Preston Lockwood

In the heyday of plays on the wireless, Preston Lockwood’s tones were inimitable. Today they would be labelled fruity, but to the playgoer brought up in the dark days of the Second World War by the BBC Repertory Company, Lockwood’s voice was a comforting presence. At once confiding and authoritative, warm and reverberative, it took the listener, so to speak, by the lapel and led him wherever the dramatist’s imagination chanced to rove. Friendly or menacing, thoughtful or whimsical, it was above all what we used to call “received” English. That is to say, we listeners took it for granted.

It was how all Lockwood’s generation of actors, famous or obscure, Cockney- born or Lancashire-bred, spoke. They all (or nearly all) aspired to sound – well, like Preston Lockwood. But in films, television or the theatre? They were another world; and the only one of them to win Lockwood’s constant respect was the repertory theatre.

The son of a London Transport driving instructor, Preston Lockwood grew up between the wars when every town or city suburb had two or three theatres – one to receive tours of shows on their way to or from London, one a weekly rep and the third, a variety hall. So there was plenty of work for an aspiring performer. In those days weekly rep was a better training ground than anything available now, and Lockwood treasured it, learning one play in the morning, rehearsing another in the afternoon and performing a third at night.

Were productions a trifle “rough”? They made an actor ready, at any rate. They were exciting days. So was acting for the wireless then.

Before everything was pre-recorded, plays went out “live”. Just as actors today will reminisce about the tension of playing in television in the post-war era when every mistake was obvious because there was no recording, Lockwood used to look back with affection to his years with the BBC Repertory Company when everything had to be right first time or somehow covered up.

He would vividly recall the days of Saturday Night Theatre when the cast fled to the basement of Broadcasting House during a Nazi air-raid on London and had to gather round a microphone to continue their performance. Where today’s technician governs what is now known as the “input” of the various voices in a broadcast drama, the players then had to judge for themselves as a team.

It was the teamwork of such broadcasts and of weekly rep which Lockwood loved and missed in later years when everything seemed to him to be taken so much more seriously than in his youth. Yet he never gave up. In his late sixties he would still act in those remaining out-of-London reps at, say, Amersham or Maidenhead or Henley. And the plays? Well, East Lynne was among the melodramas.

Like the rest of his breed, Lockwood was ready to tour; and had a minor success for example as the elderly Geoffrey in a national tour of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, the play about the last days of an old touring Shakespearean.

Lockwood’s only recorded Shakespearean performance happened to be his first appearance (as Reginald Lockwood) on the West End stage. He played Margarelon in Michael MacOwan’s modern- dress revival of Troilus and Cressida (Westminster Theatre) in 1938.

He had three lines. Encountering the curious and forthright Thersites (Stephen Murray) on the battlefield, Margarelon yells, “Turn, slave, and fight.” Thersites: “What art thou?” He answers: “A bastard son of Priam’s.” When Thersites argues that one bastard should not fight with another, and promptly disappears, Margarelon mutters: “The devil take thee, coward!”

Whether Lockwood spoke his two lines well or ill goes unrecorded but he was soon drawn to the wireless, ever his favourite medium after the repertory theatres.

Apart from his years in broadcast drama, his performance as Dennis the Dachshund in Toytown made him particular popular with young listeners to Children’s Hour in the 1950s; and he would pop up now and then on television as, say, a doctor in the Tenko series, the Lord Chancellor in Rum-pole, the vicar before Dawn French appeared in The Vicar of Dibley (1994), a butler in a chocolate advertisement or a ghost clutching his severed head in order to “puff” cheap cigars; and in his eighties another kind of fame came Lockwood’s way. It was in a Cutting Edge programme as an old golfer at Northwood, Middlesex, describing his attitude to the game, his club and the rights of women players.

He was also seen by the sharp-eyed viewer in Miss Marple, The Power Game, Doctor Who, Keeping Up Appearances (1990) and Inspector Morse. Among his film credits were Julius Caesar, Time Bandits, Great Expectations, The Pirates of Penzance, Dangerous Love, and Lady Caroline Lamb, in which he played a publisher.

Is it perhaps a fact that actors who spend most of their early years before a microphone look a bit resourceless on the stage, because they are not used to acting, so to speak, full-length? Or was the tall, handsome and physically impressive Lockwood simply one of those solid workaday players who loved the work wherever it led him? At all events, he was seldom out of it.

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