic roots, because they’ve been offered an obscene amount of money, to see if they can actually do it live, and probably more reasons than I can think of. There will be a big hullabaloo and press activity. The theatre will be filled with people who don’t normally go to the theatre and they, occasionally, don’t know how to behave. The mega star walks on stage to be greeted to a thunderous round of applause which stops the proceedings in their tracks. I have heard of plays being rewritten to allow for applause breaks.

Fading Memory

But Michael Gambon loved the theatre and he was good at it. He once said “I am a theatre actor, but the last ten years I’ve taken parts in movies because it keeps me in money.” He kept appearing in plays until ill health forced him to stop. The form that his ill health took was particularly debilitating for an actor, even more so for a stage actor…his memory started to fail him meaning he couldn’t memorise his lines. This was not so critical in film and TV work where everything is done in smaller chunks but having to remember a whole play was more taxing. Hamlet, for instance, can run to around four hours which is a lot to learn. He did try performing with a radio earpiece being fed the lines from a prompt but that didn’t really help.

2007 – Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix with Daniel Radcliffe

But while his first love may have been the stage, it was through TV and film that I got to know him.  The first time I got to know the name “Michael Gambon” was from watching The Singing Detective. I’ll admit that I watched it, mainly, to see what all the fuss was about. The fuss came from the fact that it had been written by Dennis Potter. Dennis Potter was a playwright renowned for his controversial subject matter. They usually had “scenes of a sexual nature” as well as some peri-surrealistic scenes. The professionally outraged were always taking pot shots at Dennis which only really got him more publicity.


So when The Singing Detective was broadcast people watched it either to see what all the fuss was about or to see exactly how much nudity there was in it. As was usual, it was a strange old brew. Philip Marlow is a writer who is dreadfully afflicted by an awful skin condition. To escape the pain and fever Marlow drifts into a fantasy world of escapist and noir adventures featuring a detective also called Philip Marlow who sings in a dance hall when he isn’t solving cases. Interspersed with the hospital scenes and fever dreams are flashbacks to his childhood in wartime England. 

2010 – Doctor Who with Katherine Jenkins and Matt Smith

In playing Marlow, Michael Gambon had the opportunity to show some of his range from the enfeebled hospital patient to the suave, elegant singing detective of the title. But that wasn’t anywhere near the limits of the scope of his performance range. A few years later he was playing a truly horrible character in a film written and directed by Peter Greenaway; another maverick story teller.  The film was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover and Michael played Albert, the thief. Albert is, as I said, a truly horrible character who demonstrates all manner of lusts, appetites, tempers, and moods. 

Here, There, Everywhere

From then on Michael was rarely off our screens or stages. He has worked with some of my favourite directors: Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow), the Coen Brothers (Hail, Caesar!), Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kingsman: The Golden Circle), and Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr Fox). He has performed with all the great and the good: Helen Mirren, Robin Williams, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Robert DeNiro, Maggie Smith, Marlon Brando, and many more. But, despite how stellar the company may have been, Michael Gambon would shine and hold his own on any stage.

2019 – Judy with Renée Zellweger

Perhaps the part that brought him to his widest audience was one where he played the complete antithesis of the vile and violent thieves and gangsters…Albus Dumbledore in the last six Harry Potter films. He took over the role following the death of fellow Irishman Richard Harris. Perhaps we are given a greater insight into the type of man that Michael Gambon was by how he played Dumbledore. He said “Well, I don’t have to play anyone really. I just stick on a beard and play me, so it’s no great feat.” Happy in historical drama, science fiction, fantasy, comedy, Shakespeare…you name it and Michael Gambon could play it. He will be missed.

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