Felix Aylmer

Felix Aylmer

Felix Aylmer

In the mid-20th century the wait for a performing Aylmer would have been shorter than now, thanks to the prolific film and stage actor Felix Aylmer (1889-1979).

Growing up aware that he was the only Aylmer at all well-known – and thus a useful exemplar for spelling – I was told that in truth his Aylmer was a mere stage name. That was part right and part wrong: he was an Aylmer-Jones, and that is good enough for us.

Felix wrote too, setting out a possible solution to Charles Dickens’s unfinished mystery novel The Case of Edwin Drood in The Drood Case (1965).

Felix studied drama at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Rada, after completing his studies at Oxford. His early career was interrupted by World War I, when he served at sea, but he quickly came to prominence thereafter, making a speciality of the plays of George Bernard Shaw and enjoying a run of 109 performances as Robert E. Lee in a biographical play of the American Civil War general (with Gielgud playing to him). This was in 1923, and around now he tried his hand at direction too, although not always with as much success. He became an early cross-Atlantic commuter, showing up on Broadway from time to time.

The wonderful comic actor Kenneth Williams admitted to pinching from Felix his own ‘weighty and august’ judge voice, considering that to be the best judge voice in the business. ‘Every word,’ he said, ‘was judiciously weighted, suggesting clemency and fairness. Also, the voice came from the side of the mouth.’

He never forsook the stage, but his performances on the boards are lost to memory now. His skill is preserved in many dozens of films, the first in 1930, albeit with barely a leading role amongst them. He specialised in the second- or third-rank roles, able to make an impression against the star names of his day, including Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier. He was cast by great directors such as Powell/Pressburger (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 1943), Otto Preminger (St Joan, 1957 and Exodus, 1960), and Carol Reed (Night Train to Munich, 1940 and The Running Man, 1963). He had the range to crop up with George Formby (South American George, 1941) and in Hammer Films’ The Mummy (1959). On a wet afternoon at home there’s every chance you will find him in a small screen re-run, probably in black and white. There’s an exhaustive listing of his film and TV appearances here.

By the time television became a mass medium he was a senior figure in Britain’s acting establishment, president of the actor’s union Equity for many years from 1950 (indeed, its founder according to Wikipedia) and knighted in 1965. On television – on which he first appeared in 1938 – he was best known for his role as Father Anselm in the BBC’s monastery-set situation comedy Oh Brother! (1968-70). That, and earlier film stints as an archbishop in Henry V and Becket, led many to remember him as a typecast player of senior clerics, but that does no service to a highly varied and successful career.