Obituary, The Scotsman, 8/15/05

James Booth


James Booth Actor
Born: 19 December, 1927, in Croydon. Died: 11 August, 2005, in Essex, aged 77.

HE WAS numbered among the most handsome men in London during the Swinging Sixties. James Booth's sultry good looks, his tall lanky gait and his hell-raising reputation brought him plenty of publicity. But he was a charismatic and robust actor who was often seen playing punchy cockneys in many of Lionel Bart's musicals. Booth was long associated with that doyenne of the era, Joan Littlewood, and much of his early career was as a member of her company at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. But he had a delightful touch in comedy and was seen in many TV dramas. He had a successful career in the movies and his last film role - in Rowan Atkinson's Keeping Mum - will be released later this year.

James Booth (born David Geeves) attended Southend Grammar School but enlisted with the army to serve during the last years of the Second World War. In 1954 he got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made his stage debut at the Old Vic in 1957 as a spear-carrier. The following year he joined the British People's Theatre Workshop that Joan Littlewood had started in London's East End. Many of the productions were created during rehearsals and Booth, who had a keen ear for improvisation, proved an early success with the company.

His first major role was as an IRA officer in Littlewood's production of The Hostage and this was followed by a cunning Bob Cratchit in Christmas Carol. In 1959 Booth was cast as the pimp, Tosher, in Fing's Ain't What They Used to Be. The show started as a few pieces of rather flimsy dialogue but during rehearsal, Littlewood commissioned Lionel Bart to write some songs. In two weeks he came up with one hit number - based on the show's title - for the entire company of lay-about Teddy boys and chirpy cockney prostitutes. This was covered by a host of singers (memorably Max Bygraves) and gave the show an immediate identity.

The other number was a showstopper that Booth sang in act two. Titled The Student Ponce, Booth sang the number in his pork pie hat flirting with the female stars (Miriam Karlin and Barbara Windsor). The show transferred to the West End and ran successfully for two years.

Booth was then asked to join the Royal Shakespeare Company for one of their most prestigious productions: Peter Brook directing Paul Scofield in King Lear. Booth (as Edmund the Bastard) joined a cast that was a remarkable assembly of some of the most prominent English actors of the day. Tom Fleming, Alec McCowen, Irene Worth, Patience Collier and Diana Rigg all delivered superb performances and the production transferred to London to win further praise.

His film career had started in 1959 in Jazzboat but the following year he was the sly rent boy, Charles Wood, in The Trials of Oscar Wilde and in 1962 starred alongside Windsor in Littlewood's only film Sparrows Can't Sing. It was only mildly successful and in the US it had to be shown with subtitles, as the cockney slang was unintelligible.

Bart wrote Twang! in 1965 and cast Booth as a cockney Robin Hood. The show has gone down in theatrical history as one the biggest flops in the West End. Bart had invested most of his own funds in the show and it was taken off acrimoniously after a few weeks. What should have been a major career move for Booth was the reverse.

Booth returned to the somewhat safer world of films with a convincing appearance in Zulu (with Stanley Baker and Michael Caine), as Shirley MacLaine's husband in The Bliss of Mrs Blossom (1968) and Robbery in which Booth gave a calculating performance as the inspector investigating a burglary on the night train from Glasgow. He also had a cameo part in John Wayne's 1975 movie, Brannigan.

The director Eleanor Fazan who worked with Booth on many of the Bart musicals has happy memories of him as an actor and as a person. "I got to know James well when he came to the Royal Court in 1961 to play in a new play called Box and Cox. It was directed by Anthony Page and James gave a lovely reading of the lead role. He had a joyous smiling face and was a talented actor. Very unpretentious, but serious and very gifted.

Booth was then cast in some rather fragile movies: Rentadick, (written by John Cleese) and David Essex's That'll Be the Day but in 1975 he returned to the stage to play James Joyce in Tom Stoppard's hit play Travesties in New York. He was asked to go to Los Angeles and work on scripts and prepare movie ideas. He wrote some action films but was able to secure roles in such blockbusters as Airport 77 and The Jazz Singer. He was seen in numerous TV dramas - notably Gunsmoke and Charlie's Angels.

A production company headed by David Lynch happened to see an old episode of Lovejoy in which Booth had played a dodgy Rabbi and they immediately offered him a similar role in Twin Peaks. Booth's subtle performance as the gambling crook rapidly made him a cult figure. "I always do villains," he once said. "When I had just left drama school I was called by a young girl who was the stage manager on a show and asked if I could play thuggish. I did and married the girl very soon afterwards."

A few years ago Booth returned to Essex and has been seen on TV in Auf Wiedershen Pet and Minder.

Booth married Paula Delaney in 1960. She and their two sons and two daughters survive him.