Great character: a tribute to Dinsdale Landen

Dinsdale James Landen was born on 4th September 1932 in Margate, Kent, one of twin boys (his brother Dalby practised as a solicitor).  From his first appearance on television as a juvenile lead playing Pip in ‘Great Expectations’ (1959), through to stage and screen roles over the next four decades, he became well-regarded as a character player in drama as well as an accomplished comedy actor, especially in farces.

In recent years much of Landen’s work has become available on DVD or been shown in archive cinema screenings, which has allowed this unusual performer’s talent to become ripe for assessment.  An early film role in ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and a leading appearance in the Edgar Wallace Mystery ‘Playback’ show promising screen presence, but it seems to me that it was when his roles allowed him to drop the ‘mockney’ accent and take on a more cultured persona that he came into his own.

One exception to this run of comedy silly-asses which could be seen to great effect in productions from Marty Feldman’s ‘Every Home Should Have One’, TV plays ‘Absent Friends’ (by Alan Ayckbourn) and ‘What The Butler Saw’ (by Joe Orton), and the flamboyant detective Matthew Earp in two episodes of Brian Clemens’ anthology series ‘Thriller’ is Landen’s appearance as a bisexual pub landlord in John Mortimer’s play written for ‘Thirty Minute Theatre’, called ‘Bermondsey’.  In this play Landen and Edward Fox share a lengthy screen kiss, and the play is disarmingly frank about this character’s love for his wife and his old friend Pip, during a Christmas Eve where lots of secrets tumble into the open.

If Landen was vulnerable and touching in ‘Bermondsey’, despite his obvious weakness for infidelity, he could play darker characterisations too, none more so than the abusive stepfather in Henry Livings’ play for ‘Plays for Britain’, called ‘Shuttlecock’.  Here the gifts he used in comedy make the character more frightening and grotesque.  This also gave strength to his wheelchair-bound possessed scientist in the ‘Doctor Who’ story ‘The Curse of Fenric’, an episode from the Sylvester McCoy era which seems to divide viewers.

Landen was not an unattractive man, so often played lotharios (and lushes) – the bored lecturer in ‘The Glittering Prizes’ who eventually returns to his loveless marriage, the adulterous and boozy executive in Simon Gray’s ‘Two Sundays’ (for ‘Play for Today’), Diana Rigg’s unreliable lover in ‘After You’re Gone’ for ‘Three Piece Suite’.   Eventually he got a comedy lead, in ‘Devenish’, and was torn between Liza Goddard and Joanna Van Gyseghem in ‘Pig in the Middle’ (he’d been a sitcom Alfie-type in the 1960s series ‘Mickey Dunne’ but sadly no episodes survive).

By the time the 1980s came around character parts (mainly military) in long-running series (like ‘Lovejoy’) and period dramas (Catherine Cookson’s ‘The Wingless Bird’ and Edith Wharton’s ‘The Buccaneers’) were more the norm but he was still seen in the classics like Bernard Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ and the acting workshop series ‘Shakespeare Lives!’.

There was even a foray into the musical stage, alongside Michael Ball in ‘Aspects of Love’.  Watching the production from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival, it is clear that although Landen might not have been able to hit the notes required for George’s songs,  as an actor his portrayal even in a ‘reading’ of the part gets to the heart of the character.

In the mid-1990s an enforced break from the stage and screen due to oral cancer pretty much ended the long career of this versatile player – just one rather sad swansong appearance in an ‘Inspector Linley’ episode was to follow.

Long married to classy Welsh actress Jennifer Daniel (they’d met on ‘Great Expectations’ and wed within weeks), Dinsdale Landen passed away just after Christmas 2003 from pneumonia.  There are few character players with the range he had displayed throughout his career – whether as a blustering military man in ‘Morons from Outer Space’, the eccentric Uncle in children’s series ‘Woof!’, or a chilling assassin in ‘The New Avengers’.

Incidentally, that ‘Great Expectations’ from 1959 survives almost complete.  The missing episode is right in the middle.  Frustrating, isn’t it?

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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